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Interview: Muralist Shira Walinsky Has Spent The Last 15 Years ‘Routing’ For South Philly

March 23, 2022

In love with this new mural created by longtime Philly muralist, Shira Walinsky! Shira has been making murals in South Philly for the last 15 years. This, her latest titled Routing for You, celebrates a diverse section of South Philly created in collaboration with SEAMAAC, Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Southeast By Southeast project, which Shira has been working on since 2011, and the Key School. The mural was completed last fall, and I’m so glad I finally got to see it myself! It’s really such a beautiful artwork with which you can spend a lot of time exploring its many local references, made by an artist devoted to the neighborhood. 

It’s not an overstatement to say that anyone who’s moved around South Philly over the last 15 years is likely very familiar with the work of Shira Walinsky. So to learn more about this new mural, and about Shira’s career in Philly mural making thus far, I sent her a few questions over email: 

Conrad Benner: You’ve been making murals in South Philly for a while now, how did this work start?

Shira Walinsky: Yes! My ties to South Philly are deep; it’s part of my family story. My grandparents and great grandparents were immigrants from Ukraine and Poland who settled in South Philadelphia. They opened a tailor shop at 4th and Tasker Streets. I have been working in South Philly for a long time! I have been deeply honored to work with amazing communities, individuals, and organizations in South Philadelphia. I love the vibrant space of South Philly, history on every block, immigration history, refugee history, dreamer history, migrant history that grows with new communities. I am visually inspired by the waterfront, piers, bridges, density of rowhomes, storefronts, signs in languages spoken and left as a record of existence. Many of my murals focus on and with refugee and immigrant communities and stories in the city. I love that a mural can get people to think more about  their neighbors and build curiosity, empathy, connection, trust, and beauty. 

My first mural in South Philly was in 2007, The Journey From Vietnam to the United States, at 13th Street and Washington Avenue. This project was a collaboration with the Bo De Temple, University of the Arts, Mural Arts Philadelphia, myself, and poet Phoebe Zinman. I was honored to work with members of the Bo De Temple to hear stories about leaving Vietnam after the war. 

Southeast By Southeast (2011- present) is currently at Bok, a community space for new refugee and immigrant communities. In 2011, Jane Golden asked if I wanted to work with new communities from Burma and Bhutan. I said yes! Together with social worker Melissa Fogg and Miriam Singer we started a center, Southeast By Southeast with and for new refugee families from Burma and Bhutan in 2012. The space hosted ESL, citizenship, sewing, art, and events with meals, sales, and dance. I continue to learn from the experiences of working alongside communities at Southeast By Southeast. 

Some of the murals in South Philly have been created in coordination with the Burmese and Bhutanese communities to tell their collective story of migration. Including, From Mountains to the City (2013) at 7th and Emily for which I combined a woodcut of a mountain and a city against a vibrant color to tell the collective story of migration. Farming Up The Mountain (2013) which celebrates female farmers. It is next to the Growing Home Refugee Garden at 8th and Emily. Language Lab (2016), which was located at a bus stop at 7th and Moore Streets before it came down in 2020 (because of new development), celebrated dialects and languages spoken by families from Burma, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cambodia, China, Mexico, Pakistan, and many more! The idea for that one was to learn a new language while you waited for the bus. And Migrating Home (2017) at 10th and Dickinson Streets, which is a map/portrait of the area that includes symbols of 19th century migration from the Italian and Lebanese communities next to contemporary Southeast Asian and Mexican symbols. I have been able to connect to so many amazing strong communities throughout South Philly! 

CB: Tell us about this new mural! How did it come about? And what was the process to come up with the spots honored in it?

SW: Routing for You is a portrait of the area of South 10th Street to the Delaware River. I proposed Routing For You as part of my work with the Mural Arts’ Southeast By Southeast work. The mural was a collaboration with SEAMAAC, the Cambodian Association and the Key School. SEAMAAC loved the idea of a map from 10th Street to the Delaware River and Mifflin Street to Oregon Avenue.

Looking at Routing For You, you will see the numbered streets with Snyder Avenue in the middle. The mural highlights places such as the Houston Center founded in 1901 as St. Martha’s House. St. Martha’s House acted as a settlement house to new immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, now United Communities and Migrant Education are housed in the Houston Center and provide many community resources. Look some more and you will see Bok, which is now a hub of activity and hosts small businesses, artists studios, Southeast By  Southeast, and SEMAAAC and Jefferson Hospital’s Wyss Health Center. 

