Philadelphia Street Art: Creative Social Change

Melissa Pearce

The street art scene in Philadelphia is flourishing. Inspired by an outreach program initiated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the 1970s, the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN) was set up. From this sprouted the Mural Arts Program (MAP) which today stands as one of the largest street art projects in the United States.
The MAP organizes individual projects, which are generally made up of a team of muralists and members of the local community. The program began with Jane Golden, an iconic artist and mural painter, whose success with the project has won her much acclaim. MAP has encouraged further community program that inspire education and understanding of the arts, in addition to creating jobs for artists and ex-graffiti artists who have been prosecuted. The program creates about 100 murals per year, and continues to be the driving force behind the arts in Philadelphia. MAP murals deal with complex issues that affect members of the community on a range of levels.

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This We Believe

Created in 2009, ‘This We Believe’ was one of MAP’s most ambitious and inspiring projects, as it collected opinions, ballots and feedback from thousands of members of the public in order to create a rounded view of Philadelphia, using visual media to convey the meanings that the city carries for each of its occupants. The mural was the result of over half a year of input from the public, from which two groups of artists made a series of draft murals, after which a set of final mural designs were put up to a vote. The result was shown to commemorate the MAP’s 25th anniversary, and is now on display in individual sections across city.

Love Letter

‘Love Letter’ is made up of a staggering 50 murals, created with the help of Stephen Powers, an ex-graffiti writer who is now an established artist. The murals are quirky, humorous and bright, and have a variety of meanings. They can be found in West Philadelphia, and their meanings work not only on a basic level as representative of a love letter between a couple, but also as a message between people and city, between artist and audience. The project resulted in a month-long school that focused on the basics behind sign making, offering free intensive lessons to artists interested in the skill.

Personal Renaissance

Highlighting the work of the Mural Art Program and its involvement in helping disadvantaged members of the community, ‘Personal Renaissance: Addiction and Recovery’ was created by James Burns and centers around the problems associated with addiction, and the boundaries that must be overcome in order to transition into recovery. Working with clients of JEVS Human Services, Burns took inspiration from clients who were undergoing counselling and various other treatments in order to form a picture of the difficulties connected with drug addiction. Much of this came from poetry and writings from patients and clients themselves.

Dixie Hummingbirds

In 2005, Cliff Eubanks, WXPN and the Mural Arts Program worked together to create a mural that pays homage to the diverse and varied musical history of Philadelphia. Just a few blocks away from this mural in North Philadelphia, you can see ‘Dixie Hummingbirds Way’, a street that further highlights the importance of this innovative gospel quartet to the city and its identity. The Dixie Hummingbirds are undoubtedly one of, if not the best gospel quartets of all time, and their ties to Philadelphia are celebrated in this mammoth mural, the painterly style and subtle tones of which cover a building’s wall on 859 North 15th street.

Family Interrupted

Created by artist Eric Okdeh, ‘Family Interrupted’ was set up in 2011, and aimed to establish a stage on which the community could discuss the effects of imprisonment on individuals, their families and the community as a whole. A subject that is often avoided, imprisonment for many means leaving old lives behind, often permanently damaging family relationships that are unable to be reestablished. In addition to the dialogue that was encouraged by the mural, the painting doubles up as a restoration project, as it covered up an older, decaying work of mural art. Several projects stemmed from the mural including a public ‘Community Day’ which gave members of the community the chance to learn of potential support systems that are in place for friends and family members of the convicted.

Philadelphia Muses

Artist Meg Saligman created a detailed landscape, intended as a general dedication to contemporary art and creativity within today’s society. The mural itself is made up of several members of the arts community of Philadelphia, the portraits of which are arranged around individual spheres. There are nine portraits in total, each representing an art form. The mural is highly realistic in style, and contains symbolism associated with perfect form, seen in the repetition of circular shapes and spheres in the piece. This mural shows the diversity of the artworks within Philadelphia and stands as a classical, high-art themed piece.

Finding the Light Within

Another work by artist James Burns and possibly one of the most moving murals on the list in terms of what it represents is ‘Finding the Light Within.’ This piece represents MAP’s partnerships with behavioral health and suicide prevention organisations, which were created in order to bring together those affected by tragedies surrounding this terrible event. With a shocking rise in the number of suicide cases in Philadelphia, MAP seeks to overcome the stigmas and negative associations linked to mental health issues. The mural gives a voice to victims and families and encourages education on the topic through workshops and community resources.

Holding Grandmother’s Quilt

Looking over what used to be a derelict area of the city, ‘Holding Grandmother’s Quilt’ exists aside the Mantua community garden and park. The soft purple and blue tones give off a calming ambiance, and the surrounding park is the perfect setting for a local community member, Miss Jones, to be featured. The park itself was once a dirt patch, surrounded by blank concrete, left to no good use. Following its renovation, the area is now a site loved by the community, and the park and play area are revered and looked after by local residents. Created by Jane Golden, Donald Gensler and students from the University of Pennsylvania, the mural is a tie between old and young.

Peace is a Haiku Song

This colorful mural is a part of a larger public art project that is made up of a range of multimedia projects, including the mural itself, benches, writings, artworks and workshops. The mural features images of peace, such as the origami peace crane, in addition to a selection of peace haikus. Combining the talents of poet Sonja Sanchez and students from the MAP’s Art Education program, the haikus are also printed in a book along with works from local authors. The book also contains images and information about the project as a whole.

Philly Painting

Comprised of works from internationally renowned artists, ‘Philly Painting’ is one of the most recent projects undertaken by the Mural Arts Program. Spread over 50 shop fronts in North Philadelphia, the project was led by Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, who used a bright color palette to display the incredibly complex nature of Philadelphia. Community input involved store owners choosing the colors that would be displayed on their respective sites, and using these selections the artists created bold pieces that gives old stores a new identity, highlighting the best features of the building’s architecture.

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