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Streets Dept Presents: Philly’s Top 10 Public + Street Art Moments of 2020

December 10, 2020

Welcome to Streets Dept’s annual list of the most-talked-about and most engaging work created by artists throughout Philly’s public spaces!

Suffice it to say, this has been a year. A year unlike any other in recent history. And a year that had enormous effects on the art in our public space. With COVID-19 and the safety precautions put into place, many long planned murals and works of public art were either altered, canceled, or pushed back. And in response to the efforts of essential and frontline workers, the historic 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and the culmination of the most critical Presidential Election in modern U.S. history, both individual artists as well as bigger institutions worked to address the moment and reflect our humanity, hopes, and values onto our streets.

What you’ll find on this list is a representation of this year, both large-scale and small-scale. Works of art that responded to the more universal experiences of this year and works that are more individualist expressions. Works of art that were commissioned (aka public art) as well as those that were not (aka street art). But all the artworks are new and were installed in Philly’s public space this year.

As always, this list is built by both you and I. The list is solely comprised of installations that I’ve documented and written about for this blog in 2020. And since I can’t document everything that happens, it is in a way curated by me. Its order, however, is chosen by you the reader, mostly by how much the articles and social media posts about each project were viewed and shared by you.

One new addition to this year’s list are categories. There are a few groups of projects/themes on this list that I’ve gathered into categories because they are just so related. And I’ve done this to make space for some of the other individual efforts you’ll see.

So without further ado, here’s the list of the 10 most talked about works of public + street art in Philly in 2020:

10) Sharktown Walls

A new series of murals painted in November, Sharktown Walls was curated by Philly-based artist Alloyius Mcilwaine and is located at Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Hancock Street in Kensington! The project, created with partners Prism Studio and Colorspace Labs, features a half-block length wall with the work of over 20 artists, including: Ashley MyersBernard DelaCruzBustaEmily Taylor RogersGreta MaletskyIsabelle StaubJayo-VJohn ZerbeKVC ArtKyle BoichKyle Confehr, Leon RainbowNaythan AnthonyRaf MataRaw SolRuby LynnSasha (Love Renegade)Devil’s RemorseSean 9 LugoSeipSeperTori AlexandraTyler Kline, and curator Alloyius Mcilwaine himself. (See more!)

9) Olivia McKnight and Philly’s Newest Superhero

At the beginning of 2020, y’all might remember this new Stevie Wonder-inspired wheatpaste series began to pop up all around town. The series, created by artist Olivia McKnight, features self portraits of the artist bringing imagery of music and/or of Stevie Wonder’s work itself to Philly’s streets to inject our public space with the power and love of the legendary singer-songwriter. (Read more!)

8) Philly Artists Respond to COVID-19

There was a fast and wide-ranging response from Philly artists to COVID-19’s effect on people in addition to the fact that the pandemic ultimately laid bare the immense flaws in our current economic and healthcare systems. There were needed messages of love and light. There were messages of togetherness in this moment of separation, the most notable being the arched rainbow that became a citywide symbol thanks to the #OnePhillyArt project. And there were messages criticizing the government’s response and demanding more.

Here are some of those COVID-19 response projects:

7) The Sisterly Love Project

In celebration of Women’s History Month in March, Streets Dept teamed up with friend and fellow curator, Ginger Rudolph (Editor of HAHA Magazine), and 10 Philly artists to create a street art campaign celebrating 20 change-making Philly women! We called it the #SisterlyLove Project, and it was made possible by our sponsor Live Nation Philadelphia and with support by VISIT PHILADELPHIA.

The 10 Philly artists who built this project are Hope HummingbirdManuela GuillénMarian BaileyMarisa Velázquez-RivasMonica ONicole NikolichNilé LivingstonOld BroadsSymone Salib, and Taped Off TV(Read more!)

6) Claes Gabriel Creates His First Mural in West Philly

Titled Boat People, by Philly-based artist Claes Gabriel created his first mural this August, along with curator Ryan Strand Greenberg and Mural Arts Philadelphia. Located at 47th Street and Woodland Avenue in West Philadelphia, the mural’s design is inspired by the Haitian Flag, where Claes was born in Port-au-Prince.

“Philadelphia is a sanctuary city welcoming refugees and immigrants from around the world,” Claes’ project statement reads. “Boat People captures the journey of individuals who flee their home countries that see Philadelphia as a place to make home. The painting depicts individuals on a crowded boat and central figure wearing a ceremonial white mask. His body contains a boat floating above a sea of red, symbolizing the blood shed from the difficult journey between one’s homeland and adopted home.”

5) Get-Out-the-Vote Murals Takeover the Fall

The 2020 Election was one of the few things we expected this year, so there was definitely a bit more planning for the several temporary murals that popped up around Philly during the month of October leading to the November 3rd election, including our own Streets Dept “To the Polls 2020” project which I began planning in January.

Here are some of the get-out-the-vote murals we saw this fall in Philly:

4) Artist Hank Willis Thomas’ 25-foot Afro Pick Monument in West Philly

Many of y’all might remember back in 2017 when artist Hank Willis Thomas installed an 8-foot tall Afro Pick monument next to the former Rizzo statue at MSB Plaza in Center City, Philadelphia as part of the city-wide exhibition Monument Lab, and this past October the artist came back to Philly with a 25-foot version of the sculpture installed on 52nd Street off Arch Street in West Philadelphia!

