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Road Trip

The City of Mural-y Love

Hundreds of the city's buildings double as canvases for about 2,800 public murals, making Philly the unofficial mural capital of the world.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

WHERE: Philadelphia.

WHY: Art by trolley, a giant Dr. J and a museum alfresco.

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HOW FAR: About 3.5 miles from start to finish, and about 140 miles from Washington.

All over Philadelphia, the writing's on the wall. The paintings are, too. Hundreds of the city's buildings double as canvases for about 2,800 public murals, making Philly the unofficial mural capital of the world.

The Mural Arts Program began as an anti-graffiti organization 24 years ago. The mission was multifold: to provide street artists with a more legitimate outlet, to beautify neighborhoods and to create a sense of community pride. "This is a city of glorious neighborhoods, and sometimes the best way to capture that is through art," says program director Jane Golden, a muralist who spearheaded the project. "We are really showing Philadelphia's heart and soul."

Each mural reflects the nature of the building on which it's painted or the character of its neighborhood. A painting at the Morris Animal Refuge, for example, displays locals' pets, many of which the shelter rescued; a mural with a spring theme features blooming trees that grow in nearby yards and parks. The program also collaborates with residents. On a number of projects, schoolchildren, prisoners and others have assisted the head muralist. For instance, "Metamorphosis," which brightens the exterior of a men's shelter, weaves into its design poetry written by some of the building's residents.

The murals measure 35 by 60 feet on average and appear on a variety of structures, including schools, hospitals and underpasses. They take up to six months to complete, cost about $25,000 and are in high demand: The wait list is about 2,000 sites long.

To view all of the works, you'd need a great map and a lot of free time. One shortcut is to take a docent-led trolley tour, which runs through November. The Mural Arts Program's public tours follow five routes, visiting roughly 40 murals per two-hour ride. Because the giant artworks are impossible to miss, you can also drive around yourself. Just don't dally, or you'll never keep pace. About 135 new murals are unveiled each year.

-- Ben Chapman

Mural Arts Program public tours: Saturday-Sunday at 12:30 p.m., Wednesday at 10 a.m. Departing from Independence Visitor Center, North Sixth and Market streets, Philadelphia. $24, seniors $23, ages 3-10 $15, 2 and younger free (reservations recommended). 215-389-8687. http://www.muralarts.org/tours.

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