Murals, Facades, & Other Lies

When Julius asked me to curate content for Curate This (from which this is republished) I knew I’d have to have an article about how terrible the murals in Philadelphia are, because 1) he works for Mural Arts, 2) the murals in Philadelphia are emotionally empty, poorly rendered, politically naive ugly shit, and 3) I’m an asshole. Fortunately, I have a friend, Josh McIlvain, who views mural “arts” the same way. I met Josh when we both wrote for an evil non-profit; we used company time reserved for boosting the profile of the chemical industry to set up a series of literary anthologies. Josh is artistic director of Automatic Arts, information manager for FringeArts, and an all-around good guy and fellow asshole. He’s my favorite playwright in Philadelphia, and his plays are pretty good too.
—Christopher Munden, editor

Emily L. Gibson and Steve Lippe in MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS.
Emily L. Gibson and Steve Lippe in MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS. Photo by Said Johnson.


MANNY A: male, 50s., glasses.

MANNY B: female, 30, glasses.

A and B are playing the same person, MANNY, side-by-side. While they share the same space and story, they should be played by very different types: different genders, different ages, different style of dress. They should not try to both act like the same character, but individually show the character as two different possibilities. They share a belief in the same essential truth, and they exist side-by-side in the same set of circumstances.


A community hearing about the Murals Project, attended by community leaders, local government officials, and interested neighbors. The audience plays the role of those gathered at this meeting, and MANNY is speaking directly to the audience as if they were characters gathered for this purpose.

A long banquet table is set out, with a black cloth covering it. Two folding chairs are behind the table, facing the audience, for A and B to sit in. In the manner of government hearings, there is a bottle of water, a plastic cup and two bar napkins to place the cup upon, one set of these items for A and one set for B. At a larger venue, they should have microphones with table microphone stands.



MANNY A and B walk out to the table and take their seats. They open their water bottles and fill their cups with water, screw the caps back on, take a drink, place cups back down, move napkins towards them, and place the cups on one of the napkins. These actions should be in unison, though the movements do not need to be perfectly synced up—they should appear natural. However, only at two other spots in the play do they take simultaneous action. They should not be imitative of each other otherwise.


A: I painted murals because I wanted to make the world a happier place. My specialty were paintings, several stories tall, of proud, contented men and women, shoulders squared, looking up at the sunshine, a new dawn, some shit, a collage of types—the farmer to the social worker to the medical doctor, young and old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, mixed-race, every once in a while a Native American. I thought, we all thought, that positive, uplifting images, especially of those who persevered against great odds, people on the street would look up at these happy, positive images and maybe think happy positive thoughts? Where there had been an ugly gray spackled façade now you had a colorful picture of people working a garden, coming together as a community, celebrating their heritage. We were communicating in images—what message did a blank, gray wall make?

(B turns her head, looking at A.)

What did that say to people? Our pictures could make that little difference which maybe could make all the difference—a gleam of hope when you’re feeling down, an extra push as you face a challenge, a bright light of encouragement to help support your dreams, the fight against discouragement. Look, we changed this wall, you can change your life.

B: But the strange thing, I later came to think of, [turns back to audience] is why would all these people, these giant humanoids we painted on the sides of buildings, why would they be looking around at these decrepit, run-down, bleak and depressed pot-holed streets and crumbling sidewalks, with smiles? If they could see, their faces would be full of rage at what the hell did you drop me in this neighborhood for?

A: The murals ran the gamut of scenarios—they still do. Some are landscapes and farming scenes, some are manufacturing tableaus for neighborhoods that once had manufacturing and now have squat, nature scenes with animals and people—peaceable kingdom stuff—in neighborhoods that have no nature except for the spindly trees growing out of decay and the alley cats and stray dogs. Kids like the ones with animals. I once got a commission for an animal mural, but it didn’t work out. I painted a giant house cat playing with a ball of yarn. I thought it would be comforting, but it actually freaked people out to see this four-story house cat staring down at them. Made people feel like mice. Lasted two months before it was whitewashed, and another mural went up, this time of wondrous children observing a sundial, touching it, touching a sundial—what they hell does touching a sundial do? Truthfully, I thought the cat was a little scary too. If a house cat really were that size no doubt they would bat you around like a cat toy, get you caught on his claw and then fling into a wall, you know, on the third try, because it would take a few times to get you off his claw.

B: This shift in perspective, a cute thing made large—suddenly becoming a thing of terror—was the beginning of my dissatisfaction with the murals. Before then I had been a true believer. Save the world, one mural at a time. Paint over your blight with positive images and colorful hues and downtrodden folks can look at those murals and become uplifted and it’s a brand new day, by golly I will pull myself up by my bootstraps, and go out and change my life for the better. And suddenly, instead of the same old same old, it’s a neighborhood of opportunity zone—jobs are made, enterprise is created, the mercury-poisoned earth in the abandoned lots suddenly yields a golden crop and the people rise up singing, all because we transformed a gray wall into an image of hope and pride.

A: Like putting a new coat of paint on a prison. I bet in a prison there’s a lot of talk about a new paint job, I bet everyone has an opinion about it, because there’s nothing else to talk about.

