Shepard Fairey's Amira Mohamed Stamp of Incarceration mural, located at 15th and Race streets.

Shepard Fairey, the street artist best known for designing the Obama “Hope” portrait, enjoyed escaping to Philadelphia in the 1990s. At the time, he was dating a woman who attended Haverford. He’d come to visit her on the Main Line but quickly tired of the suburban scene and came into the city as often as he could. In Philly, he found an art scene gritty and flavorful and welcoming, and he crafted relationships that have lasted into today.  

“I like this town a lot,” Fairey said, “because I think it’s got room for a lot of different perspectives.”

Fairey’s latest Philadelphia works are part of Mural Arts’ Open Source exhibition, and he’s trying to broaden Philadelphia’s perspectives to a greater extent by focusing on mass incarceration and prison reform. One mural features the portrait of James Anderson, a reformed Los Angeles gang member who now works to keep others out of prison. Another is of Amira Mohamed. She’s a once-incarcerated Philly resident who now studies architecture and works for Mural Arts.  

“My goal with these pieces was to shed some light on the issue, destigmatize incarceration by finding people who are doing really great things,” Fairey said, “but were formerly incarcerated.”

Fairey and his team were putting the finishing touches on the Amira Mohamed mural Thursday afternoon. It’s located on a wall of the Friend’s Center at the corner of 15th and Race streets. The mural looks like something you’d see designed to honor a community hero or politician. That’s how Fairey intends it.

“I look at everyone as having the potential to do great things to shape society,” he said, “including the 70 million Americans who have a criminal record. And I’m one of those.”  

Shepard Fairey
Credit: Mark Dent/Billy Penn

The other mural, of Anderson, is located near 11th and Callowhill streets. Fairey made this one with convicts at Graterford Correctional Facility in MontCo. He designed it, and they painted it. Fairey hopes that people who see it and realize convicts made will think of convicts as real people.  

“If you’re stereotyping about people who are criminals…it’s that they’re insensitive to how their actions affect society,” he said. “But people who make art are clearly trying to do something they think is pleasing to people, that creates healthy conversations.”

Mural Arts’ Open Source exhibit is being done to showcase art in public space and features works from nationally and internationally recognized artists. The art is featured all over the city. Most of the works are temporary and will last for a few months or perhaps a year or two.

Se Siento El Miedo by Michelle Ortiz is located at 9th and Washington streets.
Se Siento El Miedo by Michelle Ortiz is located at 9th and Washington streets. Credit: Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Fairey’s mural of Amira Mohamed is permanent. And he’s aware its message about incarceration will probably stay current for quite some time.

“I’d love it if this mural were obsolete tomorrow,” he said, “and they were like, ‘Let’s paint a flower over it or something.’ But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...