The Fascinating Journey of Mural Arts in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is renowned as the “Mural Art Capital of the World”, thanks to the efforts of Mural Arts Philadelphia, a major non-profit organization that uses public and private funds to achieve its goals. This program was first established in 1984 as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, with the artist Jane Golden hired to contact graffiti writers and redirect their energies to public art projects. The first mural, Life in the City, was painted on a 636-foot stretch of the Spring Garden Street Bridge in 1985. Mural Arts Philadelphia is more than just beautiful images in an urban environment. It was created in 1984 to combat the massive destruction of property, under the leadership of then-mayor Wilson Goode.

A young artist and activist named Jane Golden was tasked with running the program. At first, it mainly used taggers accused of vandalism to roll white paint on graffiti as a form of community service. Golden started going out to talk to those “taggers” and realized that it was not enough to cover up the vandalism. He thought that channeling their creativity and social anguish into wall art would be a more productive way to connect them to their community.

This became the basis of what is now Mural Arts Philadelphia, which has adorned the city with more than 3800 works of public art. The program has achieved much more than just creating beautiful works of art. It has also provided art programs for children at a time when the arts are losing popularity in public schools, engaged people struggling with mental health problems and addictions, and provided job training for those transitioning from prison to their communities. Philadelphia is home to some of the world's most acclaimed street artists, in a variety of media. Around the nation's centennial anniversary, in 1876, a new, more self-aware mural movement emerged in the United States, whose style and iconography dominated mural painting for the next five decades. The painter Violet Oakley (1874-196) left her particular vision of the Beaux-Arts, which was socially oriented, pacifist and protofeminist, in several murals in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

These include Oakley's first mural commission for a public building in the United States at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg in 1902; she would return to the Capitol a decade later to complete several other murals on jurisprudence and the history of nations. Other notable murals include Webb's Tribute to Julian Abele (201), Saligman's Common Threads (199), and Colorful Legacy, a vibrant mural in West Philadelphia that raises awareness of the challenges men and boys of color face. In addition to these works, you won't want to miss Philadelphia Magic Gardens at 1020 South Street. This may be one of the most remarkable art spaces in Philadelphia, covering more than 3,000 square feet of mosaics above and below street level. If you're lucky enough, like me, you might even get a chance to sit down and chat with the artist Isaiah Zagar who is frequently on site. Mural Arts Philadelphia has worked with some of the world's most acclaimed street artists, in a variety of media.

So when you visit Philadelphia for its rich history (and delicious food), you'll have an opportunity to enjoy this world-class public art collection. Mural Arts Philadelphia is devoted to the belief that art ignites change. Through participatory public art projects it creates opportunities for a more just and equitable Philadelphia.

Jackson Renwick
Jackson Renwick

Burrito guru. Wannabe travel specialist. Hipster-friendly internet enthusiast. Infuriatingly humble bacon nerd. Unapologetic introvert.