Why Are Philadelphia’s Murals So Ugly?

I love the Mural Arts Program. It's just the murals I can't stand.

I hate Jane Seymour.

I also hate the double-dutching girls at 40th and Chestnut, the Philadelphia singers with a clock floating in the air near Pat’s Steaks, the eyes on Ben Franklin High School, Marc Vetri and his Tuscan landscape on Spruce Street, Dr. J in a suit instead of a 76ers uniform and, of course, the 20-foot Frank Rizzo lording over the Italian Market.

And the Phillies mural! This isn’t even painted yet, and I already hate it. The Phillies mural will replace the old Walnut Storage advertisement on 24th Street. The design proposal features 26 people floating in the air around a baseball stadium crammed with every bit of Phillies imagery one can imagine. It’s the busiest mural in a city of busy murals.

And I pretty much hate them all.

I often have detailed reasons for my hatred. South Street’s Jane Seymour mural showcases her “open heart” symbol. She has high hopes for this symbol­—“It could be a universal image of giving,” she says in a video on her website, attempting to replace Santa—but all anybody knows it as is a piece of jewelry advertised to husbands watching football games. The city sold out a mural to a celebrity, and the best we could do was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

The Mural Arts Program’s great, right? Conceived during the graffiti panic in 1984, it’s turned hundreds of the city’s blank walls into canvases celebrating Philadelphia’s people. It’s an easy, long-lasting way to spruce up a neighborhood for about 25 grand. It’s a great way to get kids into art, a background I wish I had.

Yet my hatred persists. Why do all the murals have to be so ugly? And so big? I’m an uncultured rube, sure, but the Mural Arts Program is for uncultured rubes. I prefer the sticker art on newspaper boxes in Center City or the graffiti along the Trenton SEPTA­ line to most murals.

So, what to do? The Mural Arts Program brings a lot of people together, including ex-convicts, for whom mural arts can be a crucial reentry point. Unfortunately, it usually brings them together to make really ugly art. So many murals going up now are produced via committee. Perhaps MAP needs to engage more artists, like the kids who sticker newspaper boxes, to bring the program the freshness it had in the 1980s.

Or not. After all, it’s a time-honored tradition­ for Philadelphians to hate everything that makes the city unique.

This piece originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

To read about  Jane Golden’s response to this piece, click here.