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Philly’s murals, on foot: What it’s like to run through public art (part one)

You’ve seen them through the windows of the car, or maybe the El. But Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program — began as an answer to the city’s graffiti problem — looks a lot different on foot. There’s even a handy walking tour on the Mural Arts site, complete with a podcast.

But is an audio tour really necessary, considering anyone can see these murals any time? Billy Penn put the tour to the test.

How the Mural Mile Tour works

This is ridiculously easy. Grab your phone, grab your headphones and select your route. You can call each mural’s number listed on your map to hear audio about each piece of art. Fair warning: I tried the Mural Mile South tour and encountered a bug. The mp3 audio hasn’t been updated to match the map, so call the numbers instead to get the correct information about each mural.

On the Mural Mile

I ran the Mural Mile South route, which on the podcast runs from Independence Mall to South St., but on the map loops back around on 13th St. to end at City Hall. Why? Well, there’s a new mural map on the site, but the podcast doesn’t include some of the new works. So I improvised. I chose to run (that Broad Street Run is coming!), but you could easily walk this route.

I jogged into a parking lot at 707 Chestnut St. and stopped in the middle. As I stared straight at the mural, I realized immediately that doing this tour was different than every other time I had passed by the murals.

Making the mural the destination changes everything about it. The work seemed important and vital—like I was in a museum I might not visit again. I clicked play and a beautiful, melancholic piece of chamber music built up in my headphones.

"Legacy" by Joshua Sarantitis. Photo by Gina Tremaine

"Legacy" by Joshua Sarantitis. Photo by Gina Tomaine

The narrators explained that this mural was called “Legacy.” Artist Josh Sarantitis and inmates from Graterford Prison, with additional help from a student program, created it to depict the history of slavery and racial oppression in the U.S. The map of Africa, the wooden planks, and the iron shackles on the left represented a slave ship, but the shackles doubled to symbolize the fact that current prisoners were creating this mural.

“These men aren’t here in a vacuum,” Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden popped in to explain. “They have kids; they have grandkids. What we want their message to be is, ‘this might be my life. It does not have to be yours.'”

On the right of the huge mural, the space brightened and a young African American girl stood with an abolitionist coin reading, “Am I not a woman and sister?” surrounded by small portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. I stood listening to powerful stories of loss and redemption in an open parking lot, as people walking busily by glanced at me, and then back at the mural a couple times, as if to try to catch something they were missing.

The Parking Lot Tour

I quickly learned on my run that murals in Philly are often in parking lots. Ousseynou Dia, originally from Mali, in West Africa, lives in Chestnut Hill and has been working at the Eighth and Ranstead parking lot under “A People’s Progression Toward Equality” for eight months. “It’s nice to see something beautiful every day,” Dia said. “You can tell it’s about multicultural unity, everybody black and white represented here.”

The “Tree of Knowledge” mural overlooks another parking lot at 13th and Market streets. In this lot, there was another passerby taking photos of the mural. Rodney Zion, from Israel, was touring the city for just one day.

“It’s surprising to see them,” he said of the murals. “You’re probably rushing somewhere, then you see this beautiful art, and you stop, and look, and enjoy.”

"Philadelphia Muses" by Meg Saligman. Photo by Gina Tremaine

"Philadelphia Muses" by Meg Saligman. Photo by Gina Tomaine

At the “Philadelphia Muses” at 1235 Locust St., I met Riley Platt, a West Philly resident and graduate student at UPenn who walks by this mural almost every day. Platt knew about the anti-graffiti, pro-art movement of the Mural Arts program, and said that whether someone is involved in art or not, “Even passively, even subliminally, it’s so much better than a plain brick wall.”

It’s A Small World

"Garden of Delight" by David Guinn. Photo by Gina Tremaine

"Garden of Delight" by David Guinn. Photo by Gina Tomaine

A third of the way through my journey, I arrived at Philadelphia artist David Guinn’s colorful mural “Garden of Delight” on Sartain Street, and introduced myself to the three people talking under it to ask them about the mural.

The woman gestured to her left, and said, “This is the artist.”

Seriously? I introduced myself to Guinn, as he happened to be narrating this piece of my tour through my headphones. Guinn has been painting murals for 17 years, and his next project is above Shake Shack at 20th and Sansom.

"Mural at Dirty Franks" by David McShane. Photo by Gina Tremaine

"Mural at Dirty Franks" by David McShane. Photo by Gina Tomaine

Along the rest of my tour I talked with the bartender at iconic Dirty Frank’s about the mural outside the bar. The retired 70-year-old Philadelphian remembers the days of heavy graffiti, and the firefighters at Engine 11 on 6th and South St, the ‘tender (who wanted to stay anonymous) said people passing by love the mural outside their building.

The Lost Mural

Overall, the tour was a complete success: the directions were easy to follow from mural to mural, and the audio over cell phone works incredibly well, and provides a real, visceral experience of the meaning and history behind the art. You could do this yourself, with visitors from out of town, or even on a date or with friends.

At the end of my tour however, I hit one big hold-up: I thought I was lost, or crazy, because I had somehow misplaced a mural. I ran back and forth, searching the side of every building around Ninth and Bainbridge for Guinn’s “Autumn” mural. Turns out, a new building now covers up the neighborhood favorite.

“It was hard to see that one go,” Guinn told me later. “Particularly because it meant a lot to people in the neighborhood. People were very upset. Someone tattooed a part of the mural on their arm. Neighbors were prepared to spend a lot of money to buy back the lot from the developer. It was very moving. The mural meant something to them. They related to it. It had become a part of their lives.”

But there’s a postscript to that sad story. Guinn painted an autumn themed mural in Bella Vista a few years back, called “Autumn Revisited,” in Palumbo park, on the side of Fleisher Art Memorial at 719 Catharine Street.

In the new mural, Guinn told me later, his daughter is holding a stuffed bunny that the original little girl was holding in the original mural. “In the original mural there was a figure of a little girl holding a bird, which symbolized her brother who was about to be born in 2001 when I painted the mural,” the artist said. “In the new mural, “Autumn Revisited,” there are three figures. The girl and her brother from the original mural, as they are now (teenagers) plus my daughter, who was about the same age in 2012 as the original little girl was in 2001.”

I also talked to Katherine O’Morchoe, Manager of Tours and Merchandising at Mural Arts, who explained that this unfortunately happens with some frequency, as Mural Arts doesn’t own the wall or the buildings. “That’s just the life of a mural,” she said.

That morning, however, I listened to the audio of Guinn, whom I had just met, describing the “Autumn” mural, and watched the brick building standing where art used to stand. Guinn said, “I think that what art does is remind us of, or connect us with our deepest selves. Some people would say art connects us with something greater than ourselves. That’s what I want my murals to do.”

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