One of the best ways to understand the soul of a city is to examine the street art that adorns its buildings. In Houston, a new project from the nonprofit organization Street Art for Mankind (SAM) is not only expressing the Bayou City’s culture, it’s asking citizens to consider the future of the entire world.
SAM was born in 2015, when cofounders Audrey and Thibault Decker were inspired by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi to commission muralists to paint large-scale works drawing attention to the issues of child labor and trafficking. The organization has since worked with artists in cities around the world to create pieces to raise awareness for efforts by UN Women, the International Labour Organization, and the World Food Programme, among others. In 2021, the Deckers were in Houston, watching the artist Dragon76 paint a mural for the organization’s Zero Hunger series, when Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis happened by and asked what they were doing.
Soon after, SAM and the city agreed to collaborate on Big Art. Bigger Change., a series of 17 murals (10 are currently complete) in Downtown Houston to match the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include objectives such as no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, and climate action.
“The vision behind the series is to talk about the Sustainable Development Goals and the community of Houston, so it’s a merge of the two,” Audrey Decker says. “The murals are related to the people who live here. For example, [Social Equity], the mural by Case Maclaim of the boy on the bike—he’s a boy from the community. The one by Victor Ash, it’s called Human Rights, of the girl on the horse—she’s a girl from the community.”
Additionally, Decker notes that while SAM draws from a broad pool of international artists, the organization also commissioned “very talented artists who are Houstonian, like Ana Marietta, Bimbo Adenugba, and Emily Ding. It’s really cool to give them exposure.”
Visitors who are looking to check out the artworks can do so using SAM’s Behind the Wall app, which maps out the locations of the murals and includes clips in which the artists talk about the pieces and experts break down the related issues.
“We’re excited to have the gorgeous and thoughtful artwork tied back to important global themes,” says Kristopher Larson, the president and CEO of Central Houston, Inc., a downtown development organization that supported the project. “[SAM’s] deep bench of iconic muralists helped showcase Houston’s appetite for making a big impact, while creating the opportunity to elevate local artists to perform on the same stage.”