Why Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture means so much to Philadelphians

Faye Takata, 50 from Hawaii and Ben Mitchell, 47, of London celebrate their engagement while visiting Dilworth Park and Philadelphia. They took advantage of moderate temperatures and clear skies to get in last minute selfies in front of the iconic Love Statue Tuesday, February 14, 2017 just hours before the sculpture was scheduled to be removed for restoration

Philadelphia is home to a number of modern and contemporary public art pieces, thanks to artists like of Claes Oldenburg and Jacques Lipchitz, but pop artist Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture in John F. Kennedy Plaza is by far the most photographed and recognizable — save maybe for the Rocky statue. Tourists snap selfies in front of the artwork, while Philadelphians see it as an emblem of what the city stands for — brotherly love.

Indiana, 89, died Saturday at his home in Vinalhaven, Maine.

“The sculpture has been this iconic element that people come to take photos at all the time,” Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, said. “When we had it in Dilworth Park during renovations, the lines were unbelievable.”

>> READ MORE: Frank Rizzo’s bureaucrats almost got rid of the LOVE sculpture, but Sixers owner Fitz Dixon saved it

In February 2017, the sculpture was removed from the public eye for a year-long restoration. Painted red, blue, and green during a restoration in 1988, the artwork was repainted to match the design displayed during the Bicentennial, which restored some purple areas.

“We would tell people that they could still go take photos with the AMOR sculpture, which was installed in 2015 for the pope’s visit,” Levy said. “But their reaction would be like, ‘That’s not the real one.’ It’s so embedded in people’s minds.”

Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, said that when it came time to design the city’s first ad campaign in 1997, incorporating Indiana’s LOVE sculpture was a natural choice.

“We used the word to help guide us because at the time, Philadelphia’s identity was still a little nebulous,” Levitz said. “I think it worked so well because the design is so compact and efficient. People really got a kick out of seeing it in real life.”

>> READ MORE: 5 other places you’ll find Robert Indiana’s ‘LOVE’ sculpture

Levitz said that it wasn’t part of the campaign’s goal to establish the sculpture as one of Philadelphia’s icons, but that it just kind of happened over time.

“It’s everywhere now,” she said. “But no one objects to love everywhere.”

The sculpture has appeared in Visit Philadelphia marketing material since, popping up on everything from stamps and jewelry to T-shirts and everyday items, making it feel like a piece of Philadelphia. So as much as it’s a work of art, it’s also become somewhat of an ad for the city itself, though you can see LOVE sculptures all over the world.

But according to Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, there is no other city as attached to its LOVE sculpture as Philadelphia is.

“The piece has come to symbolize the city because it resonates with Philadelphia’s foundation,” Haskell said. “LOVE has this very positive, ebullient, and euphoric sense about it, but it also touches on the ideas of pain and disappointment. Its power is in that it encompasses both things.”

After news of Indiana’s death reached Philadelphia, hundreds of well-wishers took to social media to post photos they had captured there, detailing sentimental moments like engagements, weddings, and holiday memories with loved ones.

It’s not surprising that one of the most common reasons visitors flock to the LOVE sculpture is because of, well, love.

It was where Bob Caton, manager of broadcast and social media relations for the Pennsylvania Democrats, popped the big question to his wife, Kristi, during Memorial Day weekend in 2008. Caton had originally planned to propose at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the couple took a detour to the artwork because Kristi had never seen it.

“I thought, ‘Go for it,’” Caton said. “When Kristi turned, I took a knee. I was so nervous that I didn’t even put the ring on her finger — I just handed her the box. She reminds me of that.”

Camera icon Steve Silver
Carrie and Steve Silver got their engagement photos taken at the “LOVE” sculpture.

When Steve and Carrie Silver got engaged, they decided to get married in Philadelphia because they considered the city home despite living in Maryland at the time. Though it was a cliche, the Silvers took their engagement photos at the LOVE sculpture.

“It inspired us to make a LOVE Park-like setup for our wedding cake,” Steve wrote in an email.

Camera icon Steve Silver
Carrie and Steve Silver’s wedding cake

For others, the sculpture symbolized the diversity and unity in the city.

Lisa Tidwell and her now-husband, Rob, now live in Utah but she feels proud whenever she sees the photo they took while showing Rob’s aunt and uncle around Philadelphia in 2013.

“They kept commenting on how nice it was and how integrated the people of the city are,” Tidwell wrote in an email. “They weren’t used to seeing groups of different races walking, eating, drinking together.”

We want to see the moments you’ve spent with it.

Send us your LOVE sculpture photos with your name, where you’re from and a short description of the moment captured and we’ll publish some of our favorites. You can send pictures to audience@philly.com.