A brief drive through Philadelphia can often seem like a veritable urban art museum; it is impossible to travel far through the old brownstones and run-down neighborhoods without encountering a gigantic piece of street art. Over 3,600 murals are scattered throughout the city today. All colorful, enormous, and impressive, they add life to the area, providing beautiful views to longtime residents and interesting destinations for visitors. Internationally, Philadelphia is lauded as the “City of Murals,” and serves as inspiration for similar works in other cities.
The Philadelphia murals have not emerged spontaneously, but rather as the product of deliberate programming efforts by the city government. In 1984, Philadelphia’s Anti-Graffiti Network hired Jane Golden, an established muralist, to introduce the producers of graffiti to more acceptable forms of street artwork. Golden, stirred by the artistic abilities of the graffiti creators, began working to provide opportunities for them in creating new murals. In the following decades, the mural program continued to grow, and by 1996, Philadelphia’s Anti-Graffiti Network was renamed the Mural Arts Program. In combination with a nonprofit agency founded by Golden, this city agency continues to sponsor new artwork and expand Philadelphia’s mural system.
The Mural Arts Program, however, presents itself as more than an arts organization; it claims to represent a larger force for civic improvement and social change. On the program website, its mission statement reads, “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.” In many ways, the Mural Arts Program appears to work tangibly towards this goal. Annually, it coordinates arts education programs for approximately 1,800 Philadelphia young people; as the website explains, these are “offered free and targeted to at-risk youth.” Similar programs are offered to inmates at nearby prisons, who receive a stipend for their work, and to those who have recently been released. Over 300 inmates, as well as 200 juveniles, become involved in Mural Arts’ programs annually. Such outreach involves not only large-scale mural painting, but also workshops in various artistic mediums. Under the mantra, “Art Saves Lives,” Golden has established the program as a city-centric and community oriented arts organization.
Despite this, the efforts of the Mural Arts Program may seem tangential or even inauthentic as a generator of street art. Typically, the appeal of urban artwork is derived from its spontaneity and anonymity; it is created in the city from within, an expression of feelings that often go unheard in mainstream artwork, rather than as something imposed from above or organized by a government source. In fact, graffiti artists often use their work as a platform for criticizing the government and other ingrained or oppressive power structures. One key aspect of the program that may be problematic is its function as a visitor attraction: official tours by trolley, bicycle, train or foot are offered by the organization, and tickets typically cost between twenty and thirty dollars. For those of a larger budget, private tours can be arranged upon request. By using the program to promote tourism, the city reaps advantage from individuals who otherwise would not be recognized or compensated as street artists.
Perhaps the most exclusive of these tours is the “Paint the Town: Experiential Paint Tour,” in which groups may pay to meet mural artists and contribute to a current mural project (price available upon request). According to the Mural Arts website, “This unique interactive event is perfect for corporate teambuilding, conferences, civic associations, school groups and family reunions for up to 60 people.” While this is certainly an exciting attraction, it is easy to doubt whether art created in this fashion –designed privately, paraded before tourists, and painted for a price –bears any resemblance to traditional street art or genuine urban expression.
The relationship of the Mural Arts Program to graffiti, the most common example of street art, also calls its authenticity into question. From its beginning, the program has existed in reaction to, and in stark opposition to, the creation of graffiti on Philadelphia streets. Such expression is stigmatized by the organization: creators of graffiti are referred to as “graffiti writers” rather than street or graffiti “artists,” delegitimizing their contributions to urban and artistic culture. The organization’s official history states that it was formed to “eradicate the graffiti crisis plaguing the city,” and that it was designed to turn artistic energy away from “destructive graffiti writing to constructive mural painting.” The characterization of graffiti as inherently problematic vandalism, while murals represent positive contributions to city life, reflects a distinct bias towards a certain type of creative expression. Murals continue the tradition of figure painting that is traditional in Western art – although the medium and style may vary somewhat, the murals around the city still share recognizable qualities with the paintings in its famous art museum. Graffiti, by contrast, is markedly non-Bourgeois, anti-traditional style and type of visual expression. In many ways, the Mural Arts Program betrays the ingrained tendency of the establishment to support tradition, rather than innovation, in the creation of new art.
There is a distinct class bias simmering beneath the aims of the program. The city hired Jane Golden, a Stanford graduate and established muralist, to teach graffiti artists, prisoners and impoverished youth how to create public works. Golden’s bourgeois, highly educated approach to painting is seen by politicians as more desirable than the that emerges organically from lower class neighborhoods. Racial tensions are also notable in this program; by transforming graffiti into more traditional Western art, the program whitewashes a facet of primarily black Philadelphian urban culture.
This view, however, is rapidly becoming obsolete as street culture gains more recognition and prestige from mainstream society. Earlier this year, this website posted an article about the recent destruction of 5 Pointz, a building in Queens that had developed a reputation for its many and various pieces of graffiti. Throughout the article, 5 Pointz is referred to as a “graffiti Mecca,” and a “beautiful collage of street art.” Before the owner chose to paint over the work, it was recognized as a unique site where graffiti could legally flourish and be recognized. Although they eventually failed, protests and legal challenges occurred, branding the destruction of the building as an unfortunate result of gentrification, and a tragic loss of artistic richness. It is not difficult, however, to compare the attitudes that were willing to sacrifice 5 Pointz to the assumptions behind the Mural Arts Program.
Upon close inspection, the value of the Mural Arts Program seems ambiguous. On the one hand, it promotes tangible cultural contribution in neighborhoods across the city, and genuinely betters the lives of hundreds of underprivileged citizens. On the other, it confers advantages within a particular, class-and-race-biased system of values, the assumptions of which it indirectly helps to uphold. As these systems are to be questioned and challenged, however, and artistic contributions like 5 Pointz continues to expand appreciation for graffiti artists, the approaches of the Philadelphia Mural Program may very well change in the future.