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Philadelphia's Murals: More Than Just Paint

October 18, 2013 By Jeanne Anderson

Philadelphia's Mural Mile is a bit of a misnomer (walk the whole thing and you will have logged 2.5 miles) but Philadelphia as the "City of Murals" is not. If you're headed to the City of Brotherly Love, you'll see one or more of these famous pieces of public art without much trouble; after all, there are 3,600 of them! That staggering figure reflects the involvement of more than 30,000 students, artists, and former graffiti vandals, an amazing record logged throughout the last three decades.

The murals literally provide a larger-than-life outdoor gallery, even to this self-pronounced public-art-junkie. They do what public art is supposed to do: make one think, reflect anew on a traditional subject, be inspired, or just plain make you feel part of something bigger. While traveling between Philadelphia's attractions, be sure to make time to view some of Philly's best murals.

Most of the murals have been sponsored by civic organizations or businesses. Painted on the sides of empty buildings, they sit above parking lots, next to crowded sidewalks, and other well-used areas—and have become a well-loved part of the fabric of everyday Philadelphia life.

The Mural Mile is a series of 17 of these ironic paintings, on a route that winds through some of Philadelphia's most famous downtown streets. The murals cover a variety of topics, like the need to read: Tree of Knowledge, one of my favorites, sits at 13th and Market Streets, half a block from City Hall.

Others are inspired by cultural themes (Philadelphia Muses, 13th and Locust), or by Philly's diverse and colorful history (Building the City, 12th and Moravian, and Mapping Courage: Honoring W.E.B. DuBois & Engine #11, at 6th and South Streets).

Philadelphia native David Guinn painted the seasons, the panels at Philadelphia's airport, and Gimme Shelter, at 13th and Lombard. This last piece commemorates pets who found their forever families after being adopted. Check out the details on the animal's faces!

This month (October 2013), the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program begins to commemorate its 30th anniversary, a year-long celebration which includes a retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (November-April 2014) and the release of a new book called Mural Arts @ 30.

The murals have faced their share of controversy, however, notably a few years ago when the new owners of the vacant lot next to Autumn built their three-story home and covered up Guinn's mural. (For two perspectives on the issue, click here and here.) That incident revealed how strongly area citizens feel about the artworks in their neighborhoods.

What was once just an idea to counter a city-wide problem with graffiti on otherwise unsightly walls, the murals program is widely credited with channeling community-wide creative energy to positive uses. Mural-making has changed the lives of literally hundreds of at-risk kids by teaching life skills like collaboration, team-building, and creative problem-solving. It serves as a national model for restorative justice by offering opportunities in its "re-entry program" for those recently released from prison.

Today, it continues its mission "to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives," and assert the fundamental belief that "art can ignite change." In fact, the personal and professional mantra of Jane Golden, the visionary who started the murals program, is "Art Saves Lives." Powerful stuff. They're nice to just look at, too.

To find out more:
The Mural Arts Program makes it easy to learn more about the artwork, especially those along the Mural Mile:

  • Download a full explanation of each of the murals via a free podcast. What's best about the narration is that it's provided by the artists themselves, the companies or groups that sponsored them, and even some of the celebrities honored in the pieces.
  • Print out a map of the Mural Mile in Google maps or from the Mural Mile page.
  • Sign up to join a guided walking tour on the Mural Arts Program "tour page." Act fast, though; the "season" ends this month.
  • Do the walking tour as a self-guided exploration.
  • See several of the Mural Mile murals on-board the Philadelphia Trolley Works and Big Bus Company. You don't have to walk far to see others, though, as nearly all of the 17 featured murals in the Mural Mile are within a couple of blocks of the regular route.
  • Call the audio tour number (215-525-1577) from your cell-phone and insert the number of the mural you're interested in to hear the podcast blurb one mural at a time.
  • Preview the Mural Mile album on the Facebook page of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
  • Like the Facebook page (hyperlink: ) and you'll see the "Mural of the Day" and can follow upcoming events.
  • Reserve a spot for a mural-arts-specific "trolley tour" (admission is NOT included in your CityPASS® tickets).

Philly's murals by the numbers:

  • 35 feet: average width
  • A three-story row house: average height
  • $10,000-$15,000: average cost
  • 300: average number of artists employed by the Murals Program each year
  • 1,800: average number of young people involved each year
  • 600: number of murals painted as part of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (2001-2004)
  • 600 feet: length of the longest mural (History of Immigration wraps around two corners, under the overpass at Callowhill and 2nd Streets, just north of Old City)

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