Mural Arts Philadelphia: Public Art as A Conduit for Urban Transformation, Political Mobilization, and Community Building

Photos of all murals were captured by the author, Makenna Walko.

Left: When it was created in 1998, “Common Threads” by Meg Saligman was dubbed “the largest and most technically ambitious mural of its time” and “a game-changer in the contemporary mural movement.” In the piece, local students from Ben Franklin and Creative and Performing Arts High School mirror the poses and attire of historical figures, signifying the transcendence of shared humanity over time, race, gender, and class. 

Right: “Women in Progress” by Cesar Viveros and Larissa Preston explores the history of the women’s rights movement and the social pressures that women have had to navigate throughout history. The mural is located on the wall of the historical New Century Guild, “one of the earliest, largest, and most successful” organizations created in the 19th century to support the increasing number of women entering the workforce. Today, the New Century Trust carries on the Guild’s legacy through education on women’s issues and the history of the fight for gender equality.

Philadelphia is known for its history, its sports teams — and, of course, its cheesesteaks. But fewer people know that the city is also a hub of public art and a leader in the initiative to spearhead social change using community-driven murals. 

The city is the unofficial “Mural Capital of the World,” and the vibrant, culturally rich paintings can be seen in nearly every neighborhood, each one a distinct representation of the people who call that community home. Some, like “Common Threads” and “Women in Progress,” convey social themes, while others commemorate events, memorialize local heroes, and even feature poetry from students in the area. Each piece, created by and for the community, acts as a conduit for collective memory and the expression of a unique local identity. 

But how did Philadelphia come to be such a center of communal art? 

The answer can be found by taking a closer look at Mural Arts Philadelphia. The impetus behind the project — now the nation’s largest public art program with 50-100 new works each year — dates back to 1984, when its first iteration, the Anti-Graffiti Network, was born as a way to translate the impulse behind graffiti into permanent local art. 

In an interview with the HPR, the project’s founder and executive director Jane Golden explained, “I worked with graffiti writers and also block captains and community leaders to put art to work on behalf of different people throughout the city.” Recognizing the artistic impulse behind graffiti, Wilson Good, mayor at the time, asked Golden to “rechannel negative energy into something positive.” And it turned out that the initiative was as popular with program participants as it was with the city government. “Young people started to make their mark on the city in big, bold, beautiful, inspiring ways,” Golden said. “We were almost like a family.”

It soon became clear that the program’s potential reached far beyond its humble beginnings: “I really learned how art could make a difference,” Golden explained. “How it could be a galvanizing tool, how it could take people from feeling that they were on the margins and would never be heard or seen, and shine a light on the authors of people throughout the city.”

When the Anti-Graffiti Network eventually closed in 1996, Golden was forced to decide between following a different life path or appealing to the new mayor to continue the public art initiative. 

She chose the latter, and Mural Arts Philadelphia was born. “At that point, we decided we’d open our doors to all kids, hire emerging and established artists, and we were going to just go like the wind and be unstoppable,” Golden recalls. “It was so liberating because we weren’t anti-anything anymore. We’re just pro art.”

Despite the new mandate, the mission of the project remained unchanged. “Our goals have always been to provide as many people as possible with art. I feel that art is like oxygen,” Golden said. “I don’t think art belongs exclusively behind walls. I think it is to be shared more broadly. And I can’t think of a better way of doing that than to have art in every single neighborhood in the city of Philly.”

Through collaborative projects that foster partnerships between established artists and local communities, Mural Arts Philadelphia aims to “transform public spaces and individual lives” by incorporating the values, histories, and artistic talents of Philadelphians into the physical environment around them. Anyone in Philadelphia can request a mural. To Golden, this work “is like the visualization of democracy because people actually can have some control over what’s in their environment, which is really unheard of these days.”

Seeking Social Justice Through Art

Left: “The Promise of Biotechnology” by Eric Okdeh celebrates the range of medical advancements fueled by the biotechnology revolution in Philadelphia. Combining scientific imagery with personal statements from city residents whose illnesses have been treated by biotechnology, the mural was created in 2019 through a collaboration between local students, inmates at State Correctional Institution Phoenix, employees from biotech company CSL Behring, and volunteers from the community.

