Philadelphia Mural Art as Civic Media
By Alyssa Evans
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines civic as “relating to citizenship or being a citizen” and media as “a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression.” As a relatively new term in the conversation about how we use media in the public sphere, civic media aims to combine the responsibility of people to act on social issues through the usage of newly immerging platforms of expression. Unlike mass media, which aims to reach a wide audience through mass communication, civic media reaches for something more — to convince people to learn, act, and be a part of the social movements. To show them that their participation matters, and the benefit of their contribution outweighs the cost of their contribution. To get people to step off the curb and into the movement.
With the constant changes in technology, civic media utilizes the wide reach of digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Still, digital civic media is not the only form of successful social movement, evident by Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Guild Program. Started in 1984, this program provides job training and mentorship through public arts programs to individuals in an effort to break the cycle of recidivism. It gives people who are released from prison a smoother transition back into society, with respect and a progressive project to work on. By painting murals, these individuals can express their creativity in a therapeutic way that brings them together with other members of the community to work on a common goal. The program provides a support system, a way to network, and a way to make new friends.
The idea of counteracting recidivism is especially important in a city like Philadelphia, where crime is rampant and offenders often fall back into the system shortly after they have been released. Frequently when people are released from prison, they don’t have a place to go or a job to make money, so they find themselves falling back into incarceration. The goal of the Mural Arts Guild Program, therefore, is to counteract this process — “to provide job readiness skills, enhanced self-esteem, strong ties and networks in the community, assistance with GED preparation, and other academic endeavors to ultimately reduce the recidivism rate of participants while in the program and for 18 months after.” This action of civic media — giving participants a positive outlet to outgrow recidivism — boasts a 13.5% recidivistic rate for partakers, a great accomplishment compared to the national average rate of 67.5%.
Equally important to the anti-recidivism component of this program is the subject matter that is painted in these murals. Most of the artwork centers on social issues such as racism, poverty, and crime. By painting images that portray these issues for the public, the mural art is a creative form of civic media that encourages people to pay attention, be informed, and take action against problems such as racism, poverty, and crime. The murals create larger-than-life, beautiful portrayals of issues that need to be addressed and combatted.
As the city with the most murals in the world, Philadelphia boasts thousands of paintings that each tell a unique story and oftentimes support a social issue. The use of murals as civic media can be seen in pieces like AIDS Southwest, FACT, The Peace Wall, and Our City, Our Vets. Each mural tackles a specific social issue, including physical and mental diseases, family life, and racism.
AIDS Southwest, on 54th Street, was created to spread awareness and start a conversation about HIV. It features images such as a crack pipe, hinting at drug use, and a pregnant woman to signify the effect HIV has on families.
A little farther down on 55th Street is FACT (Fathers and Children Together), a mural that emulates the effects of mass incarceration on families. In prison, being tender is often not looked well upon, making it difficult for fathers to have close relationships with their children. A ribbon surrounding the mural includes dozens of small spaces, painted by fathers and their kids, hoping to start a conversation about mass incarceration’s ability to negatively influence family life.
The Peace Wall, on 29th Street in Grays Ferry, is one of the earlier Philadelphia murals. The area used to be inhabited mainly by Irish working-class citizens, but as the economy plummeted in the mid 90s, a stronger African American presence moved in. Today, the neighborhood is still racially divided, and this mural was created in an effort to get both groups to work together on a common project, thus promoting racial unity.
Our City, Our Vets on 42nd street was created to start a conversation about mental illness, particularly PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) of soldiers coming home from war. The black-and-white mural spans two different sides of a parking lot, representing the two different worlds these soldiers have lived in — one side home, the other side Iraq. This mural triggers reflections on war, on the bravery of these men, and on the unresolved issues of mental illness.
Mural arts cause us to develop our understanding of what “media” means, and how social issues can be combatted in artistic platforms that don’t use technology and screens to spread the word. These paintings are not just another way of communicating a message on a social media site or in a video; they are part of a living, breathing city. They were created by inhabitants who best understand life in Philadelphia — where it has been, where it is now, and where it can go. Mural art can be viewed through photographs and videos on all kinds of media, but also goes beyond that in its personal expression upon the walls of a city that has acknowledges its issues and is looking for others to acknowledge them too. These vast murals of bright colors and deep issues cause people to not just “like” or “share,” but to pause, to consider, to understand, and to act.