The City of Philadelphia has come a long way since the 1960s, when filmmaker — and past Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) student and recent exhibitor at its museum — David Lynch observed “the fear, insanity, corruption, filth, despair, violence in the air … factories, smoke, railroads, diners, the strangest characters and the darkest nights … plastic curtains held together with Band-Aids, rags stuffed in broken windows.”
But all that has changed. Where Ridge Avenue Men’s Shelter once stood is now headquarters for Stephen Starr restaurants. On its wall is a mural, “Metamorphosis Philadelphia: Blueprint To End Homelessness” by Josh Sarantitis. It is based on the belief that solving homelessness is critical to the overall economic development and health of the city. Former residents of the shelter made the metal butterflies, a symbol of the metamorphosis from addiction to health.
A major impetus to the city’s renaissance has been its concerted infusion of arts and culture, from the Philadelphia Fringe and Live Arts festivals and the growth of museums like the Barnes Foundation to the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Since 1984 more than 3,600 murals have been created in collaboration with community members, including an 85,000 square foot mural at the airport and an interactive light project in and along the Schuylkill River created by a team from MIT. People come from all over the world to see the largest outdoor art gallery and the City of Brotherly Love is now also called the City of Murals.
There are self-guided walking and bike tours and a two-hour trolley tour for viewing in air-conditioned comfort while a guide tells the stories behind the murals. There’s so much to see, and the trolley tour ($30 person) presents a good overview for going back to explore more on your own.
We met the red-and-yellow paneled vehicle at PAFA at 128 North Broad, and while waiting enjoyed breakfast from PAFA’s brand-new Table au PAFA, taking our lattes and croissant to the outdoor tables alongside Claes Oldenburg’s giant paintbrush (you can go back for paninis after the tour). Our incredibly knowledgeable tour guide, Jerry Silverman, a retired teacher with a wealth of knowledge about all things Philadelphia, reminded us there are a total of four Claes Oldenburg sculptures in the city — a giant clothespin at Market and 15th, an electrical outlet behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a split button on the Penn campus, in addition to PAFA’s paintbrush. Silverman pointed out that Philadelphia’s City Hall is the tallest stone building in the world, and its statue of William Penn is the tallest statue on top of a building — all combining for a perfect backdrop for the City of Murals.
Here are some things we learned about the murals: Half of them are painted on fabric that is adhered to the walls. Often, when you see brick, you are looking at a trompe l’oeil painting by the artist.
Since a large part of the program’s mission is building community, Mural Arts recruits ex-offenders re-entering society, victims of violence, and those struggling with mental illness, trauma, and addiction to work on murals. The recidivism rate for participants in Mural Arts is 25 percent, compared to Pennsylvania’s three-year rate of 78 percent, according to Mural Arts’ marketing materials. With a budget of $3 million a year, the program is the best employer of artists in the city. Anyone can sign up to participate in the creation of a mural.
Mural Arts was founded by Jane Golden, a Mason Gross School of the Arts MFA, hired by former Mayor Wilson Goode in 1984 to help eradicate the city’s graffiti crisis — this was not graffiti art as we know it today, but the vandalism variety. Golden reached out to graffiti writers to help turn their destructive energies into creative ones. It became a powerful tool for generating dialogue, building relationships, empowering communities, and sparking economic revitalization. “Mural Arts tours are a great way to explore the city, hear stories of what makes the neighborhoods unique, and enjoy the art that makes the community of Philadelphia so special,” says Golden.
In 2001 Mural Arts became part of the city’s social services division, partnering with the Department of Human Services, and began working in homeless shelters, prisons, and youth detention centers. In 2010 a collaboration was formed with the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility to launch the Porch Light program, to help those struggling with mental health challenges, addiction, homelessness, and trauma. It’s not art for art’s sake, says Silverman, but it’s about building social capital, inspiring ownership, and empowering people to be agents for change in their communities. “People and neighborhoods come together to discuss what to put on their walls and how to finance it,” Silverman says through the microphone.
