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Mural, Mural on the Wall
Augustin Kendall

Philadelphia is a colorful city. No, not the kind of colorful that suggests strangely dressed people who will verbally assault you on the subway with their spiritual visions, or regular occurrences of organized public nudity. (Although there is that, too--check out the annual Philly Naked Bike Ride). I'm talking about vibrant color splattered artfully in mural form across buildings all over the city. Not graffiti, not movie or music ads masquerading as art (I'm looking at you, New York), but murals contracted and underwritten by the city itself via the Mural Arts Program (MAP).

Waverly Mural
MAP started in 1984 as one of three projects of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (founded that same year). Jane Golden took on the mission of connecting to graffiti artists and convincing them to redirect their creative expressions. Does that sound like an easy task to you? The astounding success of the program makes it seem so, but I can only imagine the conversations that took place in the early days between Golden and the proud taggers of the city. Slowly but surely, however, Golden redirected some of those artists. In 2006, 36 of the program's full-time employees were former graffiti artists. (Though I have to wonder about the "former" qualifier; mightn't they just have taken new names, developed new styles, and continued their personal decoration methods? Not all graffiti is bad graffiti.) Hundreds of artists have been supported by the program every year; to date, the mural count is somewhere around 3,000. MAP also provides youth art education, takes a harm-reduction approach to local crime by employing ex-offenders and hosting programs in various correctional facilities, and develops larger-scale art projects.

Last year's special project was Love Letter, a series of 50 murals located along the El track between 45th and 63rd streets. Steve Powers, one of the above-mentioned graffiti artists who spent his early years tagging West Philly and refused to join the program way back when, designed and spearheaded the installation. The best way to tour this collection is to hop on the Market-Frankford Line westbound at 46th Street. Some of the murals are best viewed in this direction, while others will be more visible during the eastbound leg of the trip. By the time you travel to 63rd Street Station and back, you'll have passed all 50 murals. A street-level trip is also an option, of course, but you might have to work harder to see many of the pieces; they're designed to be viewed from the train tracks.

Completed by the end of 2009, the signs, as Powers calls them, express sentiments of a people to their neighborhood, a neighborhood to its people, and a guy to a girl. That is the description of the project you’ll find all over the Internet. Following is more personal comment on his work from an interview with Art Observed.

As far as murals go, in the context of murals in Philadelphia you are thinking of these three stories high elaborate hallucinatory fables of positivity. And what we are putting on the table is a much more direct verbal experience, that is a natural experience that's speaking to the give and take of everyday life. It’s positive in the fact that it is saying love exists but it also says: "love exists but you have to work for it every day of your life."

Powers also opines on what graffiti is (and isn't) and shares his thoughts about the value of his work; it's an interview worth reading. Check out this map of the murals to find favorites, and the project blog for random bits of information about Love Letter and other things on Steve Powers' mind.

What started with graffiti artists has become the most successful public art project in the country (according to the Philly Inquirer, at least). There are tours aplenty if you want to see notable pieces. The program website offers six different tour options, or a map for a self-guided (and free) option. Philadelphia's visitor center adds a couple of variations to the tour mix. These tours include some of the most socially relevant and important murals in the city, blah, blah, etc. That is, they're great for tourists. It's true that many murals represent local culture, landscapes, and people, but there are so many others to be appreciated because they're just nice to look at. Or weird. Or not that good but still unexplainably irresistible. So here's a different flavor of mural tour. It's short in number, but covers a lot of ground. I bring you six murals in a day, and five spots for eating and drinking along the way.

We start on the Spring Garden Bridge, just west of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At one point in the past, there were excellent views of the city from this bridge. Now there are metal walls. To make up for the loss of the view (I entirely fabricated the causal effect there, so don't repeat it) those metal walls are covered with murals. Or one big mural, I'm not sure--rows of faces looking every which way on both sides of the street. I was so distracted by the sudden appearance of faces that I almost fell off my bike the first time I rode over this bridge. I'm not particularly stunned by the artistry of most of these faces, but this mural remains in my top 5 list. The creepy toddler face probably cinched it.

Once you start to feel eerily watched from all directions, head east over Spring Garden, onto Ben Franklin and down 21st Street. Two blocks south, on the corner of Spring Street, you'll find Darling's Café. Go inside and eat cheesecake; think of it as storing energy for the next leg of this mural adventure. They make a good pumpkin cheesecake, and that's not easy in my book (of course, if a cheesecake café couldn't handle that, they'd need to change their marketing angle).

