Amid the urban jungle of broken concrete and faded brick, street artist Kala Hagopian is an eco–conscious mother of naturalistic murals. With a passion that has blossomed since childhood, Hagopian is committed to repainting West Philadelphia's perspective on environmental conservation.
Growing up in rural Vermont with her artist father Philip Hagopian, she was raised by a unique integration of the humanities and nature. As she describes it, “I was surrounded by art and music and raised in a very unconventional way, where I was able to pursue my passion.” In a space where Hagopian learned to define herself as “self–driven,” this important motif in her upbringing became a cornerstone for pursuing her career in street art.
After graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hagopian knew exactly where she was going in life. “There was no other option for me, like, that's all I wanted to do,” she says.
Street art became her primary medium of expression after she first laid her eyes on Philadelphia’s mural culture. “When I moved here initially and saw all the murals, I was drawn to the ones in which I could really see an artist's creative style and aesthetic and feel their voice coming through,” she says. Through the inspiration she felt walking around the city, she knew mural art was her calling.
In 2011, Hagopian was involved in painting her first murals, many of which inspired her current goals as an artist and helped her nature–based art style take shape. “I really enjoyed interacting with the public and [seeing] how meaningful it could be to be able to create something beautiful with intention,” she says. In 2012, Hagopian went on to start her first series of larger mural projects with a partner. With a desire to start painting under her own name, in 2016, she started painting murals under her personally founded initiative: Hagopian Arts.
“I was always doing environmental subject matter with naturalistic themes. But I just knew that I needed my work to reflect my passion, always,” she says. “In order to build up that work, or get engaged in projects like that, I would have to put it out there on my own first.”
Hagopian is currently working on a series of paintings she has titled the Eco Mural Project. The purpose is to “bring light to species, environments, and ecosystems that we wouldn't otherwise be thinking about, especially in an urban area,” she says. The project is a series of size–varying murals that intend to beautify empty walls in the city, while also educating the general public about environmental conservation.
The Eco Mural Project has not only become popular with the West Philadelphia community, but also with a variety of organizations in the Pennsylvania area. From the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge to youth engagement programs, her work has prompted a significant impact on residents of the West Philadelphia area. “I'm really driven to connect the community with resources. All my work is a reflection of my best effort,” she says.
These ecological murals may be found on the exterior of schools, pharmacies, restaurants, and even spas. Hagopian’s work flourishes in each and every corner of the city. For example, the Luna Moth project was painted at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. The mural intended to incite recognition of issues such as light pollution that affect this lesser–known species of insect.
Each of her pieces has a QR code attached to it which people can scan and learn more about Hagopian’s message, information about the species, and resources to get involved with organizations currently dealing with the issue.
Now, Hagopian is working on her sixteenth mural in the Eco Mural series, and her passion for mural street art and environmental advocacy is far from faded. With two more in the works, she intends to continue her work within this long–term series. “I will always continue these naturalistic themes because they're built into me,” she says.
Despite these city–wide impacts, the process to reach her current stage has been far from easy for Hagopian. From beginning motherhood at the same time she started Hagopian Arts to the pressure of putting food on the table through her art, there have been a variety of challenges alongside her journey. “It's about survival, especially with a child; it's just my child and myself. So that necessity makes it all the more meaningful. I have to prove to myself over and over again how strong I am,” she says.
Among these challenges, her strong belief in her own capabilities has pushed her past those boundaries. “I never let doubt penetrate the awareness that I could do whatever I had to do to be here and make a living doing what I love,” Hagopian says. Preaching her passion for the environment through mural art is a priority to her, and she never intends to let that determination fade.
Hagopian’s perseverance has also been regimented by the presence of her son, Kai. As she notes, “I always have to say that my son is a huge driving force. He has been here through it all, through very, very hard times, and really good times.” Her son is always there to support her during her mural painting sessions. Through her work, she hopes to inspire him to pursue his own passions and interests, just as Hagopian has in her own career.
As she continues her work with murals, she is intent on continuing to bring nature to the West Philadelphia area and beyond. “I just find joy in interacting with the community and doing something that I feel is meaningful,” she says. Hagopian will continue to illustrate her admiration for the environment by producing vibrantly painted ecosystems on this city’s bare concrete walls. “I'm really looking forward to continuing to explore [naturalistic themes] on a deeper and deeper level,” she concludes.