My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

What the Mural Machine Left Behind

Image by Caleb Rochester

Caleb Rochester has the unique and sought after skill of creating work that is totally uninfluenced by others. This might be because, to my knowledge, Caleb doesn’t care about the “art world.” Trends and movements don’t interest him. His pieces are the kinds of mini masterworks that seem to only be achieved by those who have an inherent gift and no formal training. He has also lived in Philadelphia for decades and has seen a lot more than most of us.

-Adam Peditto, curator

As a native of this city, I have seen the evolution of the mural industry in Philadelphia from its humble beginnings thirty years ago into a large, well-funded, and fairly famous machine today.

The original incarnation of the Mural Arts Program was the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), which still exists today. Mayor Wilson Goode started the program in 1984. It had a low budget and a novel concept. In an effort to eradicate graffiti from the city, kids who were arrested for defacing property were forced to paint murals instead.

Image by Caleb Rochester

These kids were supervised by artists fresh out of school. The typical mural crew might be six “graffiti writers” and one “real” artist with a bunch of brushes and buckets of paint. The crew would set up scaffolding in front of a blank wall, whip up a design on the spot and start painting. Sometimes the neighbors would put in their two cents in the beginning and sometimes not. The kids often could not draw, and frequently knew nothing about art. Some of the murals that they painted were very strange. Some of them were stupid and some of them were hilarious.

Image by Caleb Rochester

Most of the weirdest ones are long gone. They have been painted over by the now organized Mural Arts Program, or built over with new buildings, or destroyed along with the buildings they were painted on.

One day in the 90’s I stumbled on one of the “survivors” in South Philly. I think it was somewhere around 20th and Tasker, but I’m not sure. I’ve actually gone looking for it a few times since, but I could never find it.

Image by Caleb Rochester

The elements in the painting seemed like they could have been chosen at random, yet also seemed to be telling a story of some kind. Let’s see if I can put this the right way: the painting was more than one thing. It was a badly-executed painting telling a poorly articulated story, but it had a mystery to it, like ancient hieroglyphics from a forgotten civilization.

Image by Caleb Rochester

When you take it out of the context of that forgotten civilization, the story does not make sense. The place and time where this mural came from is gone.

I have never forgotten that mural. I only saw it once, and I’ve never seen a photo of it. The stained glass window is a TRIBUTE. I drafted it out of memory.

Image by Caleb Rochester

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