I’ve always known Philadelphia to be a city of art, if evidenced by nothing more than the famous “Rocky Steps” outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its plentiful art schools. It’s also, I soon learned, home to more murals than any other city in the country, with walls throughout the city covered by more than 3,000 murals and counting. With very few exceptions, all of these murals are the work of the nonprofit Mural Arts Program, which began in 1984 as a component of Philly’s Anti-Graffiti Network. During the last 28 years, the program has grown to encompass huge swaths of the city, engaging more than 1,500 city youths, working alongside accomplished mural artists, and hosting sundry visitors on its daily tours.
The program runs 11 tours in various parts of the city, each focusing on a different collection of murals and utilizing different modes of transport from trains to trolleys to bicycles to long walks. One tour allows visitors to “explore Philadelphia’s religious history and spirituality through its murals and places of worship,” while another invites guests to a combined mural and brewery tour complete with beer sampling. I sign up for the Love Letter Train Tour— the only one offered year-round— which brings visitors to 50 different murals scattered throughout West Philadelphia.
Not knowing what to expect, I must admit I’m a bit skeptical when our tour guide/mural docent Martha Palubniak hands me a SEPTA train token and directs our group to a nearby stop for the elevated train line. “I feel like I’m giving you allowance,” she says. “We’re going to be on public transit, and it’s going to go fast. We’re going to see as many murals as we can. You want to keep heads up because we’re going to move quickly and I don’t want to lose anybody.”
There’s about 10 of us, from as nearby as the Philly ’burbs to as far as Chicago. We board the train and listen intently to Palubniak as she explains the beginnings of the Mural Arts Program as a way for apprehended graffiti artists to beautify communities by serving “scrub time” instead of jail time. The organization’s founder and executive director, Jane Golden, recruited the artists, and had them pledge they’d stop tagging walls with graffiti. “All of them signed the contract,” says Palubniak. “All of them except Stephen Powers. This is the guy that we’re going to be seeing today.”
We ride from 45th Street to 63rd Street and back again, getting off at each stop along the way to catch a glimpse of the 50 rooftop murals painted by Philadelphia native Powers, known to the graffiti world as ESPO (“Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”). Powers was not interested in joining the program, and moved to New York City, where he became one of the city’s most recognizable graffiti artists. In 1999, he gave up spray paint, and became a studio artist. In 2009, the Fulbright Scholar returned to Philadelphia armed with 1,200 cans of spray paint, 800 gallons of bucket paint and 20 of the top spray painters in America to create the Love Letter series, a concept he later brought to communities in Syracuse and Brooklyn.
The murals, which exhibit a kind of simple, kitschy pop culture element, are arranged in no particular order throughout the neighborhood, but collectively tell the story of a love letter, “from a man to a woman, an artist to a city and a resident to his community,” says Palubniak. “You can read it in many different ways.”
Many of the murals are specific to the businesses they adorn, such as “Picture you, Picture me, Picture This,” which appears on the façade of a locally owned camera shop. One of my favorites, a bright baby blue, retro-looking mural covering the entire upper wall of the building at 6249 Market St., reads: “I want you like coffee, I need you like juice, I won’t put you on the side like bacon, you can have me over easy.” At 10 a.m. on a Saturday, it makes me wish the next stop on the tour was a local diner with the same mantra scrawled across its menus.
Another mural that gets “oohs” and “ahhs” from the group is a white wall painted to look like the canvas for vinyl letter refrigerator magnets. In one corner, there are jumbled letters, while another reads: “IF YOU WERE HERE ID BE HOME NOW.”
The tour ends about 90 minutes after it began, back at the subway platform steps across from Center City’s Love Park. Visitors are welcome to use their fare to return to other parts of the city, or walk back outside to see the sights— and a few murals— in downtown Philadelphia.
For me, perhaps the coolest aspect of the Love Letter Train Tour is the idea that, if I were commuting to work on this train each day, I’d be able to read these murals over and over again like fragmented poetry. Surely, I’d treasure the ones most appropriate to my life at any given moment, not unlike the songs on a favorite album, or, well, memorable lines in a letter of love.
The Love Letter Train Tour runs on weekends year-round and costs $17. See http://www.muralarts.org or call 215-925-3633 for descriptions of other tours.