Inga Saffron vs. Mural Arts: The T-Shirt Edition

The battle has moved into the realm of haute couture -- well, haute for Philly, anyway.

mural arts t-shirt

A t-shirt made by Mural Arts in the wake of a column by Inga Saffron. Modeled by Emily Goulet.

This year marks the Mural Arts Program (MAP)’s 30th anniversary, and it should surprise no one that the Inquirer‘s Inga Saffron — a longtime critic of the city arts agency — would have something to say about it.

In a recent Changing Skyline column, the architecture critic did indeed take the opportunity to say a few words about MAP, some of them almost kind:

During those three decades, the city agency has left its mark on some 3,600 walls, mostly in the bleaker corners of the city where a little paint isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

But she does object to the program’s latest project: two murals to be painted on the Girard Avenue Bridge piers in Fairmount Park. To break it down, she has three issues with the project:

Banality. The murals will portray rowers, and make reference to the paintings of Thomas Eakins. “The standard-issue images of Boathouse Row and scullers are cliched and already look old.” These well-worn city tropes should be no surprise, Saffron writes, “given the program’s penchant for depicting the obvious.”

Intrusion. The murals will be “manufactured images” in a place that should be free from artifice. “The park is where we go to escape the constant static of our frenetic urban lives, to forget our devices and lose ourselves amid the trees.” That’s not a world where there should be advertising and agendas. “Murals, which tend to trumpet somebody else’s cause or interest, risk becoming just one more intrusion.”

Politics. Bottom line: Saffron doesn’t feel the project got the scrutiny it deserved.

A fair rebuttal is that there’s already art in the park, but Saffron says that the art that’s there now, well, it’s just better.

Well. Ahem. It’s not hard to imagine that feathers might be a little ruffled — again — over at MAP after that column.

But that’s where the fashion comes in. At the beginning of the piece, Saffron describes MAP (somewhat wryly?) as “Philadelphia’s community engagement juggernaut.” MAP Director of Communications Jenn McCreary, who clearly has a lively sense of humor, decided to embrace Saffron’s characterization — on 100 percent cotton. “I suggested the t-shirt idea to [MAP founder and director] Jane [Golden] and she loved it. We’re incredibly proud of the community engagement work we do, and know we have supporters who agree.”


For her part, Saffron wasn’t aware of the t-shirts’ existence until we told her about them. She evinced a low chuckle and said, “It’s always nice to be quoted.” And then, more seriously: “I’d rather see them express themselves on a t-shirt than paint a giant mural in Fairmount Park.”

The t-shirts, sadly, are not for sale. “We just had a handful of them made in fun,” McCreary says, “to embrace the phrase.” There are a couple left floating around the MAP office, however, so we’re guessing Saffron, at least, could probably score one.