August 08, 2018

Murals and Street Art of Philadelphia

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

From August 11-14, over 5,000 sociologists will convene in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the 113th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Many of the nearly 3,000 research papers, posters, and talks that will be presented at the conference will revolve around the theme of this year’s meeting: “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions.” But most other presentations will cover an incredibly wide range of topics that fit under the huge umbrella of the “scientific study of society.”

For those attending the conference one thing they are sure to see as they walk from their hotels to the Philadelphia Convention Center is the abundance of street art and murals that pepper the city’s landscape. Philadelphia is known for many things—the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence, the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philly cheese steak—but certainly among the most famous aspects of the City of Brotherly Love are the 3,600 murals that decorate the exteriors of thousands of buildings.

The city’s penchant for murals began formally in 1984 with an organization called Mural Arts Philadelphia (street artists had been active in Philly, like in most cities, for decades). Looking for a way to address unsightly graffiti, the organization began reaching out to and working with local artists to create more constructive and community-inspired art projects. To the extent that an organization can be said to be sociological, Mural Arts Philadelphia fits the bill. For over thirty years, the organization has used art as a way for “generating dialogue, building relationships, empowering communities, and sparking economic revitalization.”

For further proof of its sociological orientation, consider the mission statement of Mural Arts Philadelphia. Many of the broader themes and sentiments expressed below will no doubt be echoed by presenters at the ASA annual meeting:

  • We believe that art ignites change.
  • We create art with others to transform places, individuals, communities and institutions. Through this work, we establish new standards of excellence in the practice of public and contemporary art.
  • Our process empowers artists to be change agents, stimulates dialogue about critical issues, and builds bridges of connection and understanding.
  • Our work is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness, and progress across all of society.
  • We listen with empathetic ears to understand the aspirations of our partners and participants. And through beautiful collaborative art, we provide people with the inspiration and tools to seize their own future.

If you are interested in learning more about murals, street art, and graffiti, there is no shortage of books for you to explore. Jane Golden, who started Mural Arts Philadelphia, has written three books that highlight the murals and artists of Philadelphia: Philadelphia Murals & Stories They Tell, More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell, and Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30. If you are looking for a more global understanding you may want to check out The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti and Graffiti World (Updated Edition): Street Art from Five Continents.

For a more academic interpretation of murals, street art and graffiti—similar to what you might get if you attend a session on this theme at the ASA annual meeting—you can explore the robust scholarly literature on this topic. Much of the focus of these academic books and articles is on youth culture, feminism, intersectionality, resistance, social movements, and change. For example, some books you may want to read include Walls of Empowerment: Chicana/o Indigenist Murals of California, On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City, and Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora.

Of course the best way to get a better understanding of murals, street art and graffiti is to see such works in person. Get out, walk around, and explore the city landscape. When you happen upon a mural read the historical plaque (if one is available) and try to interpret why this mural is located in this particular part of town. You may even want to add your own interpretation of the social significance of this piece of public art.

If you happen to be in Philadelphia for the ASA meeting, you can sign up for a tour of the city’s murals (unfortunately, the ASA-sponsored tour is sold out) or download a map of a self-directed walking tour. I visited Philadelphia in December 2017 and despite the sub-freezing temperatures at the time I walked around the city and took pictures of many of the murals I encountered. I happened to be staying at a hotel very close to where the ASA annual meetings is being held so all of the following photos are within walking distance of the conference. I won’t tell you where these murals are located specifically; instead, I’ll leave it up to you find them through your own wandering!

Pk7 Pk3

Pk7Photos courtesy of the author


Thank you for sharing these!

Get out, walk around, and explore the city landscape go!

This is a fun post! Was happy to get to see a few of these murals while I was in Philly for ASAs.

Thank you for sharing, i really enjoyed this post..

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