A tribute to Breonna Taylor at Graffiti Pier in June 2020

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The streets of Philadelphia are defined by a proliferation of art. In any given year, the city bursts with new examples. Some are cheerful and colorful, others biting and somber. Some are carefully planned and approved, others impromptu and organic.

The tradition was especially relevant this year, as pandemic and protest responses threatened to turn formerly vibrant blocks into lonely stretches of concrete and glass.

Street art to the rescue.

Whether inspiring hope, spreading health safety, honoring victims of police brutality, or just adding beauty to a neighborhood, Philly artists responded to the year’s challenges by creating new work.

Here are 12 projects that helped tell Philadelphia’s story in 2020.

Spreading awareness

When the virus first landed, Broad Street Ministry led a cadre of artists and organizations who installed pop-up hand washing stations. They were accompanied by murals to spread the COVID safety lessons we hadn’t yet internalized.

Hand washing mural on South Street by Cuban/Egyptian artist Symone Salib Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
Hand washing mural in Spring Garden by third-gen Philly native Nile Livingston Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Crowdsourcing hope

More than 50 artists contributed designs and over 1,000 posters were printed and installed as part of Fill the Walls With Hope, organized by Village of Arts and Humanities’ Mark Strandquist.

A variety of themes and styles brightened storefronts around the city Credit: Elisabeth Perez-Luna / Billy Penn
Artists worked in their own mediums, never knowing whose pieces would end up neighbors Credit: Elisabeth Perez-Luna / Billy Penn

Whimsy in South Philly

The Navy Yard and Group X commissioned six works from seven artists around the world for their third annual pop-up art installation, created to be viewed with plenty of physical distancing.

Called #MIMOSANavyYard, it featured gems like a lowrider turned pinata and seaside shack wearing a nameplate necklace.

‘Urban Jewelry / Rusty Love’ by Liesbet Bussche Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
‘Libertad (Freedom)’ by Justin Favela Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Messages of justice

When artist Samuel Rodriguez wanted to lend a hand to the Black Lives Matter movement in June, he picked up some paint to do it.

“We’re in the movement, but with a paintbrush,” Rodriguez told Billy Penn shortly after he founded Walls for Justice, a group of artists and volunteers painting murals over the plywood of buildings boarded up to avoid damage after protest marches.

The improvised organization has become a lasting nonprofit.

Some businesses collaborated with Walls for Justice on custom storefront murals Credit: Instagram / @wallsforjustice
A Walls for Justice mural on a Philly school, placed with the help of @jellytoastin Credit: Instagram / @wallsforjustice

Handstyle creations

Philadelphia is the birthplace of traditional graffiti, and plenty of handstyle artists still make their mark.

You can see Germantown artist Nomad’s work all over Philly. It’s the Nomad face, often accompanied by the words “Black is beautiful.” The artist created this colorful ode to Uptown in early June.

Nomad’s design and words project strength out of diversity Credit: Instagram / @nomad_face

Statement bust

Originally installed in NYC, a version of artist Simone Leigh’s “Brick House” bronze found a permanent home on the University of Pennsylvania campus at 34th and Walnut.

Simone Leigh’s ‘Brick House’ at Penn Credit: Eric Sucar / UPenn

GOTV flowers

To encourage people to cast a vote during the leadup to Election Day, a coalition called United by Blooms created pop-up floral arrangements at more than a dozen USPS mail boxes and city ballot drop boxes.

United by Blooms founder Kate Carpenter decorated this mailbox at the corner of Carpenter and Greene in Mt. Airy Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY
Jig-Bee Flower Farm decorated the ballot drop box at Delaware and Spring Garden Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Concrete communication

Graffiti Pier is maintaining DIY culture as plans advance to turn it into an official public park. This year it was filled with new commentary on everything from racial justice to politics.

Spotted this summer at Graffiti Pier, ‘Prime for President’ Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
An homage to George Floyd and against police brutality on Graffiti Pier Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Riding high

Philly is known for its urban cowboy culture, so the temporary installation of one of Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” sculptures fit perfectly on 52nd Street. Members of the storied Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club made a visit during their GOTV rideout on Election Day.

Wiley’s original, a 27-foot-high response to the backlash against removing Confederate statues, is on permanent display at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

13-year-old Nahye Hyman raises a fist on his horse Sally during a GOTV ride down 52nd Street Credit: Layla A. Jones / Billy Penn
Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club President and Founder Ellis Ferrell, 81, visited artist Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War sculpture at 52nd and Locust streets Credit: Layla A. Jones / Billy Penn

Fighting for justice

In a year defined by loss, the death of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg hit extra hard. Artist URQUHART created several wheatpaste commemorations of the Notorious RBG.

The Notorious RBG by URQUHART Credit: Instagram / @wallsforjustice
The Notorious RBG by URQUHART Credit: Instagram / @urquh.art

Street tree glowup

We’re definitely calling it art. Harrowgate resident Darlene Burton turned a tree in front of her home into a free face mask dispenser. She even added bows alongside the masks for Christmas.

Darlene Burton’s ‘mask tree’ empties each time she restocks it Credit: Twitter / @Darlene15292071

Love prevails

Philly yarn bomber Nicole Nikolich collaborated with wheatpaste heart queen Amberella for this sweet ode to humanity. Installed in Center City, it sent the message that nothing, not even 2020, could stop love.

A collaboration between two prolific Philly street artists Credit: Instagram / @amberellaxo

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...