Belgium is famous for its comic books, or comic strips, with beloved characters like the Smurfs and Tin Tin even being featured on the Belgian passport. One of Brussels’ attractions is the comic strip trail around the historic centre of the city.
Created in 1991, the aim of the trail was to beautify the city, featuring comic strip murals on buildings instead of obnoxious billboards. Nowadays however, some locals are not pleased with the murals anymore, as they often come off as racist or sexist.
I am deeply shocked by some of the murals.Pauline Grégoire, co-founder Noms Peut-Être
The stereotypical images make people uncomfortable, Pauline Grégoire, co-founder of the feminist activist group Noms Peut-Être, saying she does not feel welcome in a place where women are portrayed in this way. Research conducted by the group in 2020 revealed that 85% of the heroes in the murals are men, as well as 93% of artists, and most of the time when female characters are present they are sexualised and presented in “damsel in distress” kind of situations.
The group and other activists have asked for the murals to be removed, but city authorities have decided to take a different approach. The local government is investing €30,000 to add QR codes to the murals explaining their historical and cultural context.
We reflected deeply, and we came to the conclusion that we should not remove but explain them.Arnaud Pinxteren, Brussels City Councillor in charge of urban renovation
“This work of recontextualization really helps us to better understand certain characters,” Arnaud Pinxteren, Brussels city councillor in charge of urban renovation, told the Observer. “The works and artists are part of history, and history also includes stereotypes and a certain context.”
A team of 14 historians, sociologists and other scholars is working on writing the text behind the QR codes, noting the importance of keeping the murals in the discussion about inclusivity. If the comic strips are removed, the discussion dies. “Taking them down would silence the debate. I think it’s better to give everyone the opportunity to deconstruct the picture and to make up their own mind than just saying that it doesn’t exist”, explained Fabrice Preyat, head of the Comics Research Group.
The team has so far written the text for 50 of the 68 murals. “Behind each image, you also have an author and an artistic intention, which sometimes runs on irony, on caricature”, said Preyat, explaining that, in many cases, the images are ironic, rather than ill-intended, the authors using satire to mock the world around them.