Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has become a world leader in public art and community involvement with the amazing 4,000 murals it has supported now gracing the exterior walls of all types of buildings. Many of them, like “Building the City” above, use trompe l’oeil techniques that make you look twice: where does the building end and the mural begin?!
The roots of the program are in an initiative city government began 30 years ago to combat graffiti. But it has gone far beyond that limited goal, to become a positive force in the community, with a rich array of activities and initiatives. A key success factor was the decision to create a nonprofit organization to run the program, which allows it to raise money and increase its annual budget manyfold. Now only $1 in $6 comes from City of Philadelphia coffers.
The murals are community projects in every sense, in that neighborhood people actively participate in decisions about what and whom each mural should depict, and they also may help actually create the mural. The technology for producing murals has advanced in ways that enable groups as diverse as schoolchildren and prison inmates to help. Inmates are taught program-related job skills that may help them find future employment. Graffiti is rarely a problem on walls with murals, and community murals can motivate local development and pride. As MAP director Jane Golden says, “Art ignites change.”
In the old days, scaffolding or cherry-pickers were used to lift painters to the top of their big outdoor “canvas.” Some murals are still produced that way, with paint applied directly to the carefully prepared wall. Today, however, many murals are painted in pieces—usually five feet by five feet—on parachute cloth, which is what allows them to be worked on off-site. The painted cloths pieces are then glued in place on the wall. Over the years, paints used in the murals have improved too.
Because of UV protection, they are less likely to fade, and are expected to last from 25 to 30 years. Eight to 10 are scheduled for refurbishment each year. Although most of the murals are painted, some are partially or wholly completed in ceramic tiles.
The Mural Arts Program offers many guided tours—by neighborhood, by theme, by artist—allowing visitors to explore this remarkable public resource. Some of the tours are by trolley, segway, or bicycle. People who want go their own way will find a guide online. Many murals have collateral information available by app or phone.
Enlarging Your Travel Circle:
- Philadelphia is less than 50 miles away when you’re visiting Wilmington (33 miles)
- About 100 miles away when you’re in New York (96) or Baltimore (101) and
- Only 140 miles away when you’re in Washington, D.C.