Isaiah Zagar may be a something of a prophet — at least, he considers himself akin to one. To many others, however, he is an enigmatic, artistic innovator. Zagar has been adorning South Street's walls since the 1960s.His mosaics consist of glass, ceramic pieces and items usually discarded as trash — collected, in part, by an indigent person who calls himself Julius Caesar — melded together to form dazzling designs that sparkle in the sun. And, though Zagar has become a legend in Philadelphia, which he deems "the center of the art world," he remains unfettered by society's demands, producing art based on his own desire to "compress his innermost hopes and fears on the outermost walls" of the city.
Zagar began creating mosaics as a therapeutic art form after he had a nervous breakdown at the age of 29. "I lost all sense of what's called judgment," he explained, "and actually, it turned out to be the best thing in my life." For him, art is not a career, but a passion and a life-sustaining device. "What an artist is about is doing work every single day of his life," he explained, "so there are no new projects or old projects. It's a constant process, constant life cycle. As one eats and shits, one makes art."
But, for Zagar, art is also a means of social critique — and a medium to convey his prophecies. For example, one of the many murals adorning his SouthStreet studio bears the prediction: "In 2038, all wars end on planet earth." However, he admits that it may only be wishful thinking. "Maybe it's just a dream," he explains, "but I want wars to end on this planet. I want arms merchants to turn their arms into money like Nobel did, and put it into prizes for good deeds."
Though he may be an idealist, Zagar knows how to run a business. Just about every month, Zagar runs mosaic workshops in which students and others spend a weekend helping him "create a wall" — in other words, they pay to perform what amounts to (relatively enjoyable) free labor. Over the course of one recent weekend, the workshop group completed a mosaic, for which Zagar received a commission, dedicated to a newborn child whom Zagar has immortalized as "Thunderbolt Jaxon." Friendly exploitation aside, Zagar infused the project with contagious enthusiasm. It was his 751st mural, yet he has not lost his sense of wonder at the process: "It's hard to fathom what's going on and how so many people can be in such a dance together. And there's so much that's unknown... It just happens. Very, very mysterious. Well, so it is. Art is mysterious."
An innovator in his murals and in his business, Zagar has often had to fight to protect both. When asked where he finds the inspiration for it all, Zagar replied simply, "because my name is Isaiah"