PHILADELPHIA — Where can you see artistic images of Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt; a summer day in Perugia, Italy; Benjamin Franklin and Frank Zappa; Julius Erving; and a depiction of industry that would make Diego Rivera proud?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art? The Art Institute of Chicago? The Boston Museum of Fine Arts? None of the above. Not even the Philadelphia Museum of Art, although you’re getting close.
These are all images depicted in murals painted on the walls of Philadelphia buildings. Since 1984 more than 3,800 murals have been created on the sides of Philadelphia’s edifices, and one can see them by foot, car or bicycle, though my group opted for a guided trolley tour.
The Mural Arts Program tours take visitors on a variety of excursions highlighting outdoor art that depicts both the pensive and the silly. But all represent either the buildings on which they are painted or the neighborhoods where they proudly stand. For example, “Liberty,” at 15th and Arch Streets, is modeled after a sculpture at Philadelphia City Hall and features an 11-story-tall figure carrying the world. On the outskirts of Chinatown, “Colors of Light: Gateway to Chinatown,” includes a dragon, scroll and images of family. On the facade of the Central Library Annex of the Free Library of Philadelphia is a close-up of a girl poring over a storybook.
The program was started as a spinoff of the Anti-Graffiti Network started by Mayor Wilson Goode in 1984. Artist Jane Golden, executive director of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, noticed that some graffiti artists possessed raw talent. She encouraged them to channel their abilities into something that would turn blight into beauty. When several graffiti artists were asked in the 1980s where they would be in five years, nearly all gave the same answer: in jail or dead.
Since then, professional artists, not all local, have been contracted to paint more murals. Evy Simon, my guide, said that while several cities have had similar murals tagged over with graffiti, the people of Philadelphia are too proud to mar theirs. Los Angeles-based muralist Kent Twitchell said in literature handed out on the tour that tagging has been a big problem in his hometown — but not usually in Philadelphia.
Simon also pointed out subtleties that might be missed without a professional tour guide. On the outer wall of chef Marc Vetri’s restaurant is “A Taste of Summer,” combining the landscapes of Perugia, Italy, and Lancaster County, Penn. While working on the project, artist Ann Northrup became friends with a parking lot attendant who moved to Philadelphia to take his job, leaving his daughter at home. Simon told our group to direct our eyes to the upper-right side of the painting. There is an image of a girl looking out a window. Northrup painted her in the mural to represent the parking lot attendant’s daughter, so she can symbolically watch over her father until they are united again.
Lightness, like summer landscapes, are the exception. Most murals have a social message: “Women of Progress,” is rife with depictions of numerous women from Ann Preston, one of the country’s first women doctors, to Roosevelt. “A People’s Progression Toward Equality,” boasts a standing Lincoln, with images of slavery and segregation at the bottom of the 16th president’s feet, while surrounding Lincoln’s head are people climbing ladders into the open air of equality.
Perhaps the most iconic mural of the group is “Common Threads,” at the corner of Broad and Spring Garden Streets. Painted in 1998, it blends two disparate cultures to show that when it comes down to it, people are people. Artist Meg Saligman said in literature handed out on the tour that a trip to two local high schools introduced her to students whose hairstyles and casual poses mirrored the positions of antique figurines her grandmother owned. A Philly resident, Saligman thought that if these two generations from different times and places had similarities on the outside, maybe they have a few common threads as well. Because of its location, at a mass transit stop, and its eight-story height, “Common Threads” is passed by 5,800 people daily and has become one of Mural Arts’ most visible artworks.
The antithesis is “Mural at Dirty Frank’s,” which tests one’s trivia knowledge as well as brings a smile to observers. Dirty Frank’s is a local watering hole and for a while there was a controversy whether it should stay or be cleared off the street. A compromise was reached: The business could stay as long as the outdoor sign was taken down. In place of the sign today is a mural on its exterior wall filled with likenesses of people named, or partially named, Frank. There are a few with local connections: Frank “Tug” McGraw, who pitched for the Phillies, 1960s teen idol Frankie Avalon and naturally, Franklin. Others have the last names of Sinatra, Perdue, Zappa and Wright or the first names of Barney and Aretha. There is also a frankfurter on a bun. See how many others you can identify.
Another mural offers tribute to former 76er Erving dressed as a businessman. Artist Twitchell explained in tour literature: “I wanted to paint him as an honorable and dignified man.” Other offer tributes to the Girl Scouts; tradesmen and laborers; civil rights leaders; and pet adoption (on the exterior of the Morris Animal Refuge). That mural was funded by a raffle; those who won had their pets included in the artwork.
But what you see now may not be what you see a year from now or five years from now. Simon expounded on the fact that there are no city ordinances that prevent a developer from blocking a mural with a plain, new building. And if some mural-coated buildings are deemed raze-worthy, there is nothing to stop them from having a wrestling match with a wrecking ball.
A shame really, because it takes about six months and costs between $25,000 to $30,000 to create a typical mural, and some have been intricately painted on parachute cloth and applied in pieces to a wall. Oh, and keep your eyes on the city’s trash compactors and recycling trucks. Many have been beautified as well, but with custom-designed vinyl wraps.
If you go ...
The Mural Arts Program offers a myriad guided tours by foot, by trolley and by bicycle. The schedule varies depending on the tour. One can also get a self-guided tour brochure.
The basic trolley tour my group took is offered June through August, Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 12 noon; April and May and September through November, Saturday and Sunday only.
Cost: $30 adults, $28 ages 65 and over; $20 ages 3-12. Reservations can be booked online or bought the day of the tour 15 minutes before starting time at the Mural Arts box office at the Gallery at Market East, 9th and Market Streets, level 2.
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975, and received an MFA in professional writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at email@example.com.