Discovering the Murals in Philadelphia

with Barbara Rizza Mellin

I discovered a city that rivals Renaissance Italy – America’s own Philadelphia. 

Like the frescos that covered buildings in 16th century Europe, magnificent murals decorate the City of Brotherly Love. You will find more than 2,000 murals, ranging from one to eight stories, painted on walls of schools, community centers and public buildings.

The quality of the artwork is remarkable in its creation and composition. The images are realistic or imaginative, beautifully painted and totally engaging, not an easy task for artists working on such larger-than-life surfaces. The enormous scale of these artworks presents unique problems. Scaffolding must be constructed and special acrylic paint and sealers used, contributing to a total cost per mural of between $10,000 and $15,000.

One of my favorites is the window-reflected church on Walnut St. (near 22nd St.) The fact that no church actually exists, nor are there any real bricks or windows, makes this mural all the more magical. When you see it, you will automatically turn around to view the church, only to find a gas station. In 1995, Sunoco commissioned artist Michael Webb and Susan Maxman Architects to design and execute the mural of the St. James Episcopal Church that had filled that corner from 1870 to 1946.

The murals throughout the city are quite varied, crafted by different artists for different purposes. Some depict everyday people, as in The Steppers, a local drill team. Others pay homage to famous sons such as Mario Lanza, Dr. J, and Maxfield Parrish. Many, like The Peace Wall, have special themes, and some reflect distant places, as in Brazilian Rainforest.

The murals serve to unify the neighborhoods and to bring art to the public. The city is literally a giant al fresco art exhibit, the largest of its kind anywhere and a model for urban revitalization. Originally conceived to eliminate graffiti, the Mural Arts Program (MAP) began in 1984 under the direction of Jane Golden and the title Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. Graffiti writers were among the first to participate. Now, professional and emerging artists, art students and youthful artists, along with would-be taggers, work on the designs and completion of the actual paintings.

The eight-story-high mural, Common Threads, at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, is another of my favorites. Created in 1998, this multi-figured picture illustrates the connections of culture throughout time. Images of contemporary students are paired with people from history. Imitative poses reiterate the common-thread theme. It is the large, central figure, however, who will thoroughly capture your attention. A young black girl, dressed in a satiny pink blouse, fingers her long hair as if lost in contemplation. Her gaze seems to be inward, while her position, facing directly at the viewer, projects confidence and draws us into the picture.

The murals are so popular that the city offers trolley tours and provides self-guided driving tours. If you’re contemplating going to Philadelphia for the Fourth of July holiday to see the Liberty Bell and other patriotic sites, also take time to enjoy the murals. For your next vacation adventure, this should be at the top of your list!

Barbara Mellin is an award-winning artist and writer. As an art historian and world traveler, she finds inspiration in the “diverse cultures, natural beauty, and amazing people” that she has encountered in her visits to five continents, 24 countries and 45 states. Her articles on art and travel have been published around the world. Originally from the Boston area, she now lives in Winston-Salem, where she is a member of several professional art organizations and serves on the board of the Winston Salem Writers. For more information, visit


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