Mural Arts Project Turns Philadelphia into Civic Art Space

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Editor’s Note: Check out more impressive work from Philadelphia creatives in the Fall 2016 issue of HOW Magazine, where Ellen Shapiro profile’s the city’s studios, educational hubs and creative hotspots.

Detail of mural by Miriam Singer

Detail of mural by Miriam Singer

What do cities do about graffiti? Some citizens consider it an art form. Many consider it urban blight.

In 1984, Philadelphia artist, author, activist and teacher Jane Golden had an idea. She reached out to local graffiti writers, hoping to redirect their energies into constructive public art projects. She dubbed the program Mural Arts and organized the artists—many of whom were at-risk teens—into a mural-making collective.

Her dream became much more successful than she might have imagined; over the past 32 years it has grown into the largest public art program in the United States, engaging hundreds of artists to create murals that are among Philadelphia’s biggest tourist attractions. The mural-making process, Golden says, has proved to be a powerful tool for igniting change, generating dialogue, empowering communities, and sparking economic revitalization. Under her executive direction, Mural Arts has created more than 3,800 works of public art through collaborations with community organizations, city agencies, nonprofits, schools, private companies, and philanthropies.


In 2013,

J2 Design Partnership, a multidisciplinary, father-and-son design firm headed by brand strategist Alan Jacobson and creative director Brian Jacobson, was chosen to be Mural Arts’ design partner. Last year, J2 designed the branding for a citywide public exhibition about street art called Open Source and created a pop-up hub for it in an 1800-sq.-ft. vacant storefront in a high-rise office building in Philadelphia’s Center City. This month, says Brian Jacobson, a 150-page book about the space and the creative conversations and ideas that were generated is going to print. Here’s a preview for Imprint readers:

OpenSource_ Storefront

Bold window graphics by J2 attracted passers-by to the pop-up storefront hub.


Jane Golden addressing the media about the impact of Open Source on Philadelphia. This exhibit space, which won an SEGD Honor Award, featured a project wall, a flexible calendar wall, and movable panels for posting photos, videos, and interactive updates about the 14 commissioned public artworks on display throughout Philadelphia.

Momo teaching

As just one example of Open Source events, artist MOMO taught his “practical geometry” methodology to students in Mural Arts’ Art Education program, then painted a mural with the students using those techniques. Mural Arts made “how-to” videos that instruct others on implementing the practice, and this October, young people who took the classes will teach the techniques to the general public.

OpenSource Retail

The retail area in the storefront space doubled as a welcome desk where volunteers engaged participants and visitors.

OpenSource_Project Wall

On the project and calendar walls, visitors learned about the artists, viewed updates of the commissioned public artworks, and could plan their calendars around upcoming citywide events.


In this hands-on workshop, one of many held in the space, artist Heeseop Yoon shared her technique of rendering scenes of clutter and chaos using black masking tape on Mylar.

In fact, during 2015, virtually the entire City of Philadelphia became an Open Source space, featuring such events as trolley and walking tours between sites, both docent-led and self-guided tours with audio guides and maps. Programming also included a major launch party, artist and curator Q&As, lectures, film screenings, and a series of hands-on art workshops. Mural Arts continues to produce a full calendar of tours and events.


A skateboarder enjoys British conceptual artist Jonathan Monk’s sculptural re-interpretation of a Saul LeWitt painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is another one of the 14 Open Source projects curated by Pedro Alonzo to reveal aspects of Philadelphia’s urban identity and ignite continuing conversations about innovation, social change, and public space.

“The Open Source project was a catalyst for Mural Arts to rethink their overall brand,” notes J2’s Brian Jacobson. “For the past year, we’ve been working with them on a
total rebrand, which will be launching this October during Design Philadelphia. Our launch event will be one of 100 exhibitions, panel discussions, workshops, studio tours, book signings, etc., that will celebrate the work of the thousands of creative professionals who are part of Philadelphia’s reemergence as a city shaped by thoughtful design, collaborative business practices, and community engagement,” Jacobson adds. “At our launch event we’ll give participants a behind-the-scenes tour of what it takes to rebrand a legendary organization: the ups and downs, unseen designs and narratives, collaboration, and trust. Throughout the night, Jane Golden, my dad Alan and I will facilitate a discussion with the Mural Arts and J2 Design teams, and we’ll be asking for artistic contributions via Twitter, so be prepared to flex your creative muscles,” he warns.


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