Already known for having more murals than any other U.S. city, Philadelphia also may become the city with the most vandalized murals.
The amount of artwork trashed remains small, but it has taken a disturbing turn.
Philly has about 3,800 murals, big and little, indoor and outdoor, I’m told by Mural Arts Program founder Jane Golden. Of those, “maybe half a dozen” are vandalized each year, says Golden. But she’s upset by what seems to be a move away from garden variety graffiti to what can be called political vandalism.
One example is the huge Frank Rizzo mural at Ninth and Montrose Streets in the Italian Market, defaced in the early-morning hours Aug. 19.
It is no longer the only example.
Golden already had heard that two murals on Front Street had been vandalized: an American flag and a bald eagle. But she hadn’t yet heard the specifics.
Three days after the Rizzo defacement, in the early morning of Aug. 22, some twisted goons smeared white paint over the head of the large eagle at 1350 N. Front St. in North Philly. Across the eagle’s chest, the self-righteous vandals wrote: “There’s more than 1 symbol of white supremacy.”
When I told her what it said, Golden responded, “Oh, my goodness. That’s terrible. It does make me sick.”
It’s almost as though attacks on the Rizzo mural — five have been reported since 2010 — have opened the door for other vandals to take out their grievances on artwork. It puts me in mind of that sardonic throwaway line, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
I always hate to characterize an entire city by the actions of a few, positive or negative. Life is more complicated than that. But I can speculate on the special entitlement the freelance “art critics” must feel: If they don’t like the statement the art is making, they trash it.
That the art may enhance the lives of other people has no meaning to them, because the two-bit censors think they have right on their side.
But the other side feels that way, too. So you deface a Frank Rizzo mural you don’t like, and the next person defaces an Ed Bradley or Larry Fine mural that he or she doesn’t like. Next thing you know, we’re all wishing for the return of Cornbread and Cool Earl. (Note to millennials: They were Philly graffiti “artists” of an earlier era.)
The attacks on the flag and eagle murals damaged the work of an artist who goes by the name of Jimmy. The villains hit the eagle first — hard — then moved on to the flag. They were working on a broad black stain near the top when they were spotted and ran off, leaving their paint can behind. And their fingerprints.
Jimmy repainted the eagle within a few hours. The hardworking artist had to lay out more money and spend more time because some wingnuts had their idea of fun with a paint can.
“Acknowledging this type of vandalism and/or analyzing the meaning only gives power to the vandal, so I won’t take part in that,” Jimmy says.
I will, just a little. The culprits despoiled art and defaced American icons under cover of night.
They are night crawlers, pure and simple.