Considering Philly’s rank as the fifth-largest city in the United States, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that it’s got an abundance of street art. But the Philadelphia street art scene has something going for it that other cities don’t: Mural Arts Philadelphia, the largest public art program in the United States.
Started in 1984 by Jane Golden and Mayor Wilson Goode, the program has overseen over 4,000 murals throughout the city. It initially started as an anti-graffiti campaign which encouraged illegal taggers to focus their creative energy on city-sponsored murals. Today, Mural Arts also sponsors an after-school program, allowing young artists to contribute to Philly’s creative landscape.
Touring Philadelphia’s street art is a bit like visiting a fine arts museum, with many of the murals having been painted in the realism style. Furthermore, much like a museum floor plan, each piece has been mapped out on the Mural Arts web site.
In contrast to other cities, many of Philadelphia’s more notable works remain up for years and years. Some of the murals featured down below, in fact, are approaching their twentieth birthday! Philadelphia’s street art is also unique for the sheer size of its murals. While most cities have at least a few humongous pieces, in Philadelphia it’s pretty much the norm.
I usually provide custom maps for street art guides, but the Mural Arts Program has already beat me to it. Be sure to check out their useful map during your explorations around the city. But as their map lists nearly every single mural, it can be a bit overwhelming to pick and choose what to see. Below, you can find most of the city’s more notable works along with info on where to find them.
Central Philadelphia Street Art
While just about every part of Philadelphia is teeming with street art, a lot of the city’s most notable works can be found right in the city center. Either use the official Mural Arts map or just wander around and see what you can find, especially around City Hall.
Around City Hall
One of the most well-known pieces you’ll come across is ‘The Father of Modern Philadelphia,’ painted by Gaia in 2012. The face in the mural is Edmund Bacon, an architect and urban planner who’s largely credited with shaping Philly’s urban landscape. Who better to honor with a mural in the heart of the city?
Also on S 13th street is another one of the city’s most iconic pieces. The colorful, cartoony look of ‘Philly Chunk Pack’ stands out among the realistic style of other nearby murals. It was created in 2011 by Brooklyn-based Kenny Scharf, who honed his skills the ’80s East Village art scene.
And elsewhere on S 13th, you can find works like ‘Personal Melody’ by How and Nosm. The abstract painting was added in 2012 by the New York-based artist duo who also happen to be twin brothers. Like Philly Chunk Pack, the abstract and playful nature of the mural set it apart from surrounding pieces.
On Arch Street, you can find murals like ‘Freedom’ by Peter Pagast, an artist who’s produced several significant pieces around the city. And in a gated parking lot you can get a glimpse of ‘Water Gives Life’ by Eurhi Jones and David McShane. As the name suggests, the mural is a celebration of water. Look closely and you can see the outline of the two rivers which flow on either side of Philadelphia.
Supposedly, the work replaced a different water-themed mural which once adorned the same wall. Note that it can be difficult to get a good view, as the parking lot seems off-limits to pedestrians.
Over on S 8th street, don’t miss ‘A Peoples Progression Toward Equality’ by Jack Ramsdale and Jared Bader. This gigantic 2007 mural was created to challenge the notion that it was Abraham Lincoln alone who ended slavery in the United States. Rather, there were also plenty of ordinary citizens who pushed hard for abolition for many years.
The mural depicts workers constructing a giant statue of Lincoln across three levels. Furthermore, the work gives the illusion that the statue’s construction is taking place inside the building which the piece adorns.
Another highlight of central Philadelphia is ‘Spring’ by David Guinn. It’s part of Guinn’s ‘Seasons’ series, another of which can be found by South Street (see below). The large mural features an interesting contrast between the detailed and realistic trees and a heavily pixelated background. The work was first created in 2000 but has since been restored a couple of times.
Over on St. James and Locust St., stop by the parking lot for a clear view of ‘Philadelphia Muses’ by Meg Saligman. Created in 1999, this is among the most impressive murals in the entire city. The massive work depicts the muses of the arts. In Greek mythology, the muses were divinities which presided over various artistic disciplines. The artist reimagines the nine muses for modern times, while different art forms are also represented by spheres.
Supposedly, it was created in the artist’s studio rather than on the wall itself. It was then applied piece by piece using acrylic gel!
North of City Hall is the Chinatown district which is also home to a few interesting murals. ‘How We Fish,’ on the side of the Archworks Building, is based on the proverb ‘Give a man a fish and he only eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.’ The top portion features depictions of various trades, while the bottom part in blue is oddly reminiscent of old propaganda posters.
Further north along Vine Street, I caught the edge of ‘Colors of Light’ by Josh Sarantitis. Due to construction, nearly the entirety of the humongous mural was obscured. But even the far end of it, which features a Chinese scroll, appeared massive up close. Nearby you can also find another vertical mural which pays homage to the local Chinese immigrant community.
‘Written in Wood’ by Benjamin Volta in the Old City district is one of Philadelphia’s most unique pieces. The 2012 mural doesn’t look like a painting, but more like a huge piece of wood with various shapes carved out of it. Appropriately, it adorns the side of The Center for Art in Wood.
