October 2008 marked the 25th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program (MAP).
The program originally started as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network and its original goal was both to beautify the city and employ graffiti artists as muralists to redirect their creative energy. Since its inception, more than 2,800 murals depicting scenic views, portraits of community heroes and abstract creations adorn outdoor spaces, making it the largest public art program in the United States. Each mural represents a community effort, and the city’s residents are an integral part of the creative process, conceiving and creating the murals and taking art classes offered by the Mural Arts Program at schools and recreation centers. Professional artists are employed to design and oversee the creation of the murals.
For example, a towering portrait of singer/actor Frank Sinatra and another called Summary of Mummery (a uniquely Philadelphia New Year’s parade) enliven a South Philadelphia neighborhood. Sports stars, authors and artists are also honored with murals throughout the city. Other murals such as The Secret Book, showing a thoughtful, young woman, and Peace Wall, a mural depicting children with different skin tones clasping hands, create powerful messages on once barren or graffiti-covered walls.
“The making of a mural enters peoples’ collective memory as an extraordinarily positive moment in each neighborhood’s history,” said Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program. Golden recently co-authored “Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell”, which explains how the program began and shows (with exquisite photography) how it has succeeded. The popularity of the program has grown significantly and Golden travels the world teaching cities how to start their own mural arts program.
The average mural is about the size of a Philadelphia row house – three stories high (35 feet) by 30 feet across, and range in size from one-story projects to an eight-story high mural. The average mural takes approximately two months to complete.
Visitors can get a look at the nation’s largest outdoor art program on private and group tours. Knowledgeable docents lead tours to inspirational murals and provide behind-the-scenes insights into how a mural is created – from conception of the design, to the number of paint cans used – and the stories behind the art.
The Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PCVB) works with the Mural Arts Program to offer experiential tours for groups who want a hands-on, behind-the-scenes experience. The tours include a mural tour, meeting with a mural artist and the opportunity to actually paint part of a mural. The Mural Arts Program is also included in the PCVB’s list of voluntourism opportunities where groups can participate in the mural making process during MAP’s community paint days, which is open to the public and held several times throughout the year.
Public tours are offered every Saturday from April through November at 12:30 p.m., Sundays from May through November at 12:30 p.m., and Wednesdays May through November at 10:00 a.m. The tours depart from the Independence Visitor Center at 6th &Market streets. The tour costs $25 for adults, $23 for seniors 65 and older, $15 for children 3-10, and is free for children under 2.
The tours journey through Philadelphia’s diverse neighborhoods and tell the fascinating stories behind each community’s mural. Visitors and locals alike come away with a deeper appreciation of the complexities of mural making and an understanding of how art has the power to transform lives.