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Inside Kings Gallery PHL, the new North Philly selfie museum showing its community that their lives are art

The gallery owners intentionally made backdrops from hip hop culture and street art to make their demographic feel at home.

Co-owner Tracii Freeman at Kings Gallery PHL, a new selfie gallery and museum in North Philadelphia.
Co-owner Tracii Freeman at Kings Gallery PHL, a new selfie gallery and museum in North Philadelphia.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

At Kings Gallery PHL, there is a mantra: “‘til death we do art.”

The words speak to their ethos. At the new North Philadelphia selfie museum, the owners believe that the things we create from our regular, quotidian experiences — from the clothes we wear, to the store runs we make — are art, too.

“Every day is art,” co-owner Tracii Freeman said.

Selfie museums and galleries are spaces where curators install art to view, but also to serve as photo backdrops. Selfie galleries have been trendy nationally. They are more than simply another example of how social media is changing art spaces, or how people really do just want spaces to get a good selfie. As explained in WIRED, they’re in line with a shift in the kinds of experiences that museum visitors may be seeking out, whether that’s being in the art or being the person sharing it.

Inside Kings Gallery PHL, which is open on weekends for $50 general admission with complimentary wine, there’s a backdrop on display of the character Big Worm in his ice cream truck from Friday, another with album art from Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core, and an installation that mimics a real-life corner store with a payphone outside and working door.

“It’s a lot of selfie galleries out here, but this is, you know, involving the culture,” Freeman said.

Awash with color, the gallery’s walls are near-filled with murals that continue even into its bathrooms. On the floor, people can follow arrows or read messages like: “R U WHO U WANT TO BE?” or “GET MONEY FIRST. FALL IN LOVE LATER.” Visitors can step into a lighted box near the center of the gallery, or can pose under sneakers hanging from a would-be electrical wire. Its owners designed the gallery to allow people to step into the art, but they wanted that art to hit home with their community, bundling up cultural hallmarks together in one place. They sought out references that would land as familiar to Black people who’ve grown up in cities.

“When people come through, they have memories of the corner store or just the VIBE magazine,” Freeman said, not too far from the gallery’s VIBE magazine wall. “The memories, like, to me … that’s just what art is to me.”

Don Scott, the gallery’s creative director and an artist himself, spoke similarly.

“There is a Kanye [piece], and then there will be like the Belly reference, and there’ll be a Martin reference,” Scott said. “If you’re 30 plus years old, you know, [Martin is] just one of those things. There should be immediate reflectiveness. And maybe it sparks a memory in your head, in your mind. And a thought of where you were, or where you come from.”

Tickets give visitors a 90-minute time slot in the gallery on weekends, while weekdays are reserved for private events like photo shoots and gatherings. Along with Scott’s work, the gallery is showing art from Lopez Davinci, Donte Johnson, Cheo Matunde, Samona Darius, and Jar Almighty. Some installations will be temporary and others permanent. The gallery first welcomed visitors Oct. 24, and is planning to launch monthly markets and youth programming.

Kings Gallery has been designed to lean pridefully into Philadelphia’s long-championed graffiti legacy, during an era when street art has been subsumed and/or appropriated into popular culture and fine art. The vibes inside pull from street art and street wear. Brittany Webb, the Evelyn and Will Kaplan curator of 20th-Century Art and the John Rhoden Collection at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said that newer establishments like Kings Gallery are in dialogue with traditional art institutions.

“I think Black spaces have consistently throughout American history sort of reckoned with trying to recapture and elevate Black culture that gets left out of institutions,” Webb said. “And so, to me, that feels like a parallel conversation. It’s actually like a super knowledgeable way to be in interaction with those spaces.”

Scott said that as newer works rotate into the gallery, they’re hoping to encourage more homegrown talent.

“We are just pushing for one opportunity for local artists to have a platform,” he said. “A place where people are spectators and viewers, and an audience to have somewhere they can go to have a social experience, where they could feel comfortable, where they could feel proud. And where they would also be inspired to, you know, do something if not within the art field something of their own.”

Kings Gallery PHL, 3251 Fox St., 267-519-9980, $50 general admission on weekends.