A mural in progress. Photos by Philly Painting Crew.

Philly has 3,600 murals and counting thanks to the efforts of the Mural Arts Program. The program, which is nationally recognized, began in 1984 as an anti-graffiti initiative under Mayor Wilson Goode. It has changed a lot since then. In a recent profile by Philadelphia Magazine, the program’s founder, Jane Golden, said that “We’ve become pro-art, not anti-anything.”

Even if the program has added public art projects that aren’t murals (like public gardens and outdoor classrooms) to their portfolio, those murals are still their signature. Here’s how Philly’s murals are born.

How does a mural start?

Murals start in a number of ways: Either from an idea by an artist or anyone interested in creating a mural. A large number of the murals come from the programs that Mural Arts hosts, like the Porch Light program, which works with individuals who have mental health needs to create murals that benefit their community.

Community murals – which fall outside the purview of the different programs at Mural Arts – often start out with an application. And yep, the application process is online.

Okay, so who can apply for a mural and are they likely to be successful?

Pretty much anyone who has an idea can apply, though Mural Arts says that applications are “approved based on the extent to which they satisfy our basic requirements (e.g. community and organizational support).” So if you want to apply, make sure you have people who you know will support the work throughout the process.

The process is “highly competitive,” though Mural Arts declined to give a number of how many applications they receive. They do say that about 10 percent of the murals they create come from the community application process.

What if I don’t have an idea, but I have a space and I want a mural?

You can donate your wall to Mural Arts to be used for a mural.

If the idea is approved, then what happens?

Mural Arts first takes the time to find a muralist. Though they have four full-time artists staffed, the program also does a lot of work with other artists on a case by case basis. After finding an artist, they then find a space for the mural.

The mural is then given a budget. Money for the murals can come from a variety of sources (corporate partners, individual donors) though Mural Arts does set aside money for new murals every year. The program has an annual budget of $6.5 million(of which the city contributes about $1.4 million annually). The mural is designed after the artist goes to talk and learn about the community the mural will be in. The design of mural is made to integrate with “existing community revitalization strategies.”

After the design is reviewed by Mural Arts staff, other artists, and community representatives, it gets approved. Then the wall is assessed for any structural issues, which are then fixed. Finally, the painting begins.

How is a mural painted?

A mural is painted either directly on the wall or painting on parachute cloth which is then affixed to the wall like wallpaper. The second process is done sometimes to allow volunteers who cannot scale heights to participate(e.g. young children) as well as volunteers from restricted environments like prisons or hospitals.

How long does all of this take?

On average, a mural can take anywhere from six to 12 months to finish. Though sometimes a project can take much longer.

One such project was Southeast by Southeast. Started in 2012, the project features a mural, but also includes community art workshops and events that double as a way to meet the mental health needs of the Burmese and Bhutanese refugees who have settled in South Philadelphia. The mural and arts and resource center is located at 1927 South 7th street.

The mission of Southeast by Southeast is to “use art as a catalyst to give refugee populations an opportunity to tell their story,” said Mural Arts Project manager Will Pace to PlanPhilly in a feature on the project. The project is still ongoing, two years later.

How much does a mural cost?

On average a mural costs $25,000.

How many murals does Mural Arts paint each year?

They paint about 100 murals each year.

What benefits can a mural bring?

Aside from the community engagement, educational  and mental health benefits a mural may bring – there is actually an economic benefit too. A study done in 2009 by Econsult found that murals are one of the few investments a city can make in commercial areas to have a positive impact on property values and retail sales. How? A mural can turn an eyesore into something well-maintained which in turn can cause property values and retail sales to go up.

It also generates employment. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the program had 220 paid jobs; some of these were for individuals who may have a hard time finding jobs, such as those who just got out of prison.

Long story short, murals do a whole lot of good, even if you don’t like to look at them.

Photo by Philly Painting Crew via Mural Arts Program.