Philadelphians often opt for a museum visit to satisfy a craving for artistic stimulation. But taking a walk around the city’s streets yields a new way to revel in creative expression—one that is just as fulfilling and even more tied to our local communities. Philadelphia is called the mural capital of the world, with over 3,600 unique art–filled walls and building facades sprinkled throughout the city. Spearheaded by Mural Arts Philadelphia, these public art installations are intended to engage artists and communities through ingenuity.
The organization’s mission elaborates that it “inspires change in people, place, and practice, creating the opportunity for a more just and equitable Philadelphia.” For your viewing pleasure (and convenience), here are four Philly murals that are just around the corner from Penn’s campus. Some of these may be landmarks of your daily commute, and some you may have passed without ever noticing, but all bring color, vibrancy, and imagination to the city.
Finding the Light Within by James Burns, 120 South 30th Street
There are deeper meanings beyond Philly murals’ beautiful facades full of bright colors and intriguing narratives. Inspired by conversations with suicide survivors, Burns created this chaotic image to reflect the feeling of desperation and loneliness they described. He depicts a man, alone on a boat in rocky waters, with a life ring coming toward him, although it is unclear whether the man will grab or refuse it. Finding the Light Within, created in collaboration with Mural Arts, Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, seeks to create dialogue about the pervasive yet taboo issue, which disproportionately plagues communities of color in Philadelphia. It ultimately strives to “provide solace and give expression to the sadness, the void, the concerns and the aspirations of people who have been traumatized, silenced and stigmatized,” Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden says.
The Phillies Mural by David McShane, 24th and Walnut Streets
“We have the best and most loyal fans in all of sports,” says Phillies marketing manager Michael Harris. Commemorating and celebrating this fan base was McShane’s goal, which he achieved with a colorful, dynamic composition visible from the Walnut Street Bridge, the Schuylkill River Trail, and even the I–76 expressway. The mural salutes the Phillies by focusing on the team’s greatest and most enduring moments: World Series titles, hall–of–famers, and of course, the Phillie Phanatic himself. With over 100 years of history, the team has brought home runs and plenty of hometown pride to Philadelphia—making it a part of the city’s culture that's more than worthy of such a monumental representation.
Tuskegee Airmen: They Met the Challenge by Marcus Akinlana, 16 South 39th Street
Working side by side with the Philadelphia chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Marcus Akinlana transformed the veterans’ stories and struggles into a visual narrative that works to both commemorate and educate. Fighting on behalf of the U.S. in World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black aviators in the country’s military history, credited with opening the doors for integration of the armed forces. Some sculptural attributes of the mural were created by students in workshops with the artist, particularly the 3D bas–relief, exemplifying how critical community involvement was to the project. Overall, the mural is a dynamic swirl of images that makes it hard to tear your eyes away. Depictions of a boy wishfully gripping a model plane, a Red Tail fighter squadron, female parachute riggers, and the Philadelphian Tuskegee Airmen themselves all harmonize into a powerful message in this impressive retelling of history.
Colorful Legacy by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey & Keir Johnston, 4008 Chestnut Street
"Love," "proud," "good," "help," "potential." These uplifting words and others are sprinkled throughout Colorful Legacy, a mural that challenges the stigma surrounding male emotional vulnerability. The mural’s rich color palette reveals the passion, feeling, and inspiration imbued within it, and enlivens what was once a regular old parking lot. It is part of a larger project, inspired by President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, which seeks to raise awareness of the struggles faced by boys and men of color through initiatives like public town hall meetings, theater performances, and art. The mural employs an entire rainbow spectrum to spark positivity and inspiration, in the hopes of opening up a dialogue about access to education, jobs, and behavioral health services for young men. Colorful Legacy both reflects and promotes an empowering effort to push men and boys of color toward resiliency, self–confidence, and mutual support.
This is just a small sample of all the murals Philadelphia has to offer, each with their own meanings and messages. Created in collaboration with artists and local communities, the murals give anyone and everyone in their vicinity—businessmen on their way to work, tourists stuck in traffic, and curious college students alike—an educational and intriguing break from the city's grayscale monotony. Not every day can be spent at the museum, but with Philadelphia’s abundance of murals, our city brings the museum to us.