A woman smiles as her hair flows in the wind. Nearby a dragon slithers, a child laughs and a man points to his home country. “Colors of Light — Gateway to Chinatown,” is seen by hundreds of daily commuters as they cross the intersection of 12th and Vine streets. It is just one of more than 2,400 murals in Philadelphia.
Joshua Sarantitis, the artist of the mural said “The mural itself is about life in Chinatown and showing the strength of the people that live there, and the cultural heritage of thousands of years of Chinese life.”
Like his mural, each painting tells a story. Yet the story of Philadelphia’s murals is unique in its own right.
The first murals were painted in the 1970s, part of an urban outreach program by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in response to the dozens of graffiti-clad building exteriors that emerged during the previous two decades.
The program ended in 1983, yet the idea was reincorporated the following year in the form of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, a six-week youth program started by then-mayor Wilson Goode designed to curb graffiti among urban youth.
Graffiti artists nationwide have joined muralists in creating memorable pieces of the Philadelphia community.
In 1996, the Anti-Graffiti Network became the Mural Arts Program (MAP), a division of the city’s Department of Recreation. It is currently one of the most well-known programs in the country.
Murals are a collaborative effort in all aspects of creation. Locations are chosen by city council members, public representatives or members of the MAP staff. The only requirement is that the location must be one where passersbys can view the art in its entirety from a distance. Residents, especially property owners, give input on the theme and design. Themes are grouped into the following categories: arts and culture, community, heroes, and hope and nature. Foundations and corporations sponsor most murals, and give input for the theme as well.
Each year, 100 murals are created with about a dozen funded by the city. Murals cost between $10,000 and $15,000, which includes all supplies and artists’ commission.
Most muralists rely on the grid system to transfer their design from paper to reality. The grid system resembles a paint-by-numbers children’s book. The surface to be painted is divided into proportional squares, each a larger replica of the original sketch, which is also divided into squares. The mural is then painted one square at a time. Few murals, such as “Philadelphia Muses” at 13th and Locust, are painted on parachute cloth, which is then applied to the building exterior with acrylic gel. Upon completion, each mural has a dedication ceremony with MAP staff, council members and residents.
The average mural is the height of a three-story row house and 35 feet wide, although there are many exceptions. “Manayunk Views,” at Ridge and Main is 420 feet long and gradually narrows from one story to just a few inches. Consisting of a series of arches, the mural flows seamlessly into the bridge above.
Under each arch is a scene of lush greenery, complementing the nearby trees and plants. The mural took six months to complete, but some take up to a year, such as “History of Immigration” at Second and Callowhill.
It is the city’s longest mural, spanning 600 feet, folding and continuing around an irregular-shaped building. Two teenagers were the main artists on this massive project, which is a collage of settlers of various races who have made America home over the centuries.
Despite the significant amount of labor and time murals require, some are lost due to lack of money, lack of interest, property owners’ decisions or vandalism. A building in the 900 block of Chestnut was demolished in 1998, destroying its mural celebrating Harriet Tubman and local abolitionists. Teenagers vandalized a mural in the Burholme section of the Northeast just days after it was finished because they were upset about the contents of the mural — eight biracial swimmers, too dark for their liking. The teenagers covered the entire mural in beige paint.
Several other murals are also subject to controversy. “Free Mumia” is the most graffiti– targeted mural, and was spray painted five years ago. It has since been restored. Meanwhile, Center City murals are scorned by some residents who disapprove of having murals in thriving, affluent areas.
On the corner of 20th and Arch streets is “Reach and You Will Go Far,” also by Sarantitis. It depicts a young black girl reaching for the sky, rising above an oppressive urban environment. A few Logan Square residents felt a painting of a black girl was inappropriate in a prosperous white neighborhood, yet there wasn’t enough disapproval for a new mural to take its place.
Elaborate murals of heroes are common in the city, yet they create mixed reactions among residents. Images of Edgar Allen Poe (Seventh and Green streets), Jackie Robinson (2304 N. Broad St.), Wilt Chamberlain (1243 Vine St.) and Frank Sinatra (Broad & Wharton streets) decorate the exterior of houses and businesses. South Philadelphia residents have expressed dissatisfaction with Sinatra’s face, describing it as sad and angry. Local religious figure Father Paul Washington is portrayed in a mural on Ridge Avenue. After local residents were dissatisfied with the rendition of his face, another artist repainted it to the community’s liking.
Artist Paul Santoleri said his mural, “Through Cracks in the Pavement” at 5th and Olive streets, is about his relationship with his backyard, which is nearby.
“There I discovered that where I don’t walk in the brick-paved backyard, all kinds of flowers pop up and surprise me with their beauty and persistence,” Santoleri said. Likewise, the mural shows a vibrant garden of flowers with the skyline of the neighborhood as a background.
Philadelphia’s unique murals are a textbook in the form of art, portraying significant moments in the city’s history. The Mural Arts Program offers public and private trolley tours of several murals. Visit www.muralarts.org for more information.
Stephanie Young can be reached at email@example.com.