In the mural you will also find many local elementary and high schools including Taggart, Key School, Southwark, and Furness. You will see the church at 3rd Street and Snyder Avenue. You’ll see the Whitman Library amidst a lowrider car and several pigeons. You may, or may not, be familiar with J.J.’s supermarket located at 7th and Mifflin Streets, the shops on 7th Street between Porter Street and Snyder Avenue, but they are there. If you are unfamiliar, hopefully you would be encouraged to explore, maybe you will find yourself in Heart Cambodia eating their delicious soup. 

Routing For You features a refugee garden at 8th and Emily Streets, the 47 bus and greetings in Vietnamese, Italian, Khmer,  Malay, Karen, Spanish, and much more. As well as Mifflin Square Park, Black Lives Matter posters, several LGBTQ rainbows, the Preah Buddha Rangsay Temple at 6th and Ritner Streets are there, and don’t forget the Delaware River itself! 

The S.S United States was once the fastest ocean liner in the United States. It’s in the mural next to a quote by a Key School student saying, “Thank You Trees, help Us Breathe.” I worked with the wonderful Key School Principal students and teachers, especially teacher Lisa Yau in developing elements in the mural. Students were prompted to write or draw, “On my way I see..” and asked what are your favorite neighborhood spots. This question was also asked at SEMAAC’s food distribution line which happened during the pandemic. 

I did roughly 30 drafts of this mural trying to fit key places into a map. I got a lot of helpful feedback from SEAMAAC staff, Mural Arts, and the Key School. Murals are the work of many. I need to thank Mural Arts Philadelphia and assistants Doug Woods, Sammy Kovnats, Tash Billington, Adam Alli, and interns Rey’Na Riggans, Voa Giuong, Kuo-PinLin, and Malachi Floyd. It was a pleasure to work on this mural!

CB: What do you feel a mural like this can offer South Philly residents?

SW: A sense of pride, vibrancy and connectedness! I hope it has visual surprises that make passersby keep looking. By highlighting multiple communities through language, symbols, and spaces it says, you belong here! You are part of the collective experience of this place.  

People from Philly are known for their honesty. When you work on a mural you never know what people will say. On the first day of working on Routing For You with just one panel up, two kids said, “Nice job!” As more of the mural went up an older Chinese man sitting in the back of a pickup truck driving down 8th Street gave us the thumbs up and said, “Ni Hao!” (‘Ni Hao’ is also written on the mural). Later, as the 47 bus rumbled down the road a SEPTA bus driver stopped and said, “Make a poster of that!” Several Karen, an ethnic group from Burma, school kids stopped to read the Karen language on the wall. A Cambodian man stopped to read the Khmer, a language from Cambodia. He showed me I missed part of a letter so I gave him the paint brush, he painted the letter properly. He stepped back and smiled and said, “My language.” 

The mural is meant to be interactive to have elements you find over time, words you recognize and read out loud. Organizations, spaces, and communities highlighted in the mural are part of the neighborhood ecosystem that work everyday to uplift the neighborhood. If you go to the Key School, maybe you will see your work or ideas depicted in the mural. 

I hope it would make newcomers and older residents feel that they have a stake in their neighborhood. Southeast Philadelphia is such a unique place in its geography so close to the Delaware River sacred space for the Leni Lenape. It has been home to immigrant communities since the 1800’s. South Philly was home to struggle as Black families faced discrimination in housing and schools. Since the 1970’s and the end of the Vietnam war home to refugee communities from Vietnam and Cambodia. In 2008, refugee families from Burma and Bhutan began arriving. Now, so many Mexican, Hondoran, and Guatemalan families call South Philly home. 

The complex histories side by side is what makes South Philly compelling. I love this place for its hustle, life, struggle, and diversity. I hope some of my feelings are translated in the bold color, lively patterns, and depiction of places known and unknown. 

One Comment leave one →
  1. Stephanie Sosenko Walinsky permalink
    March 24, 2022 10:43 pm

    Hi Shira, Beautiful job! Love, Mom

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