Three dozen people, a few dogs, and two Herbie the Love Bug replicas attended a dedication ceremony in West Philadelphia on Thursday for a new mural of Herbie that aims to raise suicide awareness and provide direct access to suicide prevention.
Unveiled under cloudy skies on World Suicide Prevention Day, the Keep Going mural of the Volkswagen Beetle with a heart and mind of its own, from the 1969 Disney film The Love Bug, was the brainchild of Gabe Nathan, a suicide awareness advocate and epic Herbie fanboy who raised $12,000 for the project through crowdfunding this spring.
“The message I want to spread on World Suicide Prevention Day is to keep going, is persistence,” Nathan, 40, told the crowd. “Herbie lost two wheels, split in half, and still kept going.… The heart of this little car is pretty powerful and pretty moving.”
Created by Kala Hagopian and Olivia Losee-Unger of Hagopian Arts in West Philly, the mural, at 434 S. 52nd St., across from Malcolm X Park, features Herbie in front of a tunnel with a light at the end and the words “Keep going.” Below the mural are QR codes that lead to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text line.
Above the QR codes it reads: “We lose over 47,000 Americans to suicide every year. If you are contemplating suicide and need to talk, with help comes hope. In crisis? Please scan here."
Making the mural interactive was important for Nathan, of Wynnewood, who is editor in chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, a website about mental health empowerment.
“I’m very much about putting something into people’s hands. I want people to not just see it, I want them to have it, I want them to take it with them,” he said.
Nathan, whom the Inquirer profiled last year as part of its “We the People” series, is such a devoted Herbie fan that he’s outfitted his own 1963 Beetle to look exactly like the famous car, except for one big difference — a giant decal on the rear window that reads “Drive out suicide” and includes the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
It was Nathan’s aunt who introduced him to Herbie as a kid. Years later, when she took her own life, it was the stigma surrounding her death in part that made him want to speak out and help normalize discussions about suicide awareness and prevention.
Using Herbie to help spread awareness seemed fitting, Nathan said, as Herbie is “the only car in motion picture history that tries to take his own life,” by attempting to drive off a bridge.
It was a fellow Herbie enthusiast who suggested Nathan create an inspirational mural of the Love Bug. Not knowing where to begin, Nathan and Herbie started by driving around to check out different Philly murals.
“It was really wonderful exploring the murals, and as I took pictures, I’d meet people,” Nathan said. “I met an old man in West Philly who was talking to me about how murals got started. That doesn’t happen if you’re not out.”
Nathan particularly loved the murals he saw from Hagopian Arts, so he reached out to Hagopian, who invited him to her West Philly studio.
“He’s just such a genuine, kind soul, you can read that from the get-go,” Hagopian said. “He has a vested interest in this, and it was really inspiring to us.”
But Nathan, being “not a typical antique car owner," or in other words, “a man of means,” knew he’d have to crowdfund the project. In just 10 days in May he was able to raise more than $12,000 from 78 donors, ranging from individuals to mental health organizations.
Spak Realty donated the wall for the mural, which is near the entrance to Park Pizza.
As Hagopian and Losee-Unger painted the mural over the last three months, they were constantly impressed by the number of people who were excited to see Herbie going up in their neighborhood.
“People were coming up and talking to us as if Herbie was a fixture in their childhood,” Hagopian said.
And people also understood the meaning of painting the little car in front of a light at the end of a tunnel, said Losee-Unger.
“That message of perseverance in dark times is more prevalent than ever now,” she said. “We wanted to translate these visions into something everybody could relate to, not just folks who know and love Herbie.”
Nathan said he wants the mural to make people feel warm when they see it. He hopes they smile and take pictures, but more important, he wants people to be curious enough to approach it.
“I hope they get up closer to it and read the text about the people we lose every year to suicide and make a decision not to be one of them," he said. "I hope it makes people feel like they want to keep on going.”