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How many murals do you think there are in Minneapolis?

Hold on, don’t answer yet.

First we have to talk about what we mean by murals.

There are three kinds of murals, also called wall art:

1. Community

These range from charmingly amateurish to professionally abstract, like the downtown Dylan mural. Often sponsored by the community or an organization, they turn an empty space into something bright and colorful, and give a place a sense of identity. They bring color and life to a vacant area when they’re new; they hint at sadness and abandonment when they’re faded and peeled.

2. Unsanctioned (aka, graffiti)

These pop up when people decide that a blank wall shouldn’t be blank (regardless of what the owner might think), and festoon it with letters and pictures. The result can be quite accomplished; it can also be loud and tiresome.

3. Advertising.

Hey, here’s big art intended to make you think about Coca-Cola or chewing tobacco, in case you forgot all about them. You don’t see much of these commercial murals anymore. Billboards (a less permanent form of mural) now do the work.

While advertising murals seem to be the least popular type of murals, one of the most venerable pieces of wall art in town is for the Theatre in the Round on the West Bank. For decades it’s been a clever joke: a blueprint of an expensive renovation that was never meant to happen. But it also has provided a sense of community because it gives the Seven Corners area of Minneapolis a visual landmark.

But then, so does Jesus. There’s been a mural of Jesus on the side of the West Bank’s Love Power Church for decades, his arms outstretched to bless everyone, including those idling in traffic on Interstate 35W below.

So, that’s two murals. So just how many are there in the Twin Cities?

Mark Peterson might come the closest to knowing. Peterson, a former project manager, computer analyst, photographer and musician from Minneapolis, started taking photos of murals a while ago. His Flickr page details the astonishing quantity of wall art in the metro area. “I’ve photographed around 500 murals,” he said.

Over the course of five months, he drove down every street in Minneapolis, looking for murals.

“It was my first summer of retirement,” he laughed. “I had a car and a camera and the afternoon off, and decided to get as many as I could.”

Even though he spotted several “elusive” murals that he could see but couldn’t photograph, he estimates he shot about “95 percent of the existing murals. And a few that no longer exist.”

Peterson has long been fascinated by wall paintings.

“On my first trip to Mexico in the 1970s I was astounded by the murals and mosaics,” he said. “Without noticing it, I started collecting mural shots. Over the last 10 years, I worked with Habitat for Humanity, and made a number of work trips to Central America, where the streets are just radiant with art.”

He started noticing murals back home, especially in the area around Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, where he used to live.

“The Hispanic community was adding crazy, bright-colored, Hispanic-themed murals,” he said, “and I started shooting those like I’d shot the ones on my trips.”

Peterson is glad that he photographed so many of the murals — both here and abroad — when he did. The heyday of murals, he fears, might be on the wane.

“I think the big fluorescence has leveled off,” he said. “A lot of the ones I photographed won’t exist in a few years, and I’d say 5 percent of the ones I shot are gone. There’s something ephemeral about them, which is one of the reasons I wanted to make a record.”

It would be good for history if Peterson published a book of murals. But in a way, a book goes against what murals are intended to accomplish.

Imagine you’re walking through a museum, and you come across a portrait with a strange, quiet beauty. You observe it for a while, moving from side to side, noting the way the face regards you with private amusement. You study the background, a strange landscape from a forgotten nightmare. You brought nothing to the painting, and you take away the pleasures of a serendipitous discovery.

Murals are like that: They’re meant to be discovered, the way Peterson discovered them. They’re meant to be something that surprises you, something that lights up a street, something that makes a neighborhood seem special.

They’re meant to turn a city into an art gallery, right before your eyes.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858