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!

A large building with a mural on the side. The mural depicts well dressed people in various stages of lounging in a Grecian style. The people depicted are white and black
A large building with a mural on the side. The mural depicts a large tree. Men with ladders are climbing the ladders and looking through the branches. 2 buildings with signs reading 12th Street gym. The larger building has a mural on the side. On the left of the mural there is a portrait of a woman with glasses and short hair framed in an orange circle. The bottom right of the mural shows that same woman speaking to a group of protestors. The top right of the mural shows two men in an intimate embrace

A large building rises over a Subway and Express Food Mart and their subway. The large building has a mural. The mural depicts various black people in the arts. Some are performing gymnastics, some are dancing, and some are in very fashionable dresses.
An electrical box, about the height of a human, is on the sidewalk with a mural on its back. The mural depicts flowers, ladybugs, and grass.
A large red bricked building with a mural on its side. The mural depicts the outside of a building that is undergoing construction. There are various statues and people outside the building. Men are working on the building. They are on scaffolding and painting, and on the grounds mixing concrete.
A mural on the side of the building. The mural is composed of a mosaic of glass pieces. At various points there are drawn images of heads, human and dog, where the glass pieces have formed a body. The top of the mural has red glass, and the bottom has blue and green. Also at the bottom is text reading While Everything is Happening.
On the back of two phone booths there are two photos blown up and pasted. The phone booth on the left has an image of a memorial by a utility pole. The phone booth on th eright is a black and white image of a pregnant woman.
A large building with a mural on its side. The mural depicts a snowy scene with tress without leaves and buildings identical to the one the mural is painted on
A building has a mural on its side. The mural depicts green, white and pink trees. The background of the mural is rendered in blocks of color
A large industrial building has a mural on its side. The mural depicts a young black child with his hand up. In his hand are are a glowing sphere, a black woman in a thoughtful pose, and a blue flower, he is looking at those things in wonder. From the sphere there is text coming out. Around his neck there is a necklace with 3 lockets, one shows Abraham Lincoln, one shows Frderick Douglas, and one shows a coin of a man praying. On the left hand side of the mural there are a ship's planks, a broken mask, and part of a world map showing Africa.
A large building with a mural on the side. The mural depicts well dressed people in various stages of lounging in a Grecian style. The people depicted are white and black
A large building with a mural on the side. The mural depicts a large tree. Men with ladders are climbing the ladders and looking through the branches.Photos courtesy of the author

Comments

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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I love the quality of the photos! Thank you for sharing this post, it is very informative.

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