Letters of love

Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program worked with artist Stephen Powers in creating bold messages to inspire the community. The results merge graffiti with the city’s signwriting traditions

T he 50 large-scale murals that form Philadelphia’s Love Letter project continue a signwriting tradition that has seen graphic art permeate the cityscape for generations. The brightly painted aphorisms have been compared to enormous analogue versions of text messages; some are as high as a three storey house, others run the full length of a rooftop wall. But their creation is the result of a 25-year commit-ment by the city’s groundbreaking Mural Arts Program to bring public art to the streets of Philadelphia.

When graffiti started to appear in the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the authorities tried an unusual tactic to stem the flow of new, albeit illegal, urban art. The Mural Arts Program was set up in 1984 as part of a wider anti-graffiti initiative that would, through the commissioning of outdoor murals, focus the energies of the city’s street artists towards community-based art projects, transforming local neighbourhoods in the process. To date there are over 3,000 murals in the city, making Mural Arts one of the largest public arts initiatives in the US and, apparently, providing Philadelphia with the auspicious title of City of Murals.

In June this year a new initiative from Mural Arts was launched. An ambitious project from the outset, Love Letter sought to create a series of over 50 rooftop murals and street-level pieces in and around the Market Street corridor of West Philadelphia. The project, as Mural Arts put it, would aim to “collectively express a love letter from a guy to a girl, from an artist to his hometown, and from local residents to their West Philadelphia neighbourhood”. And in a further, heartwarming twist, two-thirds of the murals would be positioned so they were viewable from the two mile stretch of the city’s Market-Frankford Subway Elevated Line (known locally as the ‘El’) a route serving around 160,000 commuters a day.

To steer the project, Mural Arts worked with Philadelphia native, Stephen Powers, who, in his time, had tagged and spray- painted many a wall on the city’s streets. Powers now works as an artist and sign-painter – he has exhibited work at Deitch Projects in New York and the Venice Biennale – and for Love Letter was responsible for gathering a host of different artists together to create a series of life-affirming, positive statements in some of the city’s most disenfranchised areas.

Powers currently works out of New York and saw an opportunity to create something special back in his home town; a kind of return to mark-making that, despite historic differences, would pair him with the very organisation that once tried to curtail his artistic expression. “There were maybe 100 multicoloured name murals, to borrow Norman Mailer’s term, on the Market line between 46th and 63rd when I started painting my name there in 1985,” recalls Powers. “Sometime around 2000 they all got painted brown. It was inevitable in the city that invented the anti-graffiti government agency that the walls would be painted, but what I was interested in was why nobody cared, or at least noticed, when everything got painted over. I think people viewed the names as just more advertising and, as such, invested no real feelings in them and didn’t take ownership of them. I took that lesson to heart in Love Letter and tried to put up work that was accessible and easy for people to claim as their own.”

Powers bemoans the committee-led approach to many of the murals that were created through the original Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network but sees the role of Jane Golden, Mural Arts’ founder and executive director, as key to getting the city authorities to recognise the restorative power of art within an urban environment. “When I saw the community work Jane was accomplishing in a city so divided, I got onboard with what Mural Arts is doing,” says Powers. “They’re an amazing organisation … in the course of bringing communities together, they happen to make murals of positive people looking hopeful to the future,” he says.

Powers’ messages of hope would be different, however, primarily in the use of text at the forefront of each mural’s design. “The whole Love Letter project was a sign-painting exercise,” he explains. “In 25 years Mural Arts hasn’t made a mural that was purely text and there was an early debate in the process when I said there would be no imagery. I relented as far as incorporating imagery that pushed the words further.”

In a way, Love Letter is also an extension of Philadelphia’s strong graphic traditions. “We incorporated Philly graffiti and graphics into every wall we did,” says Powers. “And on the walls that had faded signage or trace remnants of graffiti, we maintained those elements to promote a legacy of visual language.”

As for deciding what to actually write in each of the 50 locations, Powers makes the process sound easy. “We had lists of suggestions from community meetings to draw from and many were improvised on the day they were painted,” he says. “We drew a lot of good ideas right off the street
as we worked. There’s a guy who’s trying to come up with a phrase for us to paint at the moment and I’m directing him in the process. But mostly it’s ‘think it, sketch it on a napkin, pass it to someone in the workshop’ and it gets painted.”

 

PHILADELPHIA’S MURAL ARTS PROGRAM SINCE 1984

The Mural Arts Program began life in 1984 as a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, an effort to combat the rise in graffiti across the city. The pagn hired muralist Jane Golden to try and refocus the creative talents of graffiti writers towards mural painting. As the map grew, the pagn was absorbed into it in 1996, with Golden becoming map’s executive director.

Under her leadership the Program has evolved into a hybrid of a city agency and a nonprofit organisation which creates public art in partnership with a range of community stakeholders, schools and local nonprofits and agencies. To date it has created more than 3,000 murals.

Phillip Adams and Jackie Robinson by David McShane

Spring by David Guinn (Photos: Jack Ramsdale for MAP)

Abandoned lots have been regenerated and open spaces reclaimed through MAP’s work, while its free art education initiatives seek to improve the lives of some 2,000 young people a year.

More at muralarts.org.

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