You may know Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love. Aside from this literal moniker, Philly is also the City of Murals. Ordinary or decrepit buildings are transformed into palettes of heroes, landscapes, and faces all across the city. World-class museums attract tourists from around the world to Philadelphia, but some of the best works are outside the gallery walls.
The Mural Arts Program has been the driving force of Philadelphia’s mural renaissance, which began in the 1980s. While the program hosts a variety of projects and tours, one is a consistent favorite: Stephen Powers’ Love Letter Mural Tour. Whether it’s for a date or an afternoon of arts exploration, head to the El and see one of the world’s best public love letters.
In 1984 Jan Golden founded the Mural Arts Program as a beautifying initiative. The program encouraged graffiti artists, who were abound in Philadelphia, to express themselves through murals rather than “tagging” names on city walls. Since then, the Mural Arts Program has blossomed into an opportunity for professionals and amateurs to showcase their artistic talent. The program has produced over 3,600 murals to date, canvassing Philadelphia in mammoth designs of images and faces and colors. Each mural serves as a cultural icon and a community connection; today, Philadelphia’s murals are recognized around the world. And the enduring ethos of the organization—to bring art to the community and the community to art—has continued to inspire positive social changes throughout the city.
image by carnagenyc
What defines love? What and how, exactly, does it make us feel? Is it just a string of ups and downs? Is it tied to happiness and joy and togetherness? Or is it more elusive and fleeting, and defined by feelings of loss and separation?
Stephen Powers, an internationally-renowned and native Philadelphia graffiti artist, encompasses what is means to love in his Love Letter project. His first Love Letter project was created in Ireland in 2007 while he was working there as a Fulbright scholar. He then returned to his hometown, Philadelphia, and completed the Philly Love Letter in 2010. Since then, the project has grown to more than ten cities around the globe.
In this corner of the world, fifty spray-painted murals adorn the upper walls of buildings, business, and homes from 45th to 63rd Streets in West Philly; and each is a shining piece in a mosaic urban poem. “A letter for one but with meaning for all,” as he describes it, Powers’s work is the story of a struggling commuter coming home to his true love. This is the surface meaning, at least; on a deeper level, Powers says it is an ode to a person, to his native city, and to the residents of a neighborhood. He captures how love feels with a forceful variety of wit, sweetness, and impact—one sign will prompt laughter, while the next may stoke longing. Lines like “I want you like coffee. I need you like juice. I won’t put you on the side like bacon. You can have me over easy” are beside ones such as “Your everafter is all I’m after.”
Simply put, Powers’s words and colors will stay with you. Tourists and locals alike applaud the murals as poignant, clever, and a picture of the gritty city’s spirit. Ultimately, Love Letter speaks to those who have loved and those who long to express that love.
image by carnagenyc
The murals, spanning the Market Street Corridor, can be seen from the Market-Frankford Line elevated rail (also known as the El). This is where the tours take place; guests hop on the train with a tour guide, and take in the love letters from the local line. Impressively knowledgeable tour guides will impart the stories of the murals and how to project came to be realized. You could, of course, seek the murals out yourself; but there’s no better view than from the train and the platforms. Don’t miss your chance to see Philadelphia’s greatest love letter, for it’s only temporary. The pieces will not be maintained or restored when they begin to fade. For more information on the tours, click here.
Stephen Powers was born in West Philadelphia and is now based in New York. He’s a former graffiti writer (under the name ESPO, or “Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”) who has since become a studio artist and illustrator. Powers is revered for his graffiti, street signage, and his large-scale installations. Powers has been a participant in the 49th Venice Biennale, and is an author. He continues to make and sell artwork at his store in Brooklyn.
Make your trip even more romantic by booking The Cultured Romantic package including two 2-day passes with access to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Perelman Building, and the Rodin Museum.