Fun fact of the day: Philadelphia holds the world’s largest collection of outdoor public art.
I wasn’t aware when I first moved here, but that was quick to change. Just like any city, there are a number of neighborhoods that make up Philly, and each one is unique to the next. There is one common thread, though: Murals.
Visible on the walls that hold the City of Brotherly Love together, the number of murals that exist throughout the city is ever changing, but it will always be a large one. The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program has a lot to do with the creation of that number. Since it started up 30 years ago, the program has produced more than 3,500 murals around Philly. Up high, down low, tucked away on little streets that hide in the depths of the city…they are everywhere, and it’s a beautiful thing. Producing an art piece on such a large scale takes talent, and some of the most amazing mural artists in the world have traveled to Philly to use its frame as a blank canvas. Each mural tells a story and makes you feel something, just like any work of art. Some are representative of the specific neighborhood they are located in, some are cultural masterpieces, and others are just simply good for the soul and pleasing to the eye.
October is Mural Arts Month, which is a month dedicated to the celebration of public art. In the spirit of celebration, I went out the other day to photograph a few of the murals that live in different parts of the city, and to get a feel for them in real life. The thing I loved most about doing this was the element of surprise that came along for the ride. You expect to see normal building fronts, or brick and concrete every time you turn a corner, but seeing a piece of art that has the ability to tell a story instead is amazing. No matter where they exist, murals bring life, beauty, and inspiration into our cities.
I caught up with Yolanda, the Director of the Art Education Department at Mural Arts, to find out a little bit more about the Mural Arts Program and Mural Arts Month. Read the interview below, and get a taste for some of the murals Philly has to offer!
Spring, by David Guinn. (Center City, at 13th and Pine)
Hi Yolanda! Can you tell us a little bit about what do at Philadelphia Mural Arts?
I direct the Art Education Department at Mural Arts which serves over 1500 “at-risk” students each year at 25+ sites across the city. The students take free art classes that connect them to their own potential as well as to the power of public art. Many of the murals you see around Philadelphia have been designed and created with and by our young folks.
Crystal Snowscape, by David Guinn. (South Philadelphia, at 10th and Bainbridge)
How long has the Mural Arts program been around? Can you give us a brief history on what it was when it started, to what it has grown to today?
The Mural Arts Program has been around for over 30 years. It started in the 80s as part of the city’s Anti-Graffiti Network to battle all of the graffiti that was going up across Philadelphia. Rather than criminalizing the kids who were writing on walls, artist Jane Golden, now our ED, started to listen to them and uplift them with the opportunity to participate in a “legal hustle” – working on public art projects that gave them and the neighborhoods they hailed from a voice. Mural Arts is now a hybrid organization – a non-profit with strong ties to city government – that has made Philly the “City of Murals.” Using art as a vehicle for transformation, we work with people in the city who are often deemed invisible or voiceless, and with them, we create a sense of beauty and hope throughout Philly neighborhoods.
The Roots Mural, Legendary, by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and Amber Art and Design. Center City, in between 15th and 16th on South Street.
Moonlit Landscape, by Diane Keller. (South Philadelphia, in between 7th and 8th on Christian Street)
October is Mural Arts Month. What makes this month different from all of the others, and what does it mean for the city?
Mural Arts Month is a time when we celebrate our work as an organization and share it with the city. There’s an event going on nearly every day of the month; it could be a mural dedication that represents months of work culminating in a gathering where community stakeholders revel in the transformative process of art-making. It’s also a time when, through programming like Muralab Live, our version of the TED talks, we begin to create new dialogues around and explore new avenues for our work. It’s really a time for the entire city to celebrate the power and beauty of public art that’s rooted in social/community practice.
How do the placement of murals get determined, and how do the artists get chosen?
We work with neighbors, organizations, businesses – all kinds of community stakeholders – to choose a location for a mural. Sometimes a community partner comes to us with a great wall; sometimes we go out in search of the “just the right” canvas. How we choose the artist depends on the mural and the community and style that it will imbue. Often there’s an application process for artists to get on board a project.
Love Letter Series by Steve Powers. (West Philadelphia, in between 45th and 63rd on Market Street)
Do you have a favorite mural in the city?
One of the first murals in Philly that meant something to me was “Boy With Raised Arm” by Sidney Goodman. It’s in West Philly and it’s a picture of a little boy, and under him is a line from Walt Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” When my boyfriend-now-husband and I were living in West Philly, that mural was a touchstone for us. That little boy represented the children we hoped to have one day. We didn’t have a car, so encountering the mural on foot was a sort of pilgrimage. It made me feel as if there was hope for all of the kids in Philly. Still does.
Philly Painting, by Haas & Hahn. (North Philadelphia, in between the 2500-2800 block on Germantown Ave)
Have you seen a sense of community that has been built around the Mural Arts Program?
Most definitely! A community of artists and a community of activists intersect at and via Mural Arts. A community of youth artists! But more importantly a community of Philadelphians who love art and believe in its power. Behind every mural is a process of engaging the community that it will live among. Each new mural touches new people and expands the community of city-dwellers who are invested in shaping the face of Philly with their ideas and creative energy.
The Rainforest, by Ana Uribe. (North Philadelphia, North 5th Street and Berks)
Any new murals in the works that you are excited for?
I’m really excited about upcoming mural projects we have in the shoot with schools in Philly. We are working in-school, after school, with teachers and students, to promote a culture of art within the school while we help to define and enhance school culture. Anytime we get to work with youth in service of improving education in Philly, I’m psyched and ready to go. We’re currently doing a DJ project which will culminate in a mural by rock star Shepherd Fairey downtown. As part of the project, youth in the juvenile justice arm of our program are learning about Philly’s rich DJ history, how to DJ, and how to turn art into a viable business. I’m excited to see how all of that unfolds in the coming year.
Meditation Park. (North Philadelphia, Germantown Ave)
What do you see in store for the future of the Mural Arts Program??
From an “educator” view, I’d love to see the young people we are serving now becoming the next-generation leaders of Mural Arts. While we’ll keep responding to the needs and visions of our immediate Philly community, I see Mural Arts growing our practice even further and sharing it with other cities, other organizations, other countries even. The power and practice of public art is bigger than Philly. I love that we’ve put in on the map in our own distinct way. But there’s definitely hunger for more “Cities of Murals” around the globe, and I see us rising to help meet that challenge.
(Northern Liberties at 2nd Street and Poplar)
Lotus Diamond, by Shepard Fairey . (Fishtown, at Frankford Ave and West Thompson St.)
You Can Be Stronger Than Diabetes, by Kristin Groeveld. (Fishtown, at Frankford Ave and East Palmer Street)
Thank you, Yolanda! For anyone that is in the Philly area, check out the Mural Arts Block Party that is happening tonight from 6-8 pm!
Next time you’re out and about, glance at your surroundings. Look for the parts of your city that bring life to it, and think about how it makes you feel. Get to know your city a little bit better through the art that lives within it.
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