Shepard Fairey's latest mural calls attention to prison reform

Contemporary artist Shepard Fairey returned to Philadelphia this week, this time drawing attention to prison reform through his work with the Mural Arts Program’s ongoing “Open Source: Engaging Audiences in Public Space” exhibition.

“I look at everyone as having potential to do great things to shape society,” Fairey said of the concept behind his latest Philadelphia work. “My goal is to shed some light on the issue and destigmatize it by finding people who are doing good things after being incarcerated.”

Fairey has developed two massive murals highlighting individuals who are part of Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program, which works with inmates, probationers and parolees to help them learn new skills through art. 

One mural, “The Stamp of Incarceration: Amira Mohamed,” has been installed on the side of the Friends Center building at 15th and Race streets. Mohamed, a Philly resident and architecture student, was previously imprisoned for seven years before joining Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program as a painter. 

Fairey will not paint the other mural in the series, “The Stamp of Incarceration: James Anderson.” That task will fall to inmates at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, who will paint the image on parachute-type material in prison. A separate crew will mount it on a wall at 1131 Callowhill St.

Anderson, a former gang member and drug addict, is now program administrator for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition out of Los Angeles, which works for criminal justice reform.

“I hope that [the Graterford inmates] get a sense of satisfaction in getting to see photos of how the mural interacts with society,” Fairey said. “If nothing else, it will get [us] to consider these inmates [as] people.”

This week marked Fairey’s second trip to Philly for a mural installation in just over a year; the artist put up his “Lotus Diamond” piece in August 2014 at 1228 Frankford Ave. in Fishtown. That piece was decorative, while the newer murals have a more political message. 

Regardless of the work’s content, Fairey just can’t seem to stay away from Philly.

“Philly’s got flavor,” he said. “It’s a little grimy — in a good way. That freaky, folk-art side of it is thriving. It’s not getting cleaned up but showcased in a way that’s respectful to the spirit it was created in, in the first place. I like this town a lot.” 

And Philly seems to like him right back. In fact, Mural Arts will celebrate Fairey’s new murals with a free block party at 6 p.m. tonight at 13th and Walnut featuring DJs Cosmo Baker, Rich Medina and others.

Fairey wouldn’t mind, though, if his new mural were taken down — for the right reasons.

“I would love it if this mural was obsolete tomorrow, and they were just like, ‘Let’s paint a flower over it,” he said. 

Mural Arts’ “Open Source: Engaging Audiences in Public space” runs through October with guided tours, speaking events, and mural installations across the city. Find out more at 215-685-0750 or muralarts.org.