(A and B remove their glasses. They clean them with a napkin from the table in silence. They put their glasses back on.}

People would come up to me, tell me what a nice job I was doing and that felt good. It’s nice to see someone finally starting to clean up the neighborhood. But at the end of the day, the sidewalks are still cracked and everyone still slumps by, going back to their shitty lives. Sure there are shitty lives everywhere, but in a shitty neighborhood, there are more shitty lives.

B: We had community help, making the community part of the process, teaching them, I don’t know . . . the way to paint over their troubles with images of hope and pride and perseverance. The funny thing is, if you see a mural like that, you just assume it’s a shit neighborhood, right? They don’t put uplifting murals in neighborhoods where people are already uplifted, right? In the neighborhoods where someone doesn’t have to commute on a stinky bus two hours for a minimum wage job at a drug store, you don’t have murals. In an uplifted neighborhood, they’d be like, hey, don’t put that shitty mural there.

A: But they learned to paint, sort of, learned team building. There’d always be a couple people who got laid because of it, so that was a plus. Everybody feeling good about themselves, good time to get in on that.

B: But what did they do really—the wall’s still a wall. You can’t do anything with a mural, can’t even walk on it. It’s still just a wall. There’s something brutal about a wall, especially a wall that tells you everything that you’re not.

A: There was one I worked on where one of the central figures was a blacksmith, hammering on his anvil, a proud figure. It was a mural about the pride of craftsmen, and the blacksmith also symbolized the forging of strong neighborhood bonds. You know, a metaphor, subtle as a hammer. Doesn’t matter that aside from a renaissance fair, the craft of blacksmithing is extinct. There’d been a foundry in the neighborhood at one time. But seriously it had been gone for thirty years. And it had been an incredibly dangerous place to work. This old guy was talking to me about it. One moment he’s saying, when the factory shut down, this neighborhood went to hell, that it was a damn shame, and the next moment he’s telling me what a terrible place it was to work. That every three months someone was either maimed or died on the job. And somehow it was always employee carelessness, and people got burned all the time, sometimes badly. But nobody was there hammering an anvil. Wasn’t a bunch a metalworkers with their individual workshops making horseshoes. Plus the whole neighborhood smelled like poison when the wind blew the wrong way. But people seemed to like that one. Workers pride. Now that’s work, real work, I like that. We got to have more of that. I began to question the people who I worked for, like what are we doing painting these images of things that people don’t have, I don’t think visualization is going to turn things around, I think the problems may be deeper than that.

B: We’re starting a discussion, is what Bronson would say. Bronson was the mural guru. We give people something to talk about, and maybe that can be a starting point for an idea. People need ideas, people need to be empowered by the power of their own ideas. And then what? It’s an entry point, it’s a beginning.

A: They’ve been painting these things for like 20 fucking years and it’s always a beginning.

B: The last one I did was a farm, harvest time, the fruits of labor spilling out of baskets in a neighborhood where everyone was living off of food stamps. Think about it, here’s a big basket of apples. Each apple is bigger than your head. You could feed an entire family with one of those apples. Don’t they look delicious? Sorry, not for you! Why not, instead of paintings a picture of a garden do you not build a garden? Maybe the soil is so full of toxins that anything you’d grow would be poisonous, if you were lucky enough to grow anything at all. I once knew a guy who talked about living on the beaches of Mexico and eating thistle. You can survive off of thistle, he’d say.

(A turns his head, looking at B.)

So instead of the farm, I painted an empty lot full of thistle, big thorny thistle plants, a three story building covered in thistle, made your skin crawl just looking at it. People would ask me, what the hell is that? And I’d say thistle! You can live off of thistle.

A: I got about three-quarters done before they took me off the project. [Turns to audience.] They said I needed a break, and gave me a month of paid leave. I mean, they’re very considerate, they were concerned with my feelings, and the stress. They were upset that someone who had been with them for so long could go off the deep end. Only I didn’t go off the deep end, I had woken up. Sure, there was stress, but I had woken up.

B: I couldn’t tell them, they still have a dream, and you can see it in their eyes, and the way looked at me, so caring and concerned. A casualty in the war. Your whole thing is bullshit, I wanted to say. But it would be like telling a creationist that no, the world is more than five thousand years old. Because people choose fantasy over reality. Because every objection is always met with, well, it’s true that there is still much work to be done. Still a long road to go down. We’re just one organization. But these murals, we’ve established a legacy, people think they’re great—I tell people what I do, and they think it’s so great. We’ve come so far, but we’ve got so much further to go . . . and I’m seeing this long, long path through shitty block to shitty block with these stupid murals like guide posts, guide posts to what? To each other. That’s all it is—it’s a path for itself. It’s the insanity of not facing a problem.

A: Took me a while to find a job, a year or so, wasn’t sure what to do. They put me on unemployment. So thoughtful. I spent a lot of time indoors, watching TV. Then I decided I needed to get out so I started taking long walks about town, but I’d always see the murals and seeing them didn’t make me happy. First they pissed me off, but then I just stopped caring, and then I started seeing them the way I think most people see them, something you don’t care about, another wall, that’s it. Another fucking wall in the city.

B: Thank you, no questions.

(A and B rise from table, give a slight nod of acknowledgment, and exit room. The end.)

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS premiered November 1, 2013, as part of Nice and Fresh performing arts series at Moving Arts of Mount Airy in Philadelphia, PA. With Steve Lippe as A and Emily L. Gibson as B. Directed by Josh McIlvain.

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS from Automatic Arts.

Photo by Said Johnson

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