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How Tattooed Mom became Philly's premier street-art museum

A bar that has anchored South Street for 20 years, Tattooed Mom has staked out a place as the antidote to adulting.

Tattooed Mom owner Robert Perry jumps from one amusement car to another in the upstairs street art gallery at the Tattooed Mom.
Tattooed Mom owner Robert Perry jumps from one amusement car to another in the upstairs street art gallery at the Tattooed Mom.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON

There is no admission fee at Philly's premier street art museum, better known as the bar Tattooed Mom. So, drink in hand, I took a self-guided tour.

It was the same exhibition that's always on display, and always a little different: a 20-year accumulation of stickers, wheat paste, spray paint, and marker. I appreciated the cartoonish-yet-sinister mural by New York artist L'Amour Supreme, the de rigueur Shepard Fairey poster. I noted countless works by local artists: the graphic, black-and-white work of Joe Boruchow, sassy conversation hearts by Amberella, dark political satire by YOMI.

I regretted not bringing a Sharpie.

Still, there's always next time at Tattooed Mom, which has anchored South Street through 20 years of churn and is still thriving amid what I'd consider the classic South Street trifecta: a sneaker store, a sex emporium, and a new-age gift shop.

"A lot of people have this viewpoint that South Street's not what it used to be," said Robert Perry, the bar's owner and, unofficially, its chief curator. "I think, for a lot of Philadelphians, it is a coming-of-age place — and it has been for many generations." (My teenage South Street? I bought lumpy wool mittens at a store questionably named Ethnics, blushed in the aisles of Condom Kingdom, puzzled over Harry's Occult Shop, loitered at Pearl Art and Craft, and danced at TLA.)

"It's not the same South Street as when you came of age as a hippie in the '60s or a punk rocker in the '70s, but the story of self-discovery is one that I think repeats itself over and over here."

So, it's fitting that Tattooed Mom has staked out a place as the antidote to adulting.

To that end, scattered on the bar are bouncing frogs, plastic rings, temporary tattoos, and Dum Dums lollipops; the menu boasts five kinds of tater tots; and the cocktails incorporate cotton candy (with local Faber rum and lime juice) and Pop Rocks (with raspberry vodka and lemon soda). There is also, up by the front window, a bumper car. It was scavenged from the family business of Perry's former co-owner, Kathy "Mom" Hughes, who owned the nickname decades before it became an internet term of admiration.

I decided against the bumper car and the cotton candy. Instead, I waited for a seat at the sparkly gold bar and an excellent Negroni, batch-made, bottled, and served with a glass of crushed ice.

There's always some sort of meet-up or event here. It's a go-to Third Place for tech bros and progressive activists, skaters, and musicians, bike messengers and poets — and, of course, graffiti writers. Perry never asked for the graffiti; he just never tried to stop it.

These days, amid the regulars, there are also out-of-town artists who make Mom's a destination, and who sometimes call ahead if they're hoping to install a particularly large piece.

They realize, Perry said, that their work may not remain for long. Just like South Street itself, Mom's is always evolving.

"It's understood to be all very temporary. A piece may last an hour. It may last a decade. You never know."

Tattooed Mom

530 South St., 215-238-9880,

When to go: It's open noon to 2 a.m. daily. Check for promotions (half-price meatless Mondays, dollar-taco Tuesdays) and quirky events like Sunday afternoon crafting, a boozy mess of glitter, googly eyes and glue. This month's theme: corncob dolls.

Bring: Surprisingly, it's a good place to bring your mom given the acoustics, which amounted to a calm 83 decibels on a busy night.

What to order: The cotton candy-based Daiquiri Cloud ($8) if you have a sweet tooth; the Negroni ($8.50) if you don't. Top sellers are the pickle-fried chicken (or vegan chicken) sandwich ($9.50), and the tater tots ($5-$6), in variations like poutine or parmesan pepper.

Bathroom situation: How there can be four toilet paper holders, not one containing toilet paper, is a mystery for another day. They're generously tagged, moderately tidied, single-stall units.

Sounds like: There are real CD jukeboxes here, with handmade album notes attached to a curated selection ranging from the Ramones to Run the Jewels.