Philadelphia’s thousands of strikingly colorful murals are some of the most recognizable sights of the city. If you’ve ever visited or lived in the City of Brotherly Love, you’ve probably stumbled across a number of intricately painted walls just walking around your neighborhood — from Meg Saligman’s eight-story mural at Broad and Spring Garden Streets featuring young African Americans imitating the poses of historical figures to Kristin Groeveld’s oversize painting of a giant fish filled with pears, lemons, and grapes in Fishtown.

But as one reader asked via Curious Philly — the forum where you can ask our journalists questions — how does the city keep the artworks from being covered in unsightly graffiti?

Turns out it’s not as much of a challenge as one might think, according to Jane Golden, the founder and director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. Mural Arts commissioned more than 3,600 of the city’s murals.

“Anyone can go up to a mural at any given time and deface it, but people just don’t,” Golden said. “Only about 5 percent of the murals that we have have been defaced.”

Evan Lovett, creative director and lead artist for Visual Urban Renewal Transformation, a New Jersey nonprofit dedicated to beautifying Philadelphia through public art, agreed. Lovett said none of the eight murals his agency painted in the last three years have been defaced.

Mural respect

One of the main reasons Philadelphia’s murals are not defaced more often is the relationship that has been built between the city’s graffiti writers and muralists.

Mural Arts began in 1984 as the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network as part of then-Mayor Wilson Goode’s campaign promise to rid the city of graffiti — it was considered so much of a problem the sale of spray paint to minors was outlawed. Before the program was created, graffiti writers who were caught were often sent to juvenile detention centers or jail.

While involved with the Anti-Graffiti Network, Golden realized many graffiti writers were starved for arts education. She began recruiting them to help create murals. Because minors couldn’t buy spray paint, Golden taught the graffiti writers how to wield a paintbrush instead.

“When I first started working with young graffiti writers, I found out that many of them had a real love of art,” Golden said. “They had been studying abstractionists and going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They loved Picasso, Matisse, and Rothko.”

Common Threads Broad and Spring Garden streets Artist: Meg Saligman
Jack Ramsdale / For the Mural Arts Program
Common Threads Broad and Spring Garden streets Artist: Meg Saligman

Golden cited the graffiti writers’ love of art as one of the main reasons they stay away from the murals, even today. She understood that because they regarded themselves as artists, the writers held a respect for other artworks around the city.

“Jane built networks with very powerful graffiti artists who were causing the city a lot of problems at the time,” said Rocco Albano, a former graffiti writer who was active in Philadelphia from 1980 to 1987 before joining the Anti-Graffiti Network. “It was a very strategic move on her part.”

In 1985, Albano vandalized a mural on Spring Garden Street. A few days later, he went back to look at the mural and ran into Golden, who was working on another mural a couple of blocks over. She was livid and threatened to report him to the police.

Months later, Albano saw Golden when he was visiting a friend who was working on a mural at Broad and Lombard Streets. He stayed across the parking lot because he didn’t want to cause any trouble, but Golden came over to confront him anyway.

“She said, ‘Hey, I’m still unhappy that you defaced my mural,’ ” Albano said. “And that was when I realized I was wrong. I don’t like it when someone writes on my graffiti — that usually starts a graffiti war — so that didn’t bode well for me, because essentially I had destroyed an artist’s work.”

Golden said she’s always been very clear with graffiti writers about how spray paint is not the enemy, despite Goode’s ban during the 1980s. For her, it’s about permission: If you write on a wall without it, that’s a violation, but if you’re allowed to do a graffiti piece, that’s art.

“We wouldn’t go over a graffiti piece, and they don’t touch murals,” Golden said. “We all want what’s best for our city, and defacing property is a crime. If we all see ourselves as artists instead, the creative potential seems limitless.”

Community ownership

Besides the mutual respect between graffiti writers and muralists, another reason that Philly’s murals are not defaced more often is the ownership that communities feel over the artwork. Before a mural is painted in a neighborhood, Golden and Mural Arts staff members visit community leaders to develop designs that represent issues residents care about.

“It wasn’t like art parachuted down from the sky,” Golden said. “It was created with careful collaboration with people.”

The themes of the murals are considered citywide, not neighborhood specific, which discourages graffiti writers from defacing murals in other communities, according to Oliver Franklin, the honorary British consul in Philadelphia and former deputy city representative who created the Office of Arts and Culture.

“People don’t generally destroy things that are beautiful,” Franklin said. “If you have a very bad mural, it’ll evoke some negative behavior patterns in people. But most of the murals are extremely good because they’re led by professional artists."

And when a mural is defaced for political reasons, it sparks dialogue that can be valuable, according to Franklin. He cited the Frank Rizzo mural in the Italian Market, considered the most vandalized mural in Philadelphia, as an example.

How do murals get cleaned?

Today when murals are defaced, community members call Golden, who sends a team to clean things up within 24 to 48 hours. The graffiti is painted over or power-washed off the walls. The organization also receives tips from the city’s Community Life Improvement Program, which is in charge of cleaning graffiti around Philadelphia.

“The best deterrent is quick removal,” said Thomas Conway, the deputy managing director of the program. “Vandals will target areas where the graffiti stays up. Also, if there’s already pictures on there, their tag is not going to stand out as much.”

Golden said Mural Arts also steps in when people ask for help in cleaning up older murals that were not commissioned by the organization. Often, if she can track the original artist down, she’ll offer him or her some funding to repaint the damaged portions of the piece.

Lovett said one of the murals he worked on that was not affiliated with Visual Urban Renewal Transformation, the eagle on Front Street in Fishtown, was vandalized twice, first by graffiti artists who were from out of town and then by people looking to make a political statement. Both times, he was out there within hours.

“I don’t know if it’s because I come from more of a graffiti background, so I’m used to having our efforts painted over,” he said. “The idea of a mural changing or being vandalized is part of public art culture. We don’t take it to heart. We just fix it or just paint a new one.”