1980s Philadelphia. Reeling from rising crime, Mafia warfare and the proliferation of drug gangs, the city’s murder rate had skyrocketed. Although the birthplace of America was in desperate need of healing, the pain and uncertainty experienced by local residents manifested itself in a radical change to their city’s outward appearance, courtesy of the prevalence of graffiti. Graffiti became such an issue, the most pressing issue according to then-mayor Wilson Goode, that it came to be seen as a social epidemic.
Goode wasted little time taking action following his election as Philadelphia’s first African-American mayor in 1984. Within the first month of his administration, the Anti-Graffiti Network, led by a young community activist named Tim Spencer, was formally established to combat the problem. However, it wasn’t until two years later that the influential Mural Arts Project, headed by Jane Golden, developed within the initiative. Golden, an artist in her own right, was able to work with local taggers in harnessing their talents towards something beneficial for the communities in which they lived. Wisely, she understood that a focus on collaboration rather than punishment was needed to gain the trust of the young people within the sub-culture.
The impact of the Mural Arts program has been staggering. Although it was originally intended to simply help to eradicate graffiti, it has enabled professional artists and young Philadelphians to showcase their artistic talent in a constructive way. To date, the program has produced more than 3,600 murals. As Golden profoundly puts it, Philadelphia has become somewhat of an outdoor museum.
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