Why Mural Arts Philly is taking on Trump's immigration policy

It’s perhaps the first Mural Arts Philadelphia design that can — and will — double as a protest sign.

“Families belong together — not in cages,” reads the simple declaration atop an image of a couple and a haloed infant, trekking through a colorful desert landscape.

The mural about to be installed near Front Street and Lehigh Avenue in Fairhill, a heavily Puerto Rican and Dominican section of this “sanctuary city,” is one of the most political statements ever from the city-backed nonprofit. And 100 poster-size replicas are being printed for Philadelphia’s “Families Belong Together” rally, one of 600 planned to take place around the nation on Saturday.

The protests were initially organized to push President Trump to stop separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. Since he ended that practice, the focus has shifted toward reuniting families that remain separated.

READ MORE: ‘Families Belong Together’ protest planned for Philly, hundreds of other cities

“We thought it was very urgent and totally necessary to speak about this directly,” said Ian Pierce, a Santiago, Chile-based artist known as Artes Ekeko. He arrived in Philadelphia on June 19 to begin meeting with community members to develop his first U.S. installation. “I think murals are important political instruments. They are ways to speak about things that hurt. They create hope. That’s the way I see public art.”

Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said the project seemed a worthwhile risk

“We are a city agency, so I’m respectful of that. But I also feel that these are really difficult, complicated, trying times, and art is a mirror of our times. It plays an important role, a critical role, actually. … Art humanizes people. If it can open up our perspective, so we can see commonality instead of our differences, then to me that’s a victory.”

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
Artist Ian Pierce advises Mural Arts Philadelphia painters on how to complete a section of a mural destined for a wall in Fairhill.

The image he and painters from Mural Arts’ Guild restorative justice program settled on motifs from numerous Latin American countries.

“He noticed that while people from Chile and Argentina, or Chile and Peru, don’t necessarily think of themselves as one pan-Latino identity, once they get here, that’s how they’re perceived,” said Noni Clemens, the project manager.

“I think it was really important for Ian, and for us, to have a design that struck a balance between reflecting the violence inherent in a lot of these journeys from other countries, but not triggering anyone by making it too overt.”

The 900-square-foot mural, to be installed by July 8, is meant to be a rapid response to the current political moment, but also an acknowledgment of the heritage of the neighborhood where it’s being installed, on a mixed-use building owned by a longtime neighborhood resident who’s originally from Puerto Rico, and who has noticed the beginnings of gentrification in the community.

Camera icon SAMANTHA MELAMED
A Mural Arts Guild member works on a section of the “Families Belong Together” mural.

Mural Arts, which has worked with immigrant communities through its Southeast by Southeast hub, is also running a protest-sign-painting and screen-printing workshop there Friday afternoon.

Many members of Mural Arts have been incarcerated themselves, and described particular concern over the trauma afflicting young children held in detention centers.

“Kids from all over the world come here, and all they want is a better life. That’s what we all want for ourselves,” said Shaun Durbin as he worked on a section of the mural.

“They say art can ignite change. That’s what Jane Golden says. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Hopefully, this mural can spark dialogue in communities all over the country.”

Camera icon SAMANTHA MELAMED
Shaun Durbin, a Guild member with Mural Arts Philadelphia, paints a section of the mural.