Today Mural Arts gets a thousand requests a year — the demand for murals exceeds the ability to fulfill. “Once a mural is on the wall, it’s yours,” explains Silverman. The life expectancy for a mural, which can take up to three years to create, is about 25 years, he adds, although now that acrylic paints are used instead of house paint, UV protection is added and walls are better prepped, they can last somewhat longer.
We pass Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden, a once-abandoned property the visionary artist bought and turned into a sculptural installation with tile mosaics, mirrors, broken bottles, and bicycle wheels. Thought not officially part of the Mural Arts program, Zagar collaborates, and for the last Saturday of July, October, November, and December Mural Arts is offering walking tours that include a private visit to the Magic Garden (cost: $25).
At Dirty Frank’s Bar on 13th and Pine, two sides of the concrete building are painted with Franks: Frank Sinatra, Ben Franklin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frank Zappa, Frankenstein, Frankie Avalon, Aretha Franklin, Barney Frank, Frank Purdue — the list goes on. Who knew there were so many colorful characters named Frank, yet otherwise so disparate? In fact the bar dispenses with a sign — no need to state the obvious.
At Vetri Ristorante, one of the country’s most critically acclaimed Italian restaurants — housed in the building that once was home to Le Bec Fin — artist Ann Northrup created “Taste of Summer” along one wall, in which diners feast on a veranda overlooking a bucolic landscape that combines elements of Perugia, Italy, and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Owner Marc Vetri can be seen off to the side in his chef’s whites. When Northrup befriended an attendant at a nearby parking lot and learned he had to leave his daughter behind to take this job, she painted the girl into the mural, looking through the window, watching over her father until they can be together again.
Meg Saligman has painted more than 50 murals, many in Philadelphia, the most famous of which is “Common Threads,” at the corner of Broad and Spring Garden streets. Rising eight stories, “Common Threads” features antique figurines based on those owned by the artist’s grandmother. Students from Benjamin Franklin High School and the School for Creative Performing Arts mirrored the figurines’ poses for Saligman to paint. The common threads are those that link us across cultures and time.
“The Progress of Women” mural by Larissa Preston and Cesar Viveros, with a glass chandelier to suggest the glass ceiling, shows Eleanor Roosevelt in a bowler hate and a pregnant Meg Saligman, representing the dual role for women in the workplace and in the home. This mural, like many of the others, is so detailed to tell a complex story that has to be seen. The murals are too large and detailed for a single photo to capture, so seeing them in person is really the only way to examine them.
There are many murals to go back to and explore in detail, such as “Tree of Knowledge” at 13th and Market, with people climbing ladders in a tree for an abacus, a solar panel, a sexton, an astrolabe, and more. Created in 2003 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Fellowships, and featured on the Mural Mile walking tour, “Tree of Knowledge,” which symbolizes the giving and receiving of knowledge in keeping with the Eisenhower Fellowships’ mission, was recently restored to its original vibrancy.
Testament to the success of the Mural Arts program is Mural Lofts, a luxury housing complex under development. An adaptive re-use of the former Thaddeus Stevens School at Broad and Spring Garden streets and on the National Register of Historic Places, the loft-style apartment building has a green terrace with a fountain at the front entrance and a rooftop garden. Developer Eric Blumenfeld envisions the neighborhood transforming through this project.
On the building’s side is Saligman’s “Common Threads” mural, with its central figure 50 feet high. With Mural Lofts rents up to $3,900 month, those threads might not be so common after all. Just as in Old City, where the Fringe and Live Arts Festivals transformed derelict buildings so the artists contributing to its renewal can no longer afford to live there, Mural Arts could be creating the same problem.
As our tour ended, we passed the Philadelphia Mausoleum for Contemporary Art, a former mausoleum showroom that has become an arts space for alternative theater, music, and film. It, too, had a mural, though not an official Mural Arts one. We are reminded that it was the very derelict nature of Philadelphia in the 1960s that inspired David Lynch to develop his voice. “Something about absurdity and a surreal world got born in Philadelphia,” he said. “No place has influenced me as much.”
There will always be new areas for artists to transform.
For information regarding the Mural Arts and the variety of Philadelphia tours offered, go to www.muralarts.org.