Right: Brought to life by children between the ages of 10 and 15 in 2011, “How to Turn Anything Into Something Else” encouraged local students to channel their imagination into public art. After working together to create the concept behind the mural, students were given the opportunity to learn and apply artistic techniques through the physical creation of the work itself. 

Over the last 30 years, the program has grown immensely and taken on new directions, leveraging the power of art to address the social challenges that plague Philadelphia. 

“Art can be useful. We can be both aspirational and believe in aesthetics and beauty, but we can also be highly pragmatic and understand that art plays an important role in every aspect of the city and city government,” Golden said. “The ability to think creatively, fearlessly, innovatively about serious issues, some of them seemingly intractable, is really critical because our traditional ways of working, our traditional interventions, will fail us. And so we need to be consistently thinking out of the box. And who better to do that than artists?”

To that end, Mural Arts Philadelphia has developed a range of outreach programs that emphasize community development. One such initiative is the Porch Light program, which works closely with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services to highlight the importance of community mental and physical wellness and trauma-informed healthcare. 

Another is the Art Education initiative, which offers students the opportunity to work alongside artists of international renown, contribute to murals in their communities, and gain valuable artistic experience that can be translated into future careers. “The Promise of Biotechnology” and “How to Turn Anything Into Something” were both developed in partnership with this project. 

When it comes to social services, the criminal legal system, education, and community development, Golden sees art playing an “uncanny role in connecting people to each other and actually more important, to themselves.” In her words, “It’s about healing, it’s about change, it’s about redemption and ultimately some kind of transformation. It’s like the emergent secret of social healing has to do with that creative process. I’m absolutely convinced.”

She highlighted one project in particular that exemplified Mural Arts’s mission of promoting healing and connection through art — when an empty storefront in Kensington was transformed into an “oasis” offering art-making opportunities, healthy food, and counseling support to those struggling with addiction. “When you hear from the constituents, over and over again they say this was a safe place. This was a place where they could block out the noise of the street, where they didn’t feel judged, where the stigma was lifted,” she recalled.

The success of the project is a testament to the power of safe, empowering spaces where people can escape scrutiny and build confidence through art. “I think that’s where change begins because as a society, we don’t really allow for the fact that these are complex issues. But if people are going to walk away from drugs, it’s not like instant breakfast, right? It’s time and care,” Golden explained. “And what I saw at the storefront were artists doing their work with extraordinary respect and grace. And people started to believe in themselves again. If people are going to make the next move, they’ve got to discover that in themselves, and art can unlock that.”

She witnessed a similar phenomenon occur when Philadelphia residents experiencing housing insecurity were offered the opportunity to contribute to artwork at the Kensington Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority concourse through a Mural Arts Program called Color Me Back. “That stigma, it starts to shift because people are like, ‘Oh, you’re making this beautiful. Thank you so much for changing this space.’ And people who’ve heard mostly negative feedback are like, ‘The loop that plays in my head that says that I can’t do anything is starting to change. I’m doing something important in a civic space, and I’m getting this feedback that validates that.’”

Paintbrushes & Our Planet: Using Art to Fight Climate Change

Caption: Water Gives Life” by Eurhi Jones was created in 2018 and is located on 13th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia.

Another key community organizing program driven by Mural Arts is the Environmental Justice initiative. It is built on the idea that artists and activists can use public art “as the vehicle for narrative framing” to increase awareness for the climate justice movement and the way it disproportionately affects communities of color.

Eurhi Jones is one such artist, who has been involved in Mural Arts since 1997. As the project grew, Jones recognized its potential to unite the climate movement through art.  In an interview with the HPR, Jones explained, “I always just felt like I wanted to bring the green into the city. So anytime you pass a wall, it just gives you that feeling of connection to nature. That’s what I always felt inspired to make, and then it became more and more about like, ‘Hey, we’re in trouble here.’ Any effort I make through art making, I really just want it to have some impact on people’s thinking around the climate emergency we’re in.”