From here, head south on 21st (I highly recommend the Mütter Museum on 22nd just below Market for a different kind of viewing experience if you can stomach deformed fetuses in jars). Make your way over to 15th and Pine. If you're the shopping sort, go east on Walnut. If you're the people-viewing sort, cut through Rittenhouse Square. If you're some other sort, I'm sure you can find a nice path to the destination. Walk down the west side 15th Street. Halfway between Pine and Lombard is an alley called Waverly Place. You'll see the first chunk of this mural on the brick wall as you approach, but you'll have to turn onto Waverly for the rest of it. It's some sort of fantasy-imbued modern pin-up-styled Asian-fetishistic harmony with nature scene. I think. Maybe one of the hallucinatory fables of positivity Powers was referring to. The inset shows a close-up of the genius sometimes found in the process cityscape artistry. In simpler terms: there's a cable cord coming out of the mouth of the crouched woman in black.

Tree Man
Back at 15th and Pine, walk one block west to La Citadelle, one of the most understated high quality coffee shops ever to grace center city. The owner serves La Colombe--made well (flavor from the best coffee beans can still be ruined in preparation). He also offers snacks, free wireless, and outlets. There is a pseudo-secret room off the main space, so don't be put out if the few tables in the front are taken. I recommend a coffee beverage of some sort and a few minutes' rest if you need it.

Now that you're sufficiently caffeinated, turn left on 16th and walk a couple of blocks down to South Street. On the southeast corner of that intersection is the tree-man. Jacob Landeau Brandywine, the artist, included a description of his creation at the bottom of the piece: "Tree-man is a bridge between humankind and the natural order... ." Sounds about right. I like how this mural manages to be what it is without employing an earth tones-only palette and overly obvious imagery. Word on the street is there's development happening in the empty lot directly next to the mural wall, so before long tree-man will be covered by yet another set of condos. How very appropriate. See it while you still can.

The next mural is just a half-stop on the way to more eating. Check out the multi-panel piece on South Street between 16th and 15th, on and of the Royal Theater. The theater has been closed since 1970 (after 50 years of shows), but in 2005 Eric Okdeh recaptured a bit of its spirit with his mural (and that’s the only culturally relevant tour guide-speak you'll get from me).

One short block east of the Royal, you'll find Sweet Freedom Bakery. Although vegan baked goods are not that hard to come by in this city (at least outside of center city), Sweet Freedom is all vegan, all the time. And they didn't stop there; they are also gluten-free and allergen-friendly (no nuts, no wheat, no soy, no corn). I was raised by hippies, so the list of ingredients they do use was relatively familiar. If it's not to you, take my advice and try them anyway. Their products are not your average first-generation vegan baked good (there's no spelt). If you take a cupcake with you and offer it to the most meat-and-potatoes person you know, they will not know the difference. You might as well tell them it's from Philly Cupcake, the new gourmet cupcake shop in town. I suggest doing just that. It's pretty amusing to watch someone who doesn't know that vegans and vegetarians eat different things (and that none of it is seafood) enjoy a cupcake made with chickpea flour and arrowroot. More so if you list the ingredients while they're still licking their fingers. Changing the world one person at a time, right? I've been going on about cupcakes, but everything else there is also highly recommended. Now back to the art.

Out the door to the right is the next mural on our tour. It's hard to miss; it's one of the many let's-cover-the-entire-exposed-wall-of-a-3-story-building murals Philly has to offer. Three guys playing billiards, set off by a parking lot sign. I like all pool hall imagery (yes, I know that billiards is not pool), I like the color scheme, and I like the direct stare that guy is giving the city. Every time I see this mural I have a creeping suspicion that he must be some important historical figure or other. (And if he is, please excuse my ignorance and leave a comment somewhere naming him.) But I like it partly because he's not. He's just a guy playing pool, not doing anything life-changing or somehow representing a social movement, in a 3-story high mural. John Lewis is the artist (he has created at least nine other murals across the city), and probably the only person who really knows about the guy in the mural.

Keep walking east on South until you reach Second Street. The last mural on this tour is at Second and Christian. The last filling-the-belly stop is on Second between Pine and Lombard. Your choice. The mural is unremarkable in most ways, a pastel impressionistic mishmash of forest with a nice walking path. Its only saving grace is Sherlock Holmes, hidden somewhere in the trees. Honestly, he's not hard to find. Unless you go to Dark Horse Pub first, get wasted, and then check out the mural. For the visually challenged (whether you drank yourself blind or have some other impairment), there's an inset of Sherlock in the lower left-hand corner in case you can't find him on the wall.

When you do visit Dark Horse (and by most accounts, you definitely should), you'll have a number of rooms to choose from; one review likened the space to a tree house. They have an acceptably decent beer selection (English pub decent, not Fiume decent) and an apparently great scotch and whiskey selection. In case you haven't guessed yet, I have not actually been here, but if I ever decide to hang out on that side of the city it will be my first stop.

And that's the end of our tour. Try it backwards after you've spent the evening at Dark Horse; it will be a whole new experience.

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