The North Philadelphia Beacon Project, 2013, by James Burns, photo by Steve Weinik for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Street art in Philadelphia.

Street art in Philadelphia.

Driven to change.

Driven to change.

As you drive through Philadelphia, a few things probably come to mind: the Liberty Bell, some not-so “sunny” television characters and, of course, cheesesteaks. But there is a whole lot more to America’s first World Heritage City than popular culture depicts—and most of it is right in front of your eyes. If you take a quick look around, you’ll see sculptures and buildings memorializing our nation’s founders. And at closer inspection, you’ll find art nearly everywhere, turning paved roads, intersections and buildings’ walls into vast spaces for incredibly detailed works.

In the Presence of a Peaceful Place, 2015, by Parris Stancell,
photo by Steve Weinik for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

In the Presence of a Peaceful Place, 2015,
by Parris Stancell, photo by Steve Weinik for
the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

For the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the city offers a blank canvas of opportunity. Though the metropolis has a rich history and a lot of quirky charms, it does not shy away from recognizing its dark underbelly. With the belief that art ignites change, Mural Arts has spent four decades using public art as a tool to help lessen the impact of a high rate of crime and poverty. In turn, it helps transform, unite and heal people, places and communities.  

Mural Arts began in 1984 as a part of the Anti-Graffiti Network, a coalition created to help alleviate the city’s rampant graffiti crisis. Founder and current Executive Director Jane Golden was tasked then as a young mural artist with helping graffiti writers channel their energies into more creative and constructive projects. Twelve years later, the Network was reorganized, and Mural Arts became its own entity: a public/private sector program that draws in some of the most coveted mural artists in the country.

Common Ground, 2007, by James Burns, photo by Steve Weinik for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

Each neighborhood’s street art instantaneously gives you a feel for that community and its residents’ past and present trials. From the passenger seat, you’ll see that themes of resilience, strength and recovery pepper the North Philadelphia area. Murals about the people and things that have influenced the city appear in Center City. Steadfast passion and the unification of peoples receives space in the Northeast. And a lot of the pieces celebrate the distinctive qualities of the people and places that have created a unique melting pot. A slow perusal by car just whets the appetite for closer inspection; tours on foot, trolley and train plus maps are available at www.muralarts.org.

While the murals add a beautification layer to the city and inspire an engaging dialogue, the entire Mural Arts Program serves as a community outreach project. The program draws 2,000 participants each year, with an additional engagement of 8,000 in various projects across every neighborhood. Its cornerstone efforts are Art Education, Restorative Justice and Porch Light—a program for those struggling with mental illness, trauma and addiction.

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The Art Education department helps approximately 1,000 underserved kids gain quality after-school, summer and daytime art education courses. The Restorative Justice program has seen the power of public art to break the vicious cycle of crime, boasting that only 13.5 percent of the re-entry program participants commit crimes after their participation. (According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the state’s one-year average is 35 percent.)

Tell Me What You See, 2011, by James Burns, photo by Steve Weinik for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

Leaders in muralism have an obligation to think about civic issues and the potential of public art to bring about change in unconventional ways, Golden says. She used to think that once a work was installed, it should be there forever, almost as a memorial to a certain point in time. But she later realized that a city is fluid and dynamic—and with it, public art should be, too. 

A trailblazer for public art, the Mural Arts Program has been a model for a variety of similar programs in neighboring urban environments. They recognized that street art is incredibly accessible and provides a plethora of benefits. Some murals offer a pop of unexpected color or a hint of inspiration during an average morning’s commute. Some pieces provide reminders of the past, sharing an education not found in history books. Altogether, they create roadside reminders in our First City of who we are, and glimpses of where we’re going.

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