Jones has created multiple pieces of art in connection with Mural Arts Philadelphia, but one of her most expansive and exciting projects is “Water Gives Life,” a mural located in Center City that explores the connection between water access and the urban landscape. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Water Department and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Center and a collaboration with Mural Arts’s David McShane, the piece draws inspiration from the work of sculptor Ruth Asawa to depict the network of rivers and pipe infrastructure in the city of Philadelphia that delivers clean water to its residents. 

“In the mural, there’s the infrastructure of pipes and these hidden parts of a water system, there’s another overlay of the map of the city that’s in the background, and it kind of shows the two rivers. And then on top is all this horticulture and also things like rain barrels and some of the efforts that the Water Department is implementing for stormwater management,” Jones explained. 

At the heart of the mural are three veins of thinking about horticulture: “It’s a combination of first, plants that are grown for food in Philly and in community gardens, and then second, native plants of our area, which it’s really important to be protecting, and then third, just straight up decorative, beautifying the city plants.”

In a city that relies heavily on the Schuylkill and Delaware for clean drinking water but has long struggled with water contamination, the mural is both a vibrant, artistically rich testament to the vitality of healthy drinking water and a nod to the measures that the city must continue to take to ensure it remains accessible. 

“You can’t have all these millions of people living here without clean water, and we just totally take it for granted,” Jones said. “That is kind of the main purpose, to celebrate that we’re so lucky to have clean water and our water systems, and it was another opportunity to talk about the greening of Philadelphia and that’s super important when you think about climate and urban heat and urban tree canopies and all these things.”

Building Bridges: Reimagining Restorative Justice

Caption: “Legacy” by Joshua Sarantitis and Eric Okdeh tells the story of the fight for Black freedom and explores the complex legacy of slavery and liberty in American life. Located in Center City, the mural was constructed from more than one million glass tiles through the work of students from five local public schools and inmates from SCI Graterford. 

Another mainstay of Mural Arts Philadelphia is their Restorative Justice Initiative, which aims to equip individuals returning from incarceration with professional readiness skills, offer opportunities for creative expression and healing, provide an alternative to traditional rehabilitation and punishment, and foster bonds between program participants and their neighbors. Hundreds of murals, including “Legacy,” have been accomplished through this initiative.

One project called Healing Walls places victims of crime, as well as their advocates and family members, in conversation and artistic collaboration with the inmates at Graterford Prison. Golden recalled that the dialogue was originally fraught, but once the paintbrushes came out, the dynamic shifted: “Instead of claiming who had more pain, they just started to talk about how the experience of crime and violence is terrible for everyone because our narratives across the board are shattered. And how do we start to rebuild? It was a beautiful project because of that, because it was so complicated and it made people sort of push past those walls that they had and to think about something else. And we don’t have enough of that in today’s world.”

Golden believes art can both “shine a light on our distinction and also underscore our commonality.” She admires art for its ability to “put us in proximity with people who disagree” and “to weave people together so that somewhere they can find some commonality, and that becomes an entree point to something else.” Golden added, “There’s a universality to art that is just brilliant and beautiful.”

Putting the “Community” in Community Art

Left: Designed by Ann Northrup, “Pride and Progress” occupies the wall of the William Way Center, a local LGBTQ+ community center, and captures the beauty and jubilation of a local pride festival. Located in the Washington Square area, also known as the vibrant “Gayborhood” of Philadelphia, the mural honors the diversity of the community, memorializes the historic struggle for equality and acceptance, and celebrates the power and importance of queer joy. 

Right: Created in 1990, “Dr. J” by Kent Twitchell was one of Mural Arts’s earliest pieces and the first with the goal of combining sophisticated artwork with imagery that had emotional significance to the local community. It depicts basketball legend Julius Erving, more commonly known as Dr. J, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers and led the team to a 1983 championship win. By portraying Dr. J in professional attire rather than his uniform, the mural highlights Erving’s significance as a community role model and leader on top of his athletic prowess.

In addition to addressing social issues that are at the heart of life in Philadelphia, the process of creating a mural also places a heavy emphasis on community input and contribution. “Pride and Progress” and “Dr. J” are just two examples of pieces that are firmly based in the emotional context of those who call the surrounding community home. 

