Painting lived realities: How Philadelphia became the mural capital of the world - Hindustan Times
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Painting lived realities: How Philadelphia became the mural capital of the world

ByKiran Mehta
Jun 08, 2024 10:46 AM IST

Known as the ‘Mural Capital of the World’, this city sports over 4,000 colourful works of street art, which grew from an iconic movement

A man sits with his head lowered, while his creased hands weave together a purple fabric. You can sense the deft movement of his fingers, but move in closer and you’ll see the man is made of weaves. This man is an elaborate mixed-media mural, which consists of several pieces of woven fabric pasted on the wall. It stands tall in a parking lot, not far from an organisation that supports the homeless. The location is your first cue. Look up at the very top of the mural, and you’ll spot the words ‘in’ on the edge of the wall along with the words ‘visible’ just as you turn the corner. ‘Invisible’ sums up the gut-wrenching experience of homelessness. The true-to-life mural is that of a homeless man whose weave reads: ‘Home is..’, as he tries to express what home - and the lack of a roof over his head - means to him.

The Promise of Biotechnology’ mural is a complex collage where you see scientific study visualised in the form of a student reading a book and a health worker in uniform( Philadelphia Convention & Visitor Bureau/ J Ryan) PREMIUM
The Promise of Biotechnology’ mural is a complex collage where you see scientific study visualised in the form of a student reading a book and a health worker in uniform( Philadelphia Convention & Visitor Bureau/ J Ryan)

This moving piece of art is titled, ‘Finding Home’. Conceptualised by textile artist Kathryn Pannepacker and artist Josh Sarantitis, it was created in collaboration with community members, including those who lived through homelessness. Unveiled in 2010, it brings to the fore a prominent economic and social justice issue by making the viewer see the people behind the statistics.

 

‘Finding Home’. Conceptualised by textile artist Kathryn Pannepacker and artist Josh Sarantitis(Kiran Mehta)
‘Finding Home’. Conceptualised by textile artist Kathryn Pannepacker and artist Josh Sarantitis(Kiran Mehta)

Look closer at the wall, and you’ll spot the discrete symbol of Mural Arts Philadelphia, the organisation that heralded an iconic art movement across the city. This Mural Arts programme was ironically born of an anti-graffiti movement. In 1984, 40 years ago, Mayor Wilson Goode was faced with the issue of rampant vandalism across the city. To combat the problem of graffiti that marked almost every neighbourhood in the city, he set up the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN).

Subsequently, artist Jane Golden was brought on board to engage the youth to combat the issue. With the support of the local government, Golden worked closely with the graffiti artists. She got them to channel their creative energy and talents towards transforming the city. This allowed the graffiti artists to rethink their contributions to the city — to beautify rather than deface — and slowly but surely a transformation began. The local government also invested in the programme and young people were now paid to create art. As the artists expressed their creative side, they soon began to capture the issues that spoke to, and of, the city.

In 1997, the PAGN was restructured by then Mayor Ed Rendell who supported the creation of Mural Arts Philadelphia under the leadership of Golden. Today, the programme has given the city over 4,000 murals and Philadelphia has been rightly dubbed the ‘Mural Capital of the World’.

Spread throughout the city, many of the murals serve to introduce visitors to the city. Sejal Patel, a second-generation Indian-American who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia says, “The murals encapsulate the story of Philly, in a manner that’s easily understood, and accessible to all.’ Chapters of the city’s history (and American history, in general) are detailed in several murals. One such mural is titled, ‘Legacy’, which puts a young girl at the centre; she holds a flame from which emerges a middle-aged woman. The girl wears a locket that features Abraham Lincoln and American social reformer, Frederick Douglass and stands to highlight their work to end slavery. The two female figures represent the past and the future and make viewers reflect upon the past generations, their struggles and their contribution to present-day America.

Sejal reminds us that the city’s history includes lighter topics, such as their collective love of baseball. Her most-cherished mural is ‘The Phillies’, which depicts the Philadelphia Phillies, the city’s only existing Major League Baseball team, which dates back to the 1800’s. Created by muralist and Phillies-fan, David McShane, the artwork captures the players in action and the undying passion and support of the fans.

The Phillies’, which depicts the Philadelphia Phillies, the city’s only existing Major League Baseball team, which dates back to the 1800’s( Philadelphia Convention & Visitor Bureau/ J Ryan)
The Phillies’, which depicts the Philadelphia Phillies, the city’s only existing Major League Baseball team, which dates back to the 1800’s( Philadelphia Convention & Visitor Bureau/ J Ryan)

The murals don’t just speak of the city, they also involve the active participation of citizens. To ensure that corporations give back to the city, Philadelphia pioneered the country’s ‘Percent for Art’ model. Essentially, building developers are required to designate a percentage of funds towards public arts, such as murals.

Many murals are created by artists in collaboration with residents of the city. For instance, ‘The Legacy’ was created by the artists Josh Sarantitis and Eric Okdeh together with inmate artists from a state correctional institution, students of five public schools and other city residents.

Paurav Patel, a second-generation Indian-American who lives in the city said, “The murals are a symbol of hope.” Take in the murals and you’ll notice that a common thread runs through the murals: the promise of a better future. ‘Finding Home’ stirs conversations on poverty; turning the corner from being ‘invisible’ to becoming ‘visible’, being seen, heard, acknowledged and supported.

Similarly, ‘Sanctuary’ is based on the Enso circle, a symbol of the zen mind. Created by artist James Burns, it highlights a wellness project that aims to raise mental health awareness. Part of the mural is coloured and the other is in black and white. It is open to many interpretations such as a representation of a clear mind and adding colour to your life by changing your thoughts. It speaks of the possibility of healing and happiness.

Patel also highlights the message of ‘resilience’ that he derives from the murals. “Even though we often complain about how tough things are, we never give up. We’re a city that will find a way to make things happen,” he said. This is a sentiment reflected in the murals as also in Philadelphia’s past: this is where the American Revolution took shape. The United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were signed in the 1700’s in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The tenacious Philly that Patel describes also features in Sylvester Stallone’s iconic film series, Rocky. The fictional character, a boxer named Rocky Balboa, is the ultimate underdog who beats the odds and emerges a champion. Rocky is synonymous with the city as many scenes from the films were shot in Philadelphia and lured visitors to the city, making Rocky the unofficial mascot of Philadelphia. The statue of Rocky — that features in Rocky III — is one of Philadelphia’s most photographed pieces of public art, with visitors queuing up to pose next to it.

The never-say-die attitude of the city folk comes with a spirit of innovation. “If there’s anything that will get us through the toughest of times, it’s arts, science and technology,” Patel said.

His words ring true, particularly in a post-pandemic world. Little wonder that his favourite mural is titled, ‘The Promise of Biotechnology’. The mural is a complex collage where you see scientific study visualised in the form of a student reading a book and a health worker in uniform; the human life cycle is captured from womb to old age; the human genome is illustrated; an aloe plant which is known for its wide-ranging medical applications is also featured. Set atop the aloe plant is the golden ratio, also known as the divine ratio, a concept recognised in science, art, math, beauty and spirituality.

This mural with its emphasis on creativity also beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the mural arts programme. Born of a dream, the programme dared to fight vandalism with art. And succeeded.

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