While in most cities around the world street art is considered an act of vandalism, in the city of Philadelphia is used to change lives.
It was my first afternoon in Philadelphia, I just arrived from Germany and decided to go for a walk. It was also my first time in this city and I simply wanted to get lost in between the skyscrapers at the center. It was only until I passed next to the Municipal Service Building and saw the distinctive mural in its windows that I had to check out in the map where I was and find out what this impressive artwork represented. “Portraits of Justice” is a piece featuring 17 portraits of men and women who once spent time in jail. The piece is presented at the long rectangular windows of the Municipal Service Building, giving the impression that these faces are behind some bars.
It was created in 2018 and symbolizes de difficult path many formerly incarcerated men and women still have in order to reentry society.
This is not the only mural in Philadelphia that talks about social inequality and difficulties in the United States. At 2536 N Front St in northern Philadelphia, Chilean artist Ian Pierce created one of the most political and powerful murals I´ve seen. “Families belong together” discusses a disturbing reality of modern America with the stricter immigration laws of the past months towards Hispanics crossing the border.
The city program that promotes street art
Like most of the city murals, “Families belong together” was created in cooperation with the Mural Arts Program, a nonprofit organization that educates children in arts and collaborates with professional artists promoting the creation of murals in the city of Philadelphia. Founded in the 1980´s, the Mural Arts Program began as an anti-graffiti initiative and a legal way to promote street art. More than 30 years later, the program has created more than 3000 murals of over the city, including the impressive piece “History of Immigration”: a 180 m length mural which displays the different ethnicities who settled in the Philadelphia area.
Travelers can plan a tour exploring the street art of Philadelphia themselves. The Mural Arts Program has interactive map at muralarts.org, in which visitors can learn about the different murals, the artists behind it and the exact location of these pieces. For me, I decided to go with a tour and learn about the Mural Arts Program by one of the members itself. I could not only get more details about the program and the benefits for the community, but also hear amusing and interesting anecdotes the guide told us about his time working with the program.
“I used to go to the Mural Arts Program as a kid right after school”, said my tour guide Barry. He took part in the program more than 20 years ago and told me how street art became a big part of his life – he even pointed one or two pieces he worked on many years ago.
Barry also argued how the Mural Arts Program helps children with difficult backgrounds to focus their energy in creating beautiful art all over the city. “The program is not only improving the quality of life of the children in Philadelphia. It also hires more than 100 prosecuted graffiti taggers every year and helps them get involved in the creation of more professional murals around the city – it gives them a second chance to become real artists”, he concluded.
Each year, more than 15.000 people tour the artwork made in collaboration with the Mural Arts Program. The program has become big part of Philadelphia´s identity and symbolizes change and inspiration for future generations.
Street art is getting more acceptance every day. In Berlin, a museum dedicated to street art was opened in 2017 and more contemporary art galleries are using street art pieces as part of their exhibitions. Philadelphia is the best example of how a city turned street art´s bad image and open the largest open-air art exhibition in the world.