“We sort of start with a small geographic circle, and then we go into the social, emotional, civic. Then the artists do a series of concept drawings and we present it to the different layers of people involved. And then it gets honed. So you try to empower all parties to listen to each other, which is tricky,” Golden explained.

“You have to take everything into consideration, try to develop something that expresses as many people’s satisfaction as possible while retaining your artistic integrity,” Jones agreed.

 “And then out of all that, a beautiful design happens. We try to build in paint days because we often work on parachute cloth. And so people participate, and that way they feel like, ‘Oh, I really had a stake in this. Not only did I contribute ideas, but I had my paintbrush on that wall,’” Golden said.

Jones added, “It’s often very meditative, people really enjoy it, they usually don’t want to have to stop once they start. It can be very transporting from everyday life. When it’s a bunch of people working towards a bigger goal together, it’s just like gold. And so it’s also an opportunity to bring people together to converse about the topics.”

For Jones, this ability to unite people is part of what makes art so powerful. For example, a recent project she worked on gathered a collective of activists from across the city for a conversation about climate justice. After listening in on this conversation, artists used the content of the discussion as inspiration for a new environmentally-focused mural. Jones explained the project was designed to prevent people from “silo[ing] in their efforts” and to let people “know that in this city there’s all these other people working on the problem from all these different places.” 

She recalled another project that led to a long-term collaboration between a local artist and an activist group called Chester Residents for Quality Living. “That’s what the dream of the project really is. For connections to be made. Mural is sort of a nice end result. But the real idea was that through these conversations, people would build the climate activist community to know each other better.”

The City of Brotherly Love is Just the Beginning

Caption: This untitled work created in 2019 by Amy Sherald portrays Najee Spencer-Young, a Philadelphia resident and participant in the Mural Arts Philadelphia art education program. Sherald, famous for her portrait of Michelle Obama, used this mural to explore questions of who is allowed to occupy public spaces and who we choose to celebrate and memorialize through art. During the creation process, Sherald worked with students from the Art Education Initiative and shared techniques that Mural Arts now applies to classroom exercises with students across the city.

Mural Arts Philadelphia was created with the objective of urban transformation through art. It’s an ambitious goal— but one that the project has made great strides toward accomplishing, with new advances each year. Not only has it connected city residents with world-famous artists like Amy Sherald, but it has allowed for unprecedented community transformation, expression, and mobilization through art. The success of the project raises the question, then, of whether or not the story of Mural Arts Philadelphia can be a case study for the power of arts programs that foster communal expression and build community identity. 

In truth, it already is.

Through the Mural Arts Institute, Mural Arts Philadelphia aims to share their model for sustainable change-making and community development through art with other cities. According to Golden, Mural Arts Philadelphia has been in collaboration with artists around the globe, including in Italy, Athens, Hanoi, London, and Dublin, as well as in “two dozen cities across America.”

To Golden, the Institute is about “helping cities to build their practice, to think about weaving together the public and private sector, to think about what it means to do work that’s sustained.” The beauty of this growth is that it is reciprocal: “We’re building capacity and trying to embark on a knowledge exchange so that while people are learning from us, we’re learning from them.”

National foundations, health leaders, and universities across the world are in the process of applying the model of Mural Arts Philadelphia to other cities. But in order to replicate the results the project has seen, leaders need not only direct financial resources toward arts initiatives but also ensure that these murals continue to be both in the local community and of it.  

“I posit that the movement of muralism is so resilient in the city because we have included so many citizens in the process,” Golden explained. “In academic settings and with cities, we’re trying to share our learnings, learn what they’re doing, and then have people be cognizant that this world of art and civic engagement, art and social change, art and social impact, is one that is really important, but also precarious, and that we need to fight all the time. We can’t take it for granted to make sure that art is present in our lives.”

It is a fight Mural Arts Philadelphia is carrying on every day by pushing artistic boundaries, exploring new ways to address the city’s most pressing issues, and ultimately giving voice to those from every walk of life who call the City of Brotherly Love home.

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