The city of Philadelphia is known for many things -- cheese steaks, the Liberty Bell, the Rocky statue -- not to mention being the birthplace of America. But now, the City of Brotherly Love can boast one more sight to see -- colorful murals painted by locals are transforming Philadelphia's neighborhoods into outdoor art museums.
There are more than 3,000 murals in Philly today; it's a challenge to walk through Center City without passing a painting. The murals are collaborations between the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and local citizens -- who get involved to beautify their communities, connect with neighbors and fight graffiti and crime.
"When I think about the murals of this city, I really think it's like the autobiography of Philadelphia," says Jane Golden, the director of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program.
In the past 26 years, Golden has helped convert more than 3,000 walls into murals.
One of those murals is called "Legacy." Located in a parking lot, the nearly 10,000-square-foot mural shows a girl holding the flame of liberty. Around her neck are two medals -- depicting Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass -- and an 1838 abolitionist coin from England that reads: "Am I not a woman and a sister."
"It is all about the dignity of the human spirit; it's about resilience," Golden says.
Since 1984, Golden has collaborated with everyone from school kids, cops, prisoners and senior citizens to plan and paint murals. The first murals Golden painted with graffiti artists showed people that art in the city streets could be just as significant as art in galleries and museums -- and it could be accessible to everyone.
"What I love about the outdoor art in this city is that it is like going through a museum," Golden explains. "You come up with your own personal interpretations, and it moves you, and it inspires you, and it challenges you."
Healing A City
With the murals Golden oversees, the challenges start even before the paintbrushes come out. Before any mural comes to life, a community has to come together, put in a request, and meet to decide on images. In 2004, community leaders from Mantua, a West Philadelphia neighborhood known as "The Bottom," submitted an ambitious request. They wanted to paint murals on two apartment buildings that bordered a field trashed with glass shards and old tires.
Today, the junk in the vacant Mantua lots has been replaced by a park -- a trend that can attract developers.
"They say that they feel that it is safer to build in Mantua," Golden says. " I know that what we're doing isn't a solution for all that is wrong with the city ... [but] murals show us the catalytic role that art can play in healing a city," Golden says.
People repeatedly told Golden the murals wouldn't last -- that they would just get covered with graffiti again. But only a few have ever been defaced. The bigger challenge is getting everyone on the same page.
"What's controversial to one community may not be to another community," she says. "We have run into projects that have been difficult, complicated, have stirred up acrimony."
(For one particularly divisive project, a Quaker mediator was brought in.)
Communities sometimes work on a mural for years, without any guarantee it won't get covered up or torn down. Golden has seen a handful of her murals disappear over the years; but she understands murals are in a constant state of flux -- just like the city.
And as the city evolves, so do the murals. On top of creating an audio tour for visitors, Golden is encouraging artists to mix in new technologies with their paint.
One mural in progress, called "The Evolving Face of Nursing," incorporates LED lighting.
The 6,000-square-foot painting features portraits of leading nurses throughout the city whose faces are lit with LED lighting that changes color throughout the night. The faces will transform on the wall as they appear, and glow and shift in color.
This October, the Mural Arts Program will unveil dozens of new murals. In the meantime, Golden is busy hunting for more walls.