WASHINGTON, October 9, 2012- One of the things I loved the most about living near Philadelphia for a few years—along with Pat’s cheese steaks and the Italian Market— were the city’s ubiquitous murals. Going into Philly is always a treasure hunt, walking around and finding a work of art unexpectedly around the corner. There are literally thousands of murals in Philadelphia, and every mural tells a story reflecting the character of the city, the neighborhood, and the individual people who created it.
The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (MAP) began in 1984 as part of the city’s Anti-Graffiti Network. Led by New Jersey muralist Jane Golden, the Network attempted to refocus and utilize the talent of local graffiti artists in collaboration with the city, not against it. In 1996, the Anti-Graffiti Network was reorganized into what is now the Mural Arts Program, with Golden as director. Parallel to the creation of the Program, Golden also founded the Philadelphia Mural Arts Advocates, a nonprofit aimed at raising funds and providing other assistance to MAP.
Thanks to the over 3,000 murals that beautify and give color and character to the city, Philadelphia is increasingly becoming known as “the City of Murals.” But MAP doesn’t just make the city a living work of art; its educational programs serve over 1,500 youth in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. Additionally, MAP also offers art programs in correction and rehabilitation facilities, leading the nation in arts in criminal and restorative justice.
Guided by the philosophy that “Art Saves Lives,” MAP has been extremely successful and serves as a model for similar programs around the world. MAP has also become an international training center for mural artists.
Philadelphia’s murals are in a class of their own. If you’ve seen murals in other cities and then take a look at a Philly mural, you’ll know what I mean. MAP murals are more sophisticated, complicated, they trick they eye and are anchored in the neighborhood and surroundings. But it is even more than just how beautiful and multifaceted they are, Philly murals literally pulsate with the life of the neighborhoods they adorn.
Love Letter is a series of 50 rooftop murals that taken together form a love letter from a guy to a girl and from the residents of West Philadelphia to the neighborhood they live in. Created in 2009 by MAP in collaboration with artist Stephen Powers, it is also a love letter from Powers to his hometown. Using the local lingo and symbolism, this series undoubtedly reflects the life and heart of West Philly. Love Letter is located on the Market Street corridor and best viewed from the elevated transit line.
Bridging the Gap, by muralist Carl Willis Humphreys is located in Southwest Philadelphia. Completed in 2008, the mural addresses the racial tensions between African-American and newly arrived West African immigrants. The mural’s creation and completion has opened a dialogue between these and other groups in the neighborhood to try to overcome hostilities and violence that have been plaguing the area.
Some murals are impressive in their design and perspective, others feature words that have meaning for the community, yet others feature famous people or beloved neighborhood characters. There is a story behind every one of Philly’s over 3,000 murals. MAP’s mural explorer tells a few of them. I strongly recommend visiting this site.
Inevitably with this kind of public art, around six murals are lost every year to the city’s development; buildings and walls come down, buildings come up adjacent to a mural, etc. Last year, the public lost its view to the Frank Sinatra mural on Broad and Wharton streets in South Philadelphia to a three-story building that came up in the adjacent lot, which used to house a gas station. Most neighborhoods and artists take the loss philosophically, looking forward to the next mural project in their community.
More Than Skin-Deep
Even though the murals themselves are visually striking and have given a face-lift to an old industrial city, the positive impact of MAP and its murals goes way beyond aesthetics. The Mural Arts Program has had a visible effect on the city and its residents, including graffiti artists, city youth, mural artists, crime victims, and perpetrators.
When Jane Golden began to work with the Anti-Graffiti Network, she approached many of the local graffiti artists and provided a more positive and productive medium of expression that beautified and transformed the depressed, post industrial Philly of the 1980s. The Network, and subsequently the Program, was able to provide these artists with support, education, and a forum within which they could further develop their artistic abilities. Today, many muralists trained at MAP consult on large-scale mural programs in numerous cities and towns around the world.
MAP’s educational programs focus on at-risk, underserved Philadelphia youth, working with over 1,500 students per year. Professional artists participate and teach, providing disadvantaged students with art education and youth development through mural making. The educational programs also provide young people with a change to participate in and experience positive neighborhood collaboration and organization. It strengthens their sense of identity, pride, and ties to their communities. It also provides students with opportunities to develop as young adults.
The Restorative Justice Program operates under the philosophy of involving the victim, community, and offender in positive healing through art. MAP provides weekly programs and other chances to get involved with the community to over 300 inmates and 200 juveniles every year. The Justice Program produces four to eight murals per year that combine community outreach with other art workshops. The Program allows current and former inmates to understand the effect of their actions on a community. It also gives them the opportunity to do something to strengthen and heal that community. According to MAP’s website, “there is a growing emphasis on re-entry, reclamation of civic spaces, and the use of art to give voice to people who have consistently felt disconnected from society” in the Justice Program’s focus.
The Program’s philosophy is to involve the community in every step of the mural making process. MAP operates under the philosophy of never imposing images or ideas about what a community chooses to portray on the walls of their neighborhood. Diverse members of each community are involved in all aspects of planning, choosing a theme, creating the mural, and celebrating when it is finished. The community relationships built by this type of collaboration and engagement last and grow beyond the scope of the mural, strengthening the neighborhood and city as a whole.
Philadelphia murals are everywhere in the city. They are hard to miss. However, even more beautiful that the murals themselves are the stories they tell, the stories they create, and the stories that they set in motion.
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