1960s Philadelphia was a place beleaguered by gangs who expressed themselves through graffiti. Following Chicago’s lead, mural artists ignited change by painting giant-sized images on the sides of public buildings in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that attracted attention from passers-by.
Since 1984, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has created thousands of public murals in the city, securing permission from owners of highly visible properties to paint unique images on their walls and engaging communities in the process of making outdoor public art. Each year, it produces 50 to 100 new murals, restores existing ones, and leads programs that promote art education, restorative justice and health and wellness.
Walking tours provide details about the murals, the artistic process, the artists, and the history of the diverse communities that serve as the backdrop for this unique art form. Like the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall did during their 2007 visit to Philadelphia, I spent an afternoon seeing some of these unique murals.
My guide, Carol Weidler, explained that the idea for a mural usually comes from a community or a corporate sponsor that provides funding. Sometimes, the Mural Arts Program will notice a good wall in a neighborhood and seek out funding to put a mural there; on other occasions, a public representative will request a mural in a particular district.
First, the wall is chosen for the project. The ideal wall must be relatively flat and smooth, free from major defects, and visible from a distance to passers-by. Then, community members discuss possible themes and designs with the artist. Once a theme is decided, the artist develops an initial design for group feedback. The artist then incorporates their input and prepares more sketches until a final design is approved.
To prepare the wall for painting, loose paint is removed, holes are filled, and a coat of waterproofing is applied to protect the future mural from moisture. Some mural artists transfer their design to the wall using the grid method, in which the artist superimposes a series of horizontal and vertical lines over the final sketch, breaking down the composition into a pattern of small squares. The blank wall also is gridded into proportional squares. The artist then reproduces the content of each square on the sketch in the corresponding square on the wall until the entire work has been recreated on a larger scale. Others prefer to paint the mural in their studio, projecting images onto a synthetic fabric like parachute cloth, similar to sheets of fabric softener; then, they adhere the painted fabric panels to the wall with acrylic gel. The finished mural is coated with a clear acrylic sealant to protect it from the elements.
Carol introduced me and my fellow tour-goers to 14 different Center City murals. Philadelphia Muses, painted in 2000 on a building on the corner of 13th and Locust Streets, represents some of the city’s better-known performers, writers and artists. Each contemporary interpretation of the ancient goddesses of the arts and sciences holds a sphere, often recognized as the perfect form.
Finding Home, the first textile mural, was woven and painted at a house for the homeless next to St. John the Evangelist Catholic church.
Women in Progress, a mural on the wall of the New Century Guild, founded in 1882 to improve the educational, economic, and social status of women and girls — features dozens of prominent 20th-century women, as well as one man – the policeman who patrolled this district and talked to the artist as she was working.
To give a needed facelift to a neighborhood bar known as Dirty Franks, this mural features nothing but famous men with different variations on the name “Frank,” such as Frank Zappa, Frankenstein, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Pope Francis, Frank Sinatra and Frank Lloyd Wright.
For more on Philadelphia’s murals, read A Love Letter For You: Brick Valentines on the Philly Skyline, by Steve Powers; Mural Arts Philadelphia @30, edited by Jane Golden and David Updike; Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell, by Jane Golden, Robin Rice, and Monica Yant Kinney; and More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell, by Jane Golden, Robin Rice and Natalie Pompilio. Click here for information on the Mural Arts Program and its walking tours.