Philadelphia Murals Empower the Homeless

Philadelphia is a quiet city, at least when compared to sprawling, raucous New York. However, Philly is known internationally as the “City of Murals”; it has the most of any city in the United States. Josh Sarantitis, a local mural artist, explains that it is precisely Philly’s small size that makes it more pedestrian friendly, which allows artists to use murals to create a dialogue with passersby. According to the city-funded Mural Arts Program, “the mural-making process gives neighborhood residents a voice to tell their individual and collective stories, a way to pass on culture and tradition, and a vehicle to develop and empower local leaders.” Since the program’s creation in 1984, it has been transforming post-industrialized neighborhoods and motivating local artists. Mural Arts also runs programs for Philadelphia’s at-risk youth, inmates, and the homeless to foster community and a sense of purpose through artistic creativity.

At 13th and Ludlow Streets, Sarantitis, local weaver Kathryn Pannepacker, and hundreds of Philadelphia’s homeless population have created a mural called “Finding Home.” Sarantitis elaborates that the title has two meanings: the search for actual, physical shelter, and the “psychological finding home within oneself.”

The mural itself is eye-catching and colorful, especially due to its unique woven canvas that gives it a deeper dimensional quality. It depicts a variety of images, including a person weaving, many hands united, the word “DIGNITY,” and the word “INVISIBLE” bent to make one side read “VISIBLE.” According to the artists, the homeless are often ignored. Yet, when they are given a voice, they become “visible” again, and regain their dignity. Dignity also comes with a sense of belonging and a place to call home. The united hands evoke a sense of solidarity with all walks of life in the pursuit of finding acceptance and welcome.

Mural Arts asked Sarantitis to do a project specifically focusing on destigmatizing homelessness, and he enlisted Pannepacker’s help. To incorporate the homeless population in their work, they set up workshops with homeless shelters to teach patrons how to weave; the homeless then wrote their stories on the strips of cloth that were woven into the mural. For the designers, working alongside the homeless in creating a mural about homelessness illustrates the very stigma they mean to break; Pannepacker explained that it was difficult at first, and at times, awkward.

“If you get people together to work on something, there starts to be conversation and commonality,” she went on to say.”We need to have a sense of responsibility and accountability and love among ourselves.”

Mural Arts states that its mission is to give people a sense of self-empowerment through art. “The physical act of creating is the most important aspect [of the project]…spreading the idea that everybody can use their hands to make something” Sarantitis said.

Pannepacker recalled the story of Rob, a man took the knowledge of weaving that he gained from working on the mural and started selling scarves he wove himself. Eventually he saved up enough money to go to Oklahoma to be with his children. Similarly,John, was able to get back on his feet and fulfill his dream ofhiking the Appalachian Trail because of his work with the mural.

Because of stories like this, Sarantitis and Pannepacker have faith in public art. Not only does art make neighborhoods more beautiful, it also involves the community in a project. It allows the community to tell its story, and in doing so, restores its dignity. Throughout her decades of work, director of the Mural Arts Program Jane Golden has affirmed that “art saves lives.” Artists have a unique means to connect with others. Following Sarantitis’s and Pannepacker’s examples of responsibility, understanding, and creativity, others can affect positive change in their communities.

The artists would like to credit the Mural Arts Program, the Bethesda Project, Project H.O.M.E., and St. John the Evangelist Church, as well as Shelby Donnelly, Al Tull, Leslie Sudock, Rachel Gucwa, and Misty Sparks. If you would like to explore the murals of Philadelphia, please visit muralarts.org/explore/mural-mile.

By Regina Munch ’13

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