A Powerful Portrait of Philadelphia

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Standing on the platform with my classmates, we stared at a beige square with bumpy lines, attempting to figure out what was painted on the side of a building. From the train, it looked like ravioli, but perhaps it was an empanada. No one was sure. When our tour guide finally revealed what it was—a Jamaican beef patty—I realized that I’d been too excited about the day to eat a meal before coming to the city that afternoon.

The excitement had built for weeks as our professor, Melissa Hamilton, organized a class trip to Philadelphia for a tour of Steve Powers’ A Love Letter For You, one of several mural arts tours offered by the Mural Arts Program. Talkin’ Bout a Revolution: Art, Culture, and Social Change is an honors course that explores how artists use different mediums to inspire social change for communities that are often overlooked by mainstream society. We learned about Steve Powers, a Philly native who started his artistic life in the world of graffiti, and saw pictures of some of the murals on this tour. But, having the opportunity to see them in person was an entirely new experience.

Each of the murals in West Philadelphia can be seen from the Market-Frankford Line, or the “El,” an elevated subway. (Yes, that’s why it’s called the El. I didn’t know that either.) Because the train moves so quickly, though, it took a while to get used to spotting the images from the car. Our tour guide pointed out which places were best to sit or stand to view the murals, and by the end, I became pretty good at it. One that caught my eye featured a rocket pop in the center, flanked by the words “I had a nice dream about us” in red, white, and blue striped letters. (The piece originally said “about you.”) Though the colors have faded, like most of the murals in the series, my eye was drawn to it. I’m not sure what significance rocket pops hold for native Philadelphians, but they always make me think of my mom—they’re her favorite summertime treat.

Another beautiful moment occurred on a bridge overlooking the train tracks. From that location, my classmates and I could see two murals and part of a third. The temperature was in the mid-60s. The sky was clear. The sun shone brilliantly, keeping us warm and providing great lighting for the art. After focusing on the murals for a bit, we were in the perfect position to see them in a wider view of the city. The shapes and colors of the buildings seemed to come together to create a piece of art that could only be seen at that moment. We all agreed that we chose a fantastic day to go on this tour.

After spending a few hours glued to windows and hopping on and off train cars to see these murals, I found myself thinking about ownership. Part of Steve Powers’ mission is creating public art that the community wants to claim—public art that belongs to the people. I’m sure not every resident sees these murals and loves them, but I have to admit that I wanted to own them. I’m not from the city. I’m not from these neighborhoods. But, I saw something so loud in each of the murals that I wanted to be connected to them. It was rather telling to have to look at them from a distance, through chain linked fences at times. As an outsider, I was at a distance.

When I talked to my friend, Naomi Aliaga ’18, about the murals, she said that while she grew up around them, she never felt “any sort of significant wonder toward them.” She was used to them being there, and that makes sense to me. Being surrounded by thousands of murals in your ordinary life, they probably don’t appear all that separate from the rest of the city. But, Naomi didn’t know the stories behind the murals she did stop to look at. While the murals are a part of the city, they are also part of a street art world that not everyone is connected to. Like most things, it’s complicated!

I’m not quite sure how else to describe what this experience did for me other than to say that I saw a part of Philly that I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t that I rode the subway for the first time. It wasn’t that I got to focus on art within the city. It was something that I felt, a love for a city that is still new to me.