Titled All Power to All People, Hank’s artwork is a larger than life steel sculpture of the iconic Afro Pick. “It stands as a symbol of community, strength, perseverance, comradeship, equal justice, and belonging,” the project’s website reads. “The piece offers an opportunity to reflect on a storied culture and a 6,000 year history of the artifact and of grooming culture.” And as someone who thinks a lot about the public space, including art and monuments in the public space (I worked on the Monument Lab project, after all,) I find this statement from Hank Willis Thomas found on project’s banner on-site at 52nd Street super interesting: “Public monuments have a higher charge now. They can celebrate a specific individual, or a group of people, but they should also invite a broader conversation about how memorial can connect to the rest of the world and represent its people.” YES!

Hank’s 25-foot monument was brought to this location by Kindred Arts, an arts nonprofit based in New York City, and Little Giant Creative, a Philly-based full-service creative agency. (Read more!)

3) David Guinn and Drew Billiau’s Newest Electric Mural

Created by muralist David Guinn and light artist Drew Billiau with support from Mural Arts Philadelphia and Visit Philadelphia, the 8,500-square-foot artwork is located under the I-676 overpass on 6th Street between Race and Wood Streets in Center City. Its completion this past November came after a few delays that pushed back the project’s original finish date of Summer 2019, including delays spurred by the Coronavirus shutdowns last spring.

“The site presented an amazing opportunity to me to represent the overlap of tremendous history with the energetic forward-looking Philadelphia of today,” said Guinn, the mural’s creator in the project’s original press release. “Neon-like LED lights integrated into the mural will transform the underpass into a beacon attracting visitors from all directions and boldly proclaim the city’s industriousness and creativity, both past and present.”

Longtime readers may remember David and Drew’s first collaboration from 2016 on Percy Street in South Philly. And I for one hope this isn’t their last collaboration! (See more!)

2) Simone Leigh’s “Brick House” Sculpture

A new work of public art was installed in Philly this November, one which I think could easily become one of our city’s most iconic. Created by artist Simone Leigh, the new sixteen-foot bronze sculpture titled Brick House rose at its permanent home at 34th and Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania!

Now serving as the gateway to Penn’s campus, Brick House is “a bronze bust of a Black woman with a torso that combines the forms of a skirt and a clay house,” according to the High Line where another cast of it is on display until 2021. “The sculpture’s head is crowned with an afro framed by cornrow braids, each ending in a cowrie shell. The title comes from the term for a strong Black woman who stands with the strength, endurance, and integrity of a house made of bricks.”

By the way Simone, a Chicago-born and now Brooklyn-based artist, was recently selected to represent the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, becoming the first Black woman to do so.

Even without eyes, the sculpture seems to both be staring at you and into the distance. It’s a stunning artwork from one of the world’s top living artists, and I’m so excited to have it in Philly

1) Black Lives Matter Everywhere

When it comes to the question of what has had the most profound impact on art in Philly’s public space in 2020 there’s nothing that even comes close to the Black Lives Matter movement. This summer, as historically large protests took place in every state in the U.S., including massive protests here in Philly, our streets remembered the names of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Walter Wallace Jr., and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, among others, and proclaimed the simple truth “Black Lives Matter” on murals, wheatpastes, posters, stickers, graffiti pieces, banners, and signs in the windows of countless Philly homes.

This year’s Black Lives Matter protests even worked to finally bring down the Frank Rizzo monument at MSB Plaza and mural in South Philly, something Philly for REAL Justice organizers had been demanding for many years now. And longtime readers of this blog might remember years past “Streets Dept Top Street Art Moment” installations critizing the Rizzo momument as well, including Ishknits’s 2012 Rizzo yarnbomb and Joe Boruchow’s 2016 wheatpaste.

In the photo gallery above you’ll see a temporary Breonna Taylor mural and BLM yarnbomb by @la_fresca_yarn; BLM mural by Baron Roane; “Vote 2 Breathe” mural by Khalid Dennis (aka BKLvisions), inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement; “Entanglement” mural by Nilé Livingston; BLM bench mural by Bo Han; BLM yarnbomb by Nicole Nikolich (aka Lace in the Moon); Happy Birthday Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells poster designed by Nick Massarelli; BLM wheatpaste by Amberella; and a BLM banner put up by Cosmo Baker and neighbors. (I’m unsure of the creators of the other works, if one’s by you and you’d like a credit please reach out or comment below.) And this is all just a small part of what was and still is still out there.

While this year has been unexpected, one thing that doesn’t surprise me is that people still really wanted to see themselves reflected in their public space. Our public space is so crucial to our humanity, it’s why I’ve spent nearly 10 years now documenting it for this blog. It’s where we gather (even when it has to be six feet apart), protest, celebrate, and relax. And in this year like none other, the art in our public space transformed to reflect, inspire, and console us at every move.

Thank you to the incredible artists of this city (and beyond) for your work and passion, I don’t know how we would have gotten through this year without you.

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