pedestrians walk near a Mural Arts Philadelphia mural of Najee Spencer-Young by artist Amy Sherald

This city has more than 4,000 murals—and counting

Here's how Philadelphia, ‘The City of Murals,’ enlists its artists to support conservation and community.

A mural of 19-year-old Najee Spencer-Young by artist Amy Sherald rises in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sherald, who painted the official portrait of Michelle Obama, is one of many artists that Mural Arts Philadelphia has tapped to beautify the city.
Photograph by Matt Rourke, AP Photo

A towering forest of sycamores and sassafras recently sprouted on a concrete stretch of Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. Then came monarch butterflies, a bluebird, and an enormous bee. This garden grew, within the span of a week, on a 40-foot-long wall of a recently derelict quarry turned environmental center.

Like nearly all of the other 4,000 of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s murals created over the past 35 years, this exuberant display of the natural world—unveiled on Earth Day 2022—is a collaboration between a community and an artist looking to help tell its story.

With this new mural, supported by National Geographic, artist Eurhi Jones turned a wall of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OEEC) into an urban escape—at least for the imagination. The mural is intended to bring attention to the fact that Philadelphia’s long past as an industrial giant makes for a complicated present for its inhabitants—human, flora, and fauna.

“We are an old city. As an old city, we are a decaying city. We’re protecting the people and environment that come into contact with old infrastructure,” says Jerome Shabazz, OEEC founder and executive director. The mural aims to energize a conversation about ecology within urban spaces. On the 6100 block of Lancaster Avenue, the conversation takes place in a neighborhood of commercial and industrial buildings with a smattering of mostly lower-income residents. They’ve been left to deal with the contamination and waste that industry can produce without any of the agency to do anything about it.

“This is a community that never gets asked anything,” says Shabazz. “All types of people, young and old, different races, are responding to the beauty and the color and the fact that people took the time and the energy to invest in them.”

“Murals are such a collaborative effort,” says Jones, the wall’s creative force. It takes a village to paint a mural, leaving lasting effects on local volunteers who help out. “I have had people say 20 years later, ‘I painted that leaf or that bear.’ It’s a positive force for good and beauty and collective action that doesn’t get to happen in people’s lives every day.”

But one doesn’t have to make the art to feel its effects. “Environmental justice can be a bummer conversation—it can be hard to even let yourself think about it sometimes. My dream is that this mural can help people connect to a subject that is hard to go into but necessary for survival,” says Jones. She hopes the mural’s sunny depiction will help people picture what could be so they can help make it happen. “Without imagination you can’t get to a better future. You have to imagine it first to know what you are going toward,” she adds.

A tree blooms in Philadelphia

In the coronavirus era, such odes to nature can be even more impactful, according to Jane Golden, who founded and directs Mural Arts Philadelphia. “After being inside and feeling this great deprivation, there is this longing for the great outdoors that is more pronounced right now,” she says. “There is an appreciation for localism. These are the birds and trees of Philadelphia. How do we look at things around us—not only see but appreciate what is in our environment? There’s attention to the assets we probably didn’t value before.”

(Here are seven cities around the world to see powerful street art.)

Golden underscores that city murals are equal parts catharsis and community. “The world is traumatized and much more fragile after COVID. Art is one way that we heal. For people around the mural, there is something uplifting, challenging,” says Golden. “People are longing for connection. Public art can do that. Because of COVID we are so disconnected from each other. Murals underscore a common humanity.”

To be clear, Philly’s love affair with murals has been long-term. On an anti-graffiti assignment for the city in the 1980s, Golden started drafting the graffiti artists themselves to channel their creative energy into making something that could speak to the masses, rather than anger local business owners and deface public spaces.

Over the intervening years, murals became intrinsic to the town, part of its muscle and bone. Cut to today, and a waiting list of hundreds of communities requesting public art for their neighborhood walls. “We have more people asking for work than ever, from representation to political issues. More desire for beauty,” says Golden.

Why murals matter

“This art form—from cave paintings to the Mexican muralists to the [frescos of the] Renaissance—has always been about the desire to make a mark,” says Golden. “It’s also a barometer of the times. Our ability to tell stories, to represent, to grapple with the issues of our time.”

(These frescoes shattered conventions in the Italian art world.)

To turn any corner in Philly is to catch sight of a mural. It’s a population of giants, literal and figurative. Dr. J, Aretha and Sinatra, Larry from the Three Stooges, Questlove, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon have all become part of the communities they inhabit. As do the less famous but equally colossal faces, like 19-year-old Najee Spencer-Young, brought to six-story, 2,400-square-foot life on a Center City wall by Amy Sherald (portraitist to Michelle Obama) to share her story of overcoming esteem issues and blossoming as a young woman of color.

Other Philly murals are love letters to the city writ large—an ode to the four seasons, perhaps, or an abstract explosion of color simply for beauty’s sake.

Very often, though, murals act as outsize hieroglyphics spelling out what concerns a community or what they want or need. Some are conversations on tough topics including racial justice, immigration, gun control, and fear of gentrification.

It’s difficult to ignore questions asked several stories high, day in and day out. “Murals are the autobiography of the city of Philadelphia. No matter where you go there are projects that talk about the people who live there, our heroes, the issues that confront us,” says Golden. “Cumulatively murals tell the story of Philadelphia. People feel that this work is theirs.”

(From rhinestone cottages to rusty spaceships, folk art shines in Wisconsin.)

For visitors, seeing Philly’s murals is like peeking into a treasured journal, providing access to the cherished, challenging, sometimes difficult, often funny and touching, and ultimately always honest inner thoughts of a city, as often provocative as they are riotously joyous. Philadelphia is a city that’s not primping for its closeup, or filtering out any of the lumpy bits, because it’s too busy just living.

(Wallabies. Cowboys. Street artists land in Australia’s Outback.)

The result is a city full of color and vibrancy, history and immediacy, a city with something personal to say and the sense of self to lay it out plainly.

“I wanted to contribute to places I felt I was a part of,” says muralist David Guinn about why he has set his hand dozens of times to creating murals for his home city. But he is also quick to point out that Philadelphia isn’t a city out to impress anyone by shying away from the tough stuff. “I wouldn’t call it charming,” Guinn told us in 2020. “It’s just trying to be itself.”

“The through line is that people know authentic spirit. The heart is in it,” says Guinn. Rather fitting of the City of Love to lead with its heart.

Johnna Rizzo is a former staff writer for National Geographic. She is currently writing a series of nonfiction graphic novels and developing podcasts on America.
This Earth Month, National Geographic partnered with ABC-owned Television Stations in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco to celebrate the restorative power of nature through public art. The project paired local muralists with photography from the National Geographic archives to inspire artwork that brings the beauty of the natural world to urban spaces. These murals are part of a Nat Geo’s long legacy of leveraging visual storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. #NatGeoPlanetPossible

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