A painted giraffe’s head pops between jungle leaves, while an elephant stomps towards a lake. You aren’t staring at Gauguin, but at a masterpiece of another genre that has come to define Philadelphia: mural art. The exotic piece is the work of 37 patients of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who are learning to deal with their stress, under the supervision of David Guinn.
Guinn seems to be the perfect artist to lead this initiative as you may have seen his “Summer Rendezvous” mural on the side of the Shake Shack building in Center City, which depicts the magical encounter of nature and children. Both this mural and the one from the hospital–named “A Jungle For You and Me”–bring joy, hope and fantasy to the community.
The positive aspects of mural art have lead Pope Francis to sign “The Sacred Now,” a mural that symbolizes unity and love. The making of this mural brought together many people from different backgrounds – showing the power of art in building a community, as well as in representing the diversity of Philadelphia. The Pope signed the part of the mural containing a painting of Julie, a girl touched by Down syndrome.
Philadelphia now stands as a city of art after years spent in the shadows of New York’s Wall Street and Washington D.C.’s White House. This is mostly thanks to the Mural Arts Program (MAP), which originated in the 1980s when the fight against graffiti began, during the time that all the closed factories gradually became contaminated. A pioneer in the United States, this type of program was first seen in Mexico in the 1920s to educate the masses on the benefits of the 1910 revolution.
The head of the MAP is Jane Golden, who has always believed in the transformative power of art, and was right to do so, since the 3500 murals in the city have often helped develop what used to be considered dangerous neighborhoods. The naïve style of the murals is intended to allow people who have never been confronted by art to understand it – just as churches used to transmit the Bible’s messages through frescoes. Some detractors of the MAP say that these murals are transforming Philadelphia into a kitsch art gallery, but their voices stay unheard, as 14 artists from around the world will contribute to this project in the upcoming months.
Coming from Paris, it strikes me to see the government supporting such an initiative, after having often witnessed arrests of street artists by the police. But I am relieved to know that the MAP is currently working with over 200 cities – now including Paris – so that they too can transform their walls and communities.What also surprises me is the lack of murals around Penn, which once again demonstrates the reality of the “Penn bubble.” I believe that murals could be a great way for us to be a more integral part of the city, as well as to be exposed to messages of hope, acceptance and unity. Maybe one day we will be able to solve the issue of stress management that many Penn students have through the creation of murals in University City–but in the meantime, you can take Jane Golden’s course on “The Big Picture: Mural Arts in Philadelphia.”