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Shannon Jeffers
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Published: 11 January 2018

Off the Wall: The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

In 1984, Philadelphia native Jane Golden proposed a radical idea: a public art program to rehabilitate and redirect graffiti artists to channel their creative energy towards a better cause.

Golden, herself an accomplished mural artist and the founder of the Los Angeles Public Art Foundation, established the Mural Arts Program in 1986 as a division of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. Both groups had the same initial goal—to curb the amount of graffiti blighting the city’s neighborhoods—but Golden had a unique approach.

Working directly with former graffiti artists, community groups, and established artists, Mural Arts’ process is entirely a collaborative one, from inception to completion. The Program hires more than 100 convicted graffiti taggers each year to help in the creation of murals all around the city. Mural Arts is dedicated to uniting artists and communities, with the goal to “create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives.”

Some of the most iconic murals the program has commissioned include: “Dr. J,” a three-story high portrait of the celebrated Philadelphia sports legend Julius Irving, located at 1219 Ridge Avenue and  one of the earliest completed by Mural Arts, in 1989; and the eight-story tall “Common Threads” at Broad and Spring Garden streets, completed in 1999. But there are countless other, smaller murals that are no less impressive or impactful to the communities in which they are located. With more than 3,800 works of public art throughout Philadelphia, Mural Arts has turned the City of Brotherly Love into a veritable outdoor art gallery, accessible to all.

In 2007, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited several murals with Golden, including “Reading: A Journey” in West Philadelphia, as part of their larger transatlantic tour.  The royal couple even picked up paintbrushes and assisted neighborhood children working on a parachute cloth mural created by local artist David McShane, who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and has worked with Mural Arts for more than 20 years.

In the intervening years since its inception, Mural Arts Program has grown into its own entity independent of the Anti-Graffiti Network, and is now the country’s largest public art program. It is also one of the largest employers of artists in Philadelphia. The Program celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2014 with a celebration at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the release of a book edited by Golden titled “Mural Arts @ 30.”

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