Inside Philadelphia: The city of vibrant murals
A programme to help artists in economic hardship is opening new avenues in the world’s Mural City
Night falls late, and in slow motion, in Philadelphia in late spring. So even at 8 pm, Pennsylvania’s capital and the sixth most populous city in the US is bathed in incandescent twilight. Market Street in the downtown area, with its bright lights, fashion brands and boutique stores, is swirling with crowds. Glitzy electronic boards compete with music spilling from eateries. At the end of the street, the magnificent and ornate City Hall broods in silence, with a statue of city founder William Penn looking down benignly at all the buzz as if wondering what it’s all about.
About 600 metres from the City Hall, a corner plot on Locust Street suddenly opens up into a parking lot. The towering wall that forms the perimeter of the lot is covered by a gigantic mural— colourful, graphic and strangely hypnotising. As America celebrated its 246th Independence Day three weeks ago, Philly looked two shades more vibrant with a series of mini murals curated by Conrad Benner, founder of StreetsDept, a photo blog that discovers art on the streets of the city. Meanwhile, the classics grab attention. Titled ‘Philadelphia Muses’, it depicts people and eclectic objects woven together whimsically and artfully, revealing new layers with every viewing. Created in 1999, the mural pays tribute to the classical arts of Philadelphia. In the fading light, they look magical.
“Their faces are based on real people,” Jerry Silverman, the guide with the Mural Arts Philadelphia programme, said the next day while on a Mural Mile Walking Tour he curates. The mural was painted on a grid of fabric pieces and then painstakingly pasted on the wall. As the night before, this time too, it cast a bewitching spell that made tearing the eyes away an effort.
Philly seems to be Mural City; walk a few steps on and you encounter one more, and then another, each making a flamboyant statement. Left, right… so it goes on, the eyes and head trying to keep up with the constant visual stimulus. All the while, Silverman continues his enthusiastic commentary. In plain sight, hidden in nooks, climbing across obstacles, wrapped around buildings, and slipping inside private spaces are murals of varying sizes. They have a plethora of themes—from the city’s history and health initiatives to homelessness and whimsy, from education to tributes to Philadelphia’s icons.
Across the street from City Hall, the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ pays tribute to learning and excellence, while the ‘Philly Chunk Pack’, executed by students, is both surreal and silly. ‘The Garden of Delight’ is
a glorious explosion of colour set in a real garden while ‘Sanctuary’, which extends down to a restaurant, is a melange of colours and raises awareness about community health and mental wellness.
The massive mural on Sansom Street is by artist Eric Okdeh, who worked with local schoolchildren to portray antibodies and stem cells to celebrate Philadelphia’s legacy as a medical pioneer. Five public schools collaborated with artists Josh Sarantitis and Eric Okdeh’s to create the mural near Independence Hall, which honours the work of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas to end slavery in America. Rebecca Rutstein’s 7,500-sq-ft mural is a surreal crisscross of blue and white lines—metaphors for the interwoven patchwork of river tides, rails, trails and bridges.
Considered the world’s largest outdoor art gallery, Mural Arts Philadelphia Programme was conceived in the mid-1980s to ignite change through art and counter rampant graffiti. Forty years later, of the 4,000 murals put up, nearly 1,500 remain, which explains why the city is called the Mural Capital of the World. The programme is one of the most enduring collaborative processes between artists and local communities. Around 50 to 100 projects are taken up every year and used for initiatives to raise funds for various causes and involve the homeless and prisoners.
One such initiative even invited people to have their dogs painted as part of a mural in exchange for donations towards an animal shelter. Earlier in the month, ‘The Color Me Back’ programme inaugurated a new series of murals to help starving artists. It is a same-day work-and-pay programme that connects artists to social services and explores creative avenues. In the mural of humanity, Philly’s colours shine bright.