Image: Avant-Garde Art in Philadelphia’s French Quarter Revisited

The Mural at 18th and Sansom Streets

More than a year ago on October 2, 2019, my article on Avant-Garde Art in Philadelphia’s French Quarter was published in this newspaper. In it, I reviewed the newly painted mural on the south façade of 125 S. 18th Street which faces Sansom Street in the French Quarter. The mural can be easily viewed by diners sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Tria Wine Bar. 

Lacking a feeling for the genre, I hesitated to comment on the specific artistic merits of the quirky mural, but pointed out that the work was done on the face of an important historically designated building in the Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District without the required approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The rounded, corner building was designed by distinguished architect, Louis Magaziner (1878-1956,) in the Moderne style in late 1930s. The Mural Arts Program had sponsored the mural, painted by prominent New York artist, Steve Powers.

The matter of the unauthorized mural installation finally came before the Architectural Committee of the Historical Commission in a meeting early in 2020. At that time, the Committee ruled that the mural must be removed. Wisely the Committee cautioned that in removing the painted work, damage might occur to the delicate cast-stone façade of the structure.  Accordingly, it was suggested that Mural Arts experiment with a small portion of the façade in order to find a safe way of removing the black paint.

But months have gone by since that determination, and to my knowledge nothing has been done to start the process of removing the mural. True, in March with the onset of the pandemic, restrictions were imposed that might have impeded the cleaning’s progress. The covid might have served as a good excuse for inaction, but a penalty has been paid.  One day recently walking south on 18th toward Sansom Street, I looked up and saw above the still-in-place mural, a large, black and white graffiti applied to the blank, brick wall of the building extending up immediately behind 125 S. 18th

Though vernacular street art may be an influence, Power’s mural is not graffiti as such.   Clearly his intention is for it to be art, but like the Historical Commission, I would maintain the art work was applied to the wrong surface. In all fairness nevertheless, I would think the same mural could be effective painted on a wall in another more appropriate location.

However, in the eyes of someone outside the sophisticated art world, the mural might appear to be nothing but griffitti and provide sanction for applying another such a piece on an adjacent building.  (“If he did it, why can’t I?  And with impunity!)

Now that two buildings in the charming French Quarter enclave of the Historic District have been defaced, one wonders if graffiti will spread like the corona virus in an epidemic of rude scribbling across the district. An irony is that one of the missions of the Mural Arts program has been to reduce the incidence of graffiti with true art work applied to the multitude of the city’s blank walls. But in this instance, a piece of mural art work has led to a true and hideous graffiti. What appears to be graffiti, begets graffiti.

Hopefully, this occurrence will impel Mural Arts to move ahead and respect the Commission‘s directive to remove the mural. Along the way the new upper, highly visible actual graffiti must as well be erased. These actions hopefully will serve as a cultural immunization preventing another infection of graffiti breaking out on the walls of our city’s historic architectural fabric. 

David S. Traub

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