When the city’s Mural Arts program was established in 1984 as a way to mask graffiti, Philadelphia was far different from today.
The population was plummeting as residents moved out, seeking better schools, lower taxes, and less crime. Officials were spending at least $2 million a year to clean up graffiti, even as the city careened toward insolvency. Things were so bad that former Mayor John Street, then a city councilman, told the New York Times that if Philadelphia’s taxes kept increasing, “we would have had to expand the highways to the suburbs for all the moving vans.”
Today, it’s no secret that the city has improved: Though Philadelphia still has high taxes, underfunded schools, and a rising homicide rate, it also has seen increases in population, development, and jobs. A burgeoning arts and food scene has put Philadelphia on the map. Swaths of the city are far cleaner and safer. Plus, Mural Arts has exploded in popularity, with more than 4,200 indoor and outdoor murals citywide.
The growing demand for murals — plus a strong presence of “unofficial” public art across the city — has catapulted Mural Arts far beyond what it was designed to do. Launched as a graffiti stopgap, the program has instead spruced and united blighted neighborhoods and created work for students, inmates, parolees, and homeless Philadelphians.
But amid today’s current development boom, this “City of Murals” occasionally has found itself at odds with the improved version of Philadelphia. Several murals have been or are expected to be demolished to make way for redevelopment. Others are obstructed by new construction. And though some developers have adorned new projects with public art and others have committed to recreating murals that are destroyed, it still, on occasion, remains difficult for these two versions of “revitalization” to coexist.
“In the last five years, the pace of development has really picked up, and murals that are next to empty lots are vulnerable,” said Jane Golden, the founder and executive director of Mural Arts. “It’s incumbent upon all of us that, as development occurs, we hold on to all of the things that make the city great.”
On the 1600 block of Lombard Street in Center City, one Philadelphia artist is trying to do just that — by using a niche technology to preserve her mural. Her impressionist painting, called One World, stands 49 feet high and 34 feet wide on the side of a multifamily building. Construction next door threatens to block it from public view.
Designed by Ann Northrup, a Philadelphia artist and teacher, One World depicts an international marketplace in diverse ecosystems, with vignettes of people from countries including Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Mexico. The idea, Northrup said, was inspired by a mercado de frutas that students from the nearby Independence Charter School were operating at the time. Starting in 2008, under Northrup’s leadership, the mural was painted by charter school students, Philadelphians who were incarcerated or recently released, interns, and volunteers.
It was funded in part by the Violette De Mazia Foundation, an arts endowment that has since merged with the Barnes Foundation, Mural Arts, and others. It was completed in 2010 and positioned next to the Independence Charter playground that had long occupied the block.
But recently, plans for the school playground have changed. According to construction permits issued by the city, Independence Charter is planning to build an addition, which will include a cafeteria, kitchen, and gymnasium. A news release issued by the school disclosed that the project is a $9 million, 25,000-square-foot expansion, which is expected to stretch the length of the playground and stop not far from the One World wall.
The release said the addition also would include a rooftop playground, additional classrooms, and meeting space. The project broke ground June 6 and is scheduled to be completed by next August.
Yet before shovels ever hit the ground, Northrup said, school officials warned her of their plans. Northrup knew that if she wanted to save the mural, she would have to “kick into high gear right now.”
Research led her to Aaron Priest, a Maine-based panoramic photographer associated with VAST, a collective of artists, photographers, engineers, and computer scientists that specializes in super-high-resolution fine art. A few emails were exchanged, plans were made, and in July, Priest was in Philadelphia.
“From the beginning, [school officials] said they always wanted to re-create the mural,” Northrup said. “But I decided that I should just go ahead and create a file of a photograph that could be reproduced at actual size. [It] makes the recreation of a mural so much cheaper than hiring” the manpower for painting.
In a process that Golden from Mural Arts said has never been done in Philadelphia, Northrup commissioned Priest to take high-resolution photographs that ultimately will be stitched together to reproduce One World. The mural can then be printed at full size, in such high resolution that original, tiny details can clearly be seen.
Over three to four hours, Priest took “hundreds to thousands” of images out of an Independence Charter window, manually moving in increments as small as 1.5 degrees. If lighting or cloud cover changed, the process was briefly halted to ensure that photos would appear the same. He also paused for the construction’s jackhammering, which vibrated his camera, and for passing cars.
The images were uploaded to specialized software that perfectly aligned them. The result: a photograph with a 260 GB file size. In other words, one that is incredibly large.
The file will be shipped to Philadelphia artist Ben Volta, who founded Mural Provisions, a company that can print high-resolution photographs on the polytab fabric used for most murals today. The fabric can be printed in sheets as large as 5-by-12 feet. Each is coated with a primer that ensures the mural can weather the outdoors.
For the reproduction of Northrup’s mural, several sheets will be printed, lined up, and adhered to the surface on which it will hang. The reprint can stand alone or Northrup could paint on top.
Volta said he has printed 30 to 40 high-resolution polytab murals since Mural Provisions was launched in 2014 — though this is the first time he has used the technology to recreate a large Philadelphia mural that was slated to be blocked or destroyed. His other jobs have included printing original designs created on computer programs, including his own, or ones that have been sketched by hand and scanned in.
Northrup expects the entire process to cost roughly $14,000, an amount she hopes will be covered in full. Mural Arts, Golden said, “wants to commit resources to jump-start the recreation.”
Tanya Ruley-Mayo, the CEO of Independence Charter, said the school is assessing its resources and “trying to figure out” whether it can contribute financially. In addition, Ruley-Mayo said, the school is hoping to help find a location for the new mural — whether inside the school, on its exterior, or on another neighborhood location.
“The mural was an incredible work of art, it was labor-intensive, and it is part of the community here,” Ruley-Mayo said.
Golden said she hopes Northrup’s reprinting process can be a model for Philadelphia in the future when public art and construction collide. Other developers have tried to preserve murals in Philadelphia by building around them. Developer Eric Blumenfeld previously disclosed plans to repurpose the famous Common Threads on a digital screen atop his new North Broad Street tower. Other artists have repainted murals when they are destroyed.
Northup’s process, Golden said, allows for a mural to be efficiently preserved in its entirety.
“I understand that cities grow and evolve, things are always moving. And that some works of outdoor art will go away, as well,” Golden said. “We cannot stop development — but we can and should work together to create a city that speaks to everyone and respects everyone’s desire to be seen and heard.”