Through chalk, stickers and murals, Candy Chang invites the public to reflect, connect and transform their communities.
Since 2006, multitalented artist Candy Chang, who holds degrees in urban planning, graphic design and architecture, has created 21 different urban experiments. Chang’s simple but powerful changes to public spaces invite people to share their innermost thoughts about themselves and the communities they live in. Chang uses chalkboard paint, murals, Post-it Notes, door hangers and graffiti stencils to transform abandoned buildings and busy metropolitan streets into new spaces for public conversation. Chang describes how the experiments work: “This personal anonymous prompt, it offers the first gentle step toward honesty and vulnerability in public, which can lead to trust and understanding.”
After losing a person who was like a mother to her for most of her life, Chang channeled her depression and grief by painting the side of a crumbling house in her New Orleans neighborhood with black chalkboard paint and a simple prompt: Before I die I want to ______________. Chang was surprised that by the next day, the wall was completely covered in a rainbow of chalk messages which said: Before I die I want to… “plant a tree,” “own a boat,” “write a novel,” “abandon all insecurities,” “own my own house,” “name a star,” “get clean,” “be heard,” “have a kid,” “see Victor,” “go to Florence,” “teach yoga,” “be on Broadway,” “get my wife back,” “see all homeless people with homes.”
The overwhelming positive response to Chang’s Before I Die went beyond her neighborhood. Since 2011, the urban experiment has been replicated in 70 countries, 1,000 cities and in 35 languages. Her TED Talk about Before I Die has been viewed over four million times. Chang believes that grief is a skill we all should learn. She said to a sold-out crowd of thousands at the Texas Conference for Women in 2015: “It’s easy to postpone our deepest needs; it’s easy to take the people we love for granted.”
Using what she describes as “low-barrier tools,” Chang’s work embodies a pure direct magic. The chalkboard and primary colors used in Before I Die are a welcome reminder of limitless childhood imagination. Chang transforms everyday objects like Post-It Notes, name badge stickers and door hangers with new messages that inspire people. Many of her art projects have the comfortable feel of teaching materials that wipe away fear around sharing your unique voice and offer a safe space for being creative in public. It takes only a few thoughtful moments for people to write their innermost feelings and ideas. Chang’s inspiration comes from Japanese Shinto shrines where people write their prayers on boards and share them with spirits, as well as the popular community mail art project Postsecret, Catholic confession booths and art projects like Illegal Art’s installation project, To Do.
Post-it Notes for Neighbors and Tenants Rights Flashcards are two projects which open up conversations around increasing high rents and mortgages in cities and understanding renters’ rights. Post-it Notes for Neighbors gives people the opportunity to tell where they live, how many bedrooms they have, for how long and how much they pay each month. The colorful wall of blue and yellow notes with neighborhood-penned responses maps a constant migration in and out of neighborhoods and the spectrum of monthly costs that neighbors pay. Tenants Rights Flashcards breaks down renters’ rights that many people may be unaware of or confused by into an easy-to-understand and useful format.
Chang’s Neighorhoodland is a collaboration with Dan and Tee Parham that works as a civic tool kit. Neighorhoodland is both a website and a public installation project where people can voice their hopes, share knowledge and resources and announce meet-ups to build stronger communities and open dialogues with civic leaders. Many cities, such as Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles, use Neighorhoodland to help promote civic engagement. The website offers real-world design tools and software to empower neighborhoods to make the grassroots changes they want to see. People from cities across the country have shared ideas on the Neighorhoodland website and public project, including the following: “We would like to see more bike lines.” “We want a farmer’s market.” “We want an AIDS memorial museum at San Francisco General Hospital.” “We want adventure playgrounds.” “We want more public art.” “We want more affordable housing.” “We want park benches.” “We want compost drop-off locations.” And “We want more trees.”
Candy Chang’s I Wish This Was was inspired by the enormous number of abandoned buildings in New Orleans and the limitations of community meetings where the loudest people had the most say. Chang redesigned the classic red-and-white sticker name badge from “Hello, My Name Is…” to “I Wish This Was…” She placed thousands of stickers on empty, rundown buildings throughout the city and donated boxes of stickers for local businesses to distribute. I Wish This Was brought new light to what the people of New Orleans wanted their city to look like. Just like Chang’s other urban experiments, a range of responses, from heartfelt joy and despair to ingenuity and humor, made their mark. Some of the stickers read, I wish this was… “full of nymphomaniacs with PhDs,” “a city without theft,” “a place to sit and talk,” “a donut/flower shop,” “a priority of the city,” “heaven,” “Planned Parenthood,” “a city in the midst of revolution.”
Chang’s latest projects focus on public murals that provoke discussions around taboo human experiences with mental health and death. The Atlas of Tomorrow is a black-and-white mural that takes up an entire side of a building in Philadelphia. Made of over 200,000 tiny dots, each is the fingerprint made by Chang and the community. Working with stories by James A. Reeves, a writer and educator, The Atlas of Tomorrow pushes the boundaries of street art murals into art as a form of meditation. A larger-than-life-size version of the ancient Chinese divinatory tool, the I Ching, The Atlas of Tomorrow has a giant spinning dial. People passing the mural can spin the wheel, which points them to a story that offers a moment of reflection about their inner narratives. The Atlas of Tomorrow asks, “What if tools to improve our mental health were imbedded within the city’s fabric for the public good?”
Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed is a meditation on mourning and death. The mural, which is located in Herklion, Greece, is a collage of three different Renaissance and Baroque paintings. It shows a figure of the Virgin Mary consoling a fallen minotaur, who is either shattered by grief or in the process of death. The mural challenges the isolation and fears around natural experiences of loss and invites viewers to share their rituals and traditions for grieving. Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed also has a website component for people to share their stories of loved ones and meaningful ways they celebrate memories of those who have passed.
Candy Chang’s sense of humility, curiosity, empowerment and open-minded perspective on life touches every project she’s shared. She believes that “public spaces play a profound role to help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.”