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I’ll take the alleys: A look at murals in Philly and the Twin Cities

Andy Sturdevant is taking a little time off, but have no fear: He has once again left The Stroll in very capable hands. This week your guide is artist and activist Katie Hargrave. Urbanist and streets.mn contributor Alex Bauman is up on Jan. 23. Andy will be back Jan. 30. Happy strolling!

In a recent visit to Philadelphia, my artist friends and I began discussing public-art programs and local funding in our two cities. The most well-funded and longstanding public-art project in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, became overwhelmingly apparent as we wandered through their neighborhood. My friends told me about the history of the program, begun in 1986 by community organizer and artist Jane Golden. After 26 years, the program has completed more than 600 murals, or roughly two per month.

These murals provide employment for artists and act to beautify a city where abandonment hovers around 30 percent. The murals range in style, quality, location and visibility. Often, they grace the side of an abandoned building, like this Germantown mural celebrating the women of the mostly African-American lower-middle-class neighborhood. Bright colors and a confetti of daisies aren’t fooling these women. The stoic stares of these activists, mothers, judges and teachers seem to reflect a general disapproval of the broken windows just outside of the mural. Who painted this mural? We can’t tell because the Mural Arts Program signage is crumbling with the brick of the building.

A Germantown mural celebrating the women of the mostly African American lower-mi
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
A Germantown mural celebrating the women of the mostly African-American lower-middle-class neighborhood


Ann Northrup’s mural,
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
Ann Northrup’s mural, "Growing up in Germantown"

My friends told me that in recent years, there are two general styles: Adobe Illustrator Live Paint and highly composed, overly realistic scenes. Ann Northrup’s mural, "Growing up in Germantown," is painted in the realistic style. Its placement in the parking lot of a Baptist church is reflected in the composition, which references stained glass.

“Do Minneapolis and St. Paul have a mural program?” my friends ask. What city doesn’t, I think. It is true, there are a number of well-designed and executed murals throughout the cities, such as the newly completed Candy Chang mural near the Minneapolis Institute of Art (as part of the Artists in Storefronts project) or the abstract and metallic mural Richard Barlow painted in Powderhorn Park as part of an anti-graffiti campaign. I love these murals. Unlike many murals, which I suspect are designed to be there but not be seen. Candy’s interactive blackboard has a sense of humor and encourages us to really read the content. Barlow’s posterized image of the nearby park confounded me for months after I moved into the area. I’d walk by and stare at it without being able to see the image. Once I realized what it is, I couldn’t un-see it. The pleasure of understanding rings every time I pass. 

Candy Chang mural near the Minneapolis Institute of Art
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
Candy Chang mural near the Minneapolis Institute of Art


Richard Barlow's Powderhorn Park mural
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
Richard Barlow's Powderhorn Park mural


However, when my friends asked if there were murals in the cities, my response was to gush about the glut of alley murals, painted on detached garages throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. Some of the stories the murals tell are self-evident. You could even say that we hold these murals’ truths to be self-evident, if you were going to be as over the top as this Merriam Park mural. Ostensibly painted in 1976, much of the color has faded, but the mural still has a history lesson to teach. For instance, who exactly is Nathan Hale, and why is his name so boldly written next to Abbie Hoffman in his American flag T-Shirt? I am sure I learned of Mr. Hale when I was in 3rd grade, but that information is locked far away. I adore the bicentennial acrostic on the right. I love: “2 Centurys [sic] of freedom. New Jersey, North Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Newport, New York, Washington.”

How did Newport get in the mix? Why did the author leave out so many letters? No matter, the numerous historic American flags make me forget my questions. And the foreshortened and faded green blob that I suspect represents the Statue of Liberty from below, check. I count three Liberty bells. Were the painters referencing the numerous replicas of the bell created for various world fairs? We’ll never know.

I adore the bicentennial acrostic on the right.
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
I adore the bicentennial acrostic on the right.


The next alley mural is also patriotic in nature. The owner of this home has hung a store-bought sign alerting us that his parking spot is only for proud Americans. As if the bald eagle and American flag were not enough, two more bald eagles grace the garage. The talons on one snatch a fish. Watch out, lukewarm patriots, these eagles are on the hunt.

Watch out, lukewarm patriots, these eagles are on the hunt.
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
Watch out, lukewarm patriots, these eagles are on the hunt.

Some murals tell us something about the neighborhood. One just outside my back door highlights the black and white cat, perched atop a graffiti “JAMES” that merges with a generic skyline. Is this cat a representative of the stray black and white kittens that are always running around in my alley and meowing to come inside? If so, I wonder what the children’s drawings at the base of the mural symbolize in the neighborhood.

Is this cat a representative of the stray black and white kittens that are alway
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
Is this cat a representative of the stray black and white kittens that are always running around in my alley and meowing to come inside?


Where I grew up, we had no alleys and thus no alleyway murals. Why paint a mural in the alley? I suspect that if I were a homeowner and parent wanting to give my children a space they could publically decorate, an alley garage door might be the right space. It is public, but it wouldn’t diminish “curb appeal.” The garbage man and your neighbors might get a kick out of it, but rarely do folks from outside the neighborhood wander through the alleys. Perhaps this is why the murals sometimes list the painters. Deanna, Elise, Scott, Lucy, Nancy, Zoe, Gabe, Carrie, Charlie, Julian, Katy, Kristen, and Jason painted a scene of an alien riding a bicycle (complete with fenders!) while a horse jumps over a tree. H.G. Wells captures the scene in a quote on the grass, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” What does Wells think about aliens on bikes? 

What does H.G. Wells think about aliens on bikes?
MinnPost photo by Katie Hargrave
What does H.G. Wells think about aliens on bikes?


The Philly Mural Arts program hosts tours of its well-known murals, giving insight to the artistic process by foot, bicycle, or trolley at $25 