Jane Golden And Philadelphia’s Graffiti Crisis

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In the decades since The Mural Arts Program was established, Jane Golden has combated Philadelphia’s graffiti crisis by using the program’s resources as a means of transforming graffiti’s destructive use of art into a more constructive outlet. While rechanneling the negative energy, she also took preventive measures against future occurrences of graffiti and crime by bringing about innovative art education and restorative justice programs to Philadelphia communities that are predisposed to crime. The Mural Arts Program, under the guidance of Golden, has made it possible for the thousands impacted by it to break the cycle of crime and violence, and bring about healing in individuals and communities.

Graffiti has a long and complicated history in Philadelphia, its birthplace. Acknowledged as the world’s first modern graffiti artist, “Cornbread,” aka Darryl McCray, picked up his tagging style while in a youth detention center. During the late 1960’s, he and a group of friends started ‘tagging’ Philadelphia, by writing their nicknames on walls across the city. The movement spread to New York and blossomed into the modern graffiti movement, which reached its peak in the U.S. in the 1980’s and then spread to Europe (Benner). As a troubled teen who used graffiti as a means of self-expression, Cornbread said that graffiti saved him.

After a hiatus from Philadelphia, McCray returned in the 1980s only to see that graffiti had spread throughout the city as vandalism, rather than art (Shea). In 1984, Philadelphia mayor, Wilson Goode, founded the Anti-Graffiti Network and recruited McCray to help him stop inner city youth from tagging. The Anti-Graffiti Network eventually turned into The Mural Arts Program, the largest public art program in the United States. McCray developed a close relationship with Jane Golden, the Executive Director of Mural Arts. Today, McCray works as a public speaker and youth advocate. He gives motivational talks about his youth as a tagger, his run-ins with the law, and his struggles with drugs. He speaks out against illegal graffiti, but he still tags when commissioned (Benner).

Defining graffiti is a controversial debate, in which both sides proves valid points. There seems to be thin line separating graffiti from a form of art. This is one of the reasons Philadelphia has a complicated relationship with graffiti. That relationship is best illustrated today on two walls that thousands of travelers heading out of the city on the Schuylkill Expressway or Amtrak see every day. On one wall, a large orange paint scrawl, and next to that, a huge graffiti tag proclaiming “Texas Gane Bred.” The two works don’t look incompatible; in a strange way, they complement each other.

The orange scrawl — a rail corridor project called “psychylustro” by German artist Katharina Grosse commissioned by the Mural Arts Program — is sanctioned and legal (Silverman). The neighboring tag is vandalism. The difference, it seems, is permission. Graffiti artists ask no one for permission. They tag to advertise themselves, and they’re daring. The more dangerous and out of the way places they can tag, the better. For the artists, graffiti is a painted manifestation that something is wrong: a stumbling economy, high poverty, chaos throughout the world, disaffected young people so lacking a voice they’re moved to risk arrest and physical danger to spray paint their names 6 feet high (Halpern).

But one must recognize the sense of raw, uncensored message that gets delivered with graffiti since it lacks control or direction from outside influences. It offers an edge that isn’t present in street art. Even Golden acknowledges that there is a blurring in the definitions of street art, murals, and graffiti (Silverman).

While much of the city’s graffiti is like litter, some of it is complex and compelling to look at, like the crazy explosion of images covering a block-long factory at Sixth and Moore. The artists asked for and were granted permission to paint the walls by the business owner (Halpern). So there is some graffiti people would rather look at than yet another wrapped bus jeans ad, or a TV screen at a gas pump spewing commercials, or the rest of the advertising landscape we’re forced to look at every day. Advertisers have permission — though not directly from Philadelphia’s citizens — to litter the landscape too.

Just like anything else that’s created humans, graffiti can be used negatively. Even when it’s not the artist’s intention to cause a disruption, there will always be people who disapprove. But censoring artwork of any kind is complicated and problematic. And that is why Jane Golden made it her mission rechannel the negative energy behind graffiti and refocus it into public art projects. Through these public art projects, she hoped to send a message of community, hope, and healing to the city of Philadelphia and its citizens (“About”).

Initially hired as a young artist by former Mayor Wilson Goode to help combat the graffiti crisis plaguing the city, Golden reached out to graffiti writers to help turn their destructive energies into creative ones. In the process, she recognized the raw artistic talent among the graffiti writers, and she provided them with fresh opportunities to channel their creativity and ideas into mural-making (“About). Under her direction, young people — most of them graffiti artists themselves, teenagers who had never dipped a brush in watercolors or seen even the outside of an art museum — were enlisted and paid to put in “scrub time” and to learn how to paint murals. Golden introduced them to professional artists, to poetry, to fine arts. She and her small staff started after-school art programs and summer mural-painting programs and apprenticeship programs.