The Old City district is more well known for its art galleries and historic architecture than for its street art, but there are still a few more murals to discover. As with the rest of Philadelphia, you can find some gems in the parking lots.
North Philly Street Art
North Philly is home to a large number of murals spread across a vast area. To be frank, the general area is not nearly as pretty, or safe, to walk around as the city center. But there are still plenty of excellent murals to reward those willing to explore. The ones featured below only scratch the surface compared to what’s included on the Mural Arts art map.
Just across the street from the Edgar Allen Poe House, a former 19th-century home of the famous author, is a mural bearing his likeness. It’s one of several works around town by muralist Peter Pagast.
On 1301 Ridge Avenue, the 2001 mural ‘Metamorphosis: Blueprint to End Homelessness’ by Josh Sarantiti is even big by Philly standards! While hard to make out in the shot below, the bottom portion of the mural features butterflies cut from metal by residents of the Ridge Homeless Shelter.
Nearby the campus of Temple University, you can find Pedal Powering by painter and sculptor Candy Coated. The eye-catching piece looks like something straight out of the early ’90s, but in a good way! It’s meant to help promote urban cycling and was made in partnership with the Indego Bikeshare program.
There’s still a lot more to be discovered while wandering the streets. As excellent as the Mural Arts program is, the Philadelphia street art scene is missing some of the spontaneity and DIY vibe of other cities. But North Philly is where to go if you’re looking to find murals that are slightly edgier and a bit less refined than in other parts of the city.
South Street is one of Philly’s most popular streets for dining and nightlife. And it’s also considered one of the artsiest parts of the city. Accordingly, there’s an abundance of street art to check out in the area – both on South Street itself and along nearby roads and alleyways.
One of the largest murals on South Street is ‘Mapping Courage.’ It was created in honor of W.E.B. DuBois, American author, sociologist and civil rights activist who lived in the 19th century. Engine 11, meanwhile, was a fire station on South Street where only black firefighters could work due to segregation laws. And things remained that way until 1952.
Around the corner on S 10th street, don’t miss ‘Crystal Snowscape’ by David Guinn. It’s another part of his ‘Seasons’ series (see above) and this one obviously represents winter.
Spread across two walls, the building in the painting looks exactly like the one on which its painted, giving the mural a multidimensional effect. The trees, meanwhile, are based off a 16th-century painting called ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ by Pieter Bruegel. The mural was completed in 1999 but has since been recently restored.
In contrast to the central and northern parts of the city, South Street is home to lots of smaller murals. Many of them seem to be separate from the official Mural Arts program, and it’s not always clear who the artist is. You can also find some more murals further south on S 10th street, like the strange eyeball plant above Sam’s Morning Glory Diner.
South Street is also home to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, one of the city’s most iconic art spaces. The entire building is covered in mosaics and the project is the brainchild of local artist Isaiah Zagar.
While the Magic Gardens requires a ticket for entry, you’ll notice plenty of his mosaic artwork all throughout the area. Even in other parts of the city, you’ll occasionally encounter entire buildings completely covered in mosaics!
Western Philadelphia Street Art
While the western part of the city doesn’t contain quite as many murals, there are still a number of gems to be found. Nearby the Schuylkill River is another humongous piece entitled ‘Mapping Freire.’ It was created in conjunction with the Freire Charter School, with the overall theme of the project being ‘community.’
Many of the mural’s scenes were copied from photographs of the surrounding area taken by the students. And this is yet another mural that is so massive that it’s hard to see all at once, never mind photograph. But you may have better luck if you arrive when there are fewer cars in the parking lot.
Over on S 20th, there’s yet another mural by David Guinn, just above the Shake Shack burger restaurant. Presumably, this is part of the same ‘Seasons’ series mentioned above, yet it was completed more recently in 2014. It also lacks the pixelated look of his other pieces.
There are also numerous murals around the Schuylkill River area, and walking or biking the Schuylkill River Trail is worthwhile for any visitor to the city. One of the murals you’ll encounter, the ‘Phillies Mural,’ is located near Walnut Street Bridge. The vertical painting celebrates the local baseball team’s two World Series wins in 1980 and 2008.
Additionally, there’s even more to be found across the river in the area around the Penn Museum.
All in all, you could probably spend weeks in Philadelphia and just barely scratch the surface of all there is to find. It’s no wonder, then, that many are now calling Philly ‘the city of murals.’
When it come to touring Philadelphia architecture, one of the best places to stay would be Society Hill. It’s one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and is full of well-preserved architecture from the colonial era. Just to the north are Independence Hall and Liberty Square. And to the south of the neighborhood is South Street, one of Philly’s most popular districts for nightlife and the arts.
Also consider staying somewhere nearby City Hall. It’s located on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s busiest street where you can find a number of major landmarks and also metro stations. Also nearby is the historical Old City district.
Other popular areas include Rittenhouse Square and Chinatown. And just to the west of downtown, the University City area, home to the Penn Museum and Drexel University, is also worthy of consideration.
All of the above-mentioned neighborhoods could be considered central Philadelphia. In general, the central area of the city is clean, safe and pleasant to explore. If you want to stay further away, though, be sure to do thorough research on that area. Philly has a lot of rough neighborhoods that you’re better off avoiding altogether.