Did you know there’s a Roots member behind one of Philly’s newest murals?

The idea for the ASpire mural came from Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought of the Roots, in honor of his friend, fellow musician and community leader Dr. Shawn L. White. Trotter, who sits on the board of the Mural Arts program wanted to honor his friend who passed away unexpectedly last April. Mural Arts, now in its 30th year, spans more than 3,800 works of art throughout the city, each with its own backstory. In honor of their anniversary during Mural Arts month, Billy Penn is highlighting seven of the coolest murals in Philly — public art with neat histories you can see [for free!]. They may all be awesome, but not all murals are created equal.

Our guide for this tour: Mural Arts’ Brian Campbell, executive assistant to the director.

The tracks leading into Philadelphia before Psychylustro
The tracks leading into Philadelphia before Psychylustro — Image by Steve Weinik for the Mural Arts Program

1. Psychylustro

Where: Amtrak corridor leading into Philly, but you can also see it by taking the Trenton Line/Chestnut Hill West Line to the North Philadelphia station

The area surrounding the Amtrak tracks leading in to Philadelphia was a sight for sore eyes — the type of urban landscape more reminiscent of post-apocalyptic zombie films. It’s now covered in vivid colors [think hot pink and highlighter orange] thanks to artist Katharina Grosse. It’s a more interesting view as one comes in to Philly.

But what you probably didn’t know about the project was that a lot of it covered buildings that had already been “tagged over” — meaning graffiti artists had already painted there. And a lot of graffiti found along the old abandoned buildings were from serious “writers” [how graffiti artists refer to themselves] during the 1990s. Many of these writers later went on to become big names in the art world, like Steve Powers. So, before the team at Mural Arts and Grosse could start to paint over some of the buildings, they had to consult with these writers. Not all were pleased about Grosse’ project, which consists of neon colors sprayed over a wide area on the side of the tracks  — some of which covers the earlier tags. But Grosse’s work is temporary and will eventually fade — and the older tags will come to the fore again.

Photo by Adam Wallacavage for the Mural Arts Program
Photo by Adam Wallacavage for the Mural Arts Program

2. Love letter

Where: 17 S 60th St, near Market Street

“I love you” screams the giant painted necklace up on the wall. It’s one of 50 murals painted along walls that dot the Market Frankford line between 45th and 63rd streets by artist Steve Powers, which comprise the Love Letter series. This particular necklace was not just a sketch. It was an actual piece of jewelry. The woman who owned it had been photographed for the project, Campbell said, and when Powers saw the photo, he immediately knew it was going to be a mural.

The project itself came out of a true story: One of Powers’ graffiti-writer friends had tagged his own name on a wall to get a girl to notice him.  And the messages on the walls can be read as both personal messages between lovers, and a message between a person and their city.

Powers himself has strong ties with Philly, having grown up and written in graffiti through West Philly. He’s since moved onto non-grafitti (and legal!) projects, like being a Fulbright scholar in Ireland, but Love Letter is a reminder of his artistic roots and a tribute to Philly.

Photo by Steve Weinik for the Mural Arts Program
Photo by Steve Weinik for the Mural Arts Program

 3Dirty Frank’s

Where: 13th and Pine streets

Honestly, this made our list because it’s a wall of puns. Benjamin Franklin, Aretha Franklin, and a french Franc all grace the outside walls of local Philly institution Dirty Frank’s. The mural was painted by artist David McShane. Here’s a good party trick: Go impress your friends with your local knowledge by pointing out Frank “Tug” McGraw, a former Phillies pitcher. You just have to figure out which Frank he is.

litter critter
Image by Steve Weinik for the Mural Arts Program

4. Litter Critters

Where: South Street, Frankford Avenue

These are just too cute to not be featured. Okay, they’re technically not murals, they are wraps on trash cans. Created by the students in Mural Arts’ Youth for Art Education program and artists Ben Woodward and Thom Lessner, the trash cans litter (sorry) parts of Frankford Avenue and South Street. This project taught students about the environment, single stream recycling and cool graphic art — what a triple whammy.

They also help the city look a bit cooler.

Photo by Jack Ramsdale for Mural Arts Program

5. Tuskegee Airmen, They Met the Challenge

Where: 39th Street, near Chestnut

Did you know that some members of the first black aviator team in the United States ended up in Philly? They were consulted for the research behind the mural portraying the history and struggle of being part of the first black aviation squad in the U.S. Army. Fun fact, this was Mural Arts’ 3,000th work.

Photo by Steve Weinik for the Mural Arts Program

6. Peace is a Haiku Song

Where: 1425 Christian Street

This one combines the words of Common, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and our own former poet laureate and peace activist Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez, who was involved in activism around the 1985 MOVE bombing, believed haikus were a perfect medium for peaceful messages. For the mural, Sanchez asked Angelou and Morrison to contribute their own haikus.

It wasn’t just for prize-winning poets, though: People from all over Philly also sent in their own haikus for a chance to be featured on the main mural. While most of those 500 didn’t make it, Mural Arts did turn them into a book published under the same title as the mural — “Peace is a Haiku Song”.

ASpire Shawn White rendering small
Rendering by artist Ernel Martinez

 7. ASpire: The Dr. Shawn L. White  Mural Project

Where: 21st and Ellsworth streets

Shawn White, a sociologist with friends like the Roots’ Questlove and Black Thought, was a fixture in the Philadelphia community. A musician with a Ph.D, White studied the risk of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases among young black men. He started a program called SHAPE UP: Barbers Building Better Brothers, where he taught barbers in local neighborhoods how to talk about safe sex and educate young men about HIV prevention.  The mural is in honor of White, who died in April 2013 from hypertension. It will be dedicated on Nov. 1.