More than 10,000 kids have participated so far, many of them year after year, through junior high and high school, internships, apprenticeships, and jobs (“Art Education”). Through Mural Arts, more than 1,200 students a year receive free art instruction, and our Guild reentry program imparts career skills to men and women returning from incarceration. The program employs 200 to 250 artists a year and contributes $2.7 million annually to the local creative economy (Silverman).

Mural Arts’ award-winning Art Education program provides over 1,500 underserved Philadelphia youth annually, ages 10 to 21, with access to quality in-school and after-school programming at 25–30 sites across Philadelphia. The program and its variety of initiatives exposes students to everything from entrepreneurship to environmental stewardship, all through a creative and colorful lens, and integrates content that is thematically relevant to the challenges and interests of today’s youth (“Art Education”). As they develop new skills, participants bring their talents and perspectives to major mural projects.

Beautification projects have been going on for decades in inner cities across America, often with striking results. But it is still remarkable, even to an artist and activist like Golden, how democracy can be advanced in real and tangible ways simply by putting paintings on the sides of buildings in communities that reflect the very failure of democracy. “I always thought murals made art accessible to people, and they do,” Golden says. “But I’ve witnessed how they create real neighborhood change, too” (“Letters: Murals Invigorate Philly”).

The murals themselves transformed city neighborhoods which had long suffered from years of neglect and hardship. In 1996, Mural Arts was reorganized under the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation, and Golden was put in place as its director. At this time, she established the Philadelphia Mural Arts Advocates, a nonprofit organized to raise funds and provide support to the program (Shea).

While Mural Arts has roughly 70 ongoing community mural projects, the citywide initiative is actually about much more than murals. Golden, who is now Mural Arts’ executive director, and her 54-member team are also shepherding a floating art and ecology lab as envisioned by artist Meejin Yoon for the Schuylkill River; Radio Silence, a podcast and radio series by Michael Rakowitz created in tandem with the city’s Iraqi refugee community; and Porch Light, a collaboration with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services to provide programs at the intersection of arts, recovery, and healing (“Public Art and Civil Engagement”). Mural Arts also has programs addressing arts education and the criminal justice system, and offers city tours through which visitors can explore what Mural Arts calls “the world’s largest outdoor art gallery” (Heidenry).

Despite the diversification of its activities, the organization’s core mission remains the same, according to Golden. “We’re addressing the need for creativity in people’s lives—the opportunity to look at some of our city’s more intractable problems and address them through a creative means,” she emphasized (Halpern). Golden also acknowledged that public funding support has been crucial to fostering and growing Mural Arts. “We have been honored to receive funds from the NEA, and feel that it is invaluable…. Government funding for us is a platform and a catalyst” (Silverman).

Through her work with Mural Arts, Golden has developed an understanding of the utility of art. Yes, public art can make a community more aesthetically appealing. But even more essential, however, it is the way in which the process of making art can powerfully give voice to community members. When the people of a community are actively engaged in creating the artwork that beautifies the built environment in which they live, they can see their own hopes, dreams, and concerns writ large on their local landscape, which in turn empowers them to ask for and make change at a deeper level.

With the murals Golden oversees, the challenges start even before the paintbrushes come out. Before any mural comes to life, a community has to come together, put in a request, and meet to decide on images (“Public Art and Civil Engagement). In 2004, community leaders from Mantua, a West Philadelphia neighborhood known as ‘The Bottom,’ submitted an ambitious request. They wanted to paint murals on two apartment buildings that bordered a field trashed with glass shards and old tires. Today, the junk in the vacant Mantua lots has been replaced by a park — a trend that can attract developers. ‘They say that they feel that it is safer to build in Mantua,’ Golden says. ‘ I know that what we’re doing isn’t a solution for all that is wrong with the city … [but] murals show us the catalytic role that art can play in healing a city,’ Golden says (“Letters: Murals Invigorate Philly”). Not only do these murals work at bringing together and healing a community, they also help bring about economic change and opportunities.

Jane Golden has been a driving force in the organization since its genesis as the Anti-Graffiti Network. Today, the Mural Arts Program is internationally renowned for its success in beautifying urban neighborhoods, transcending urban divides and empowering artists to bring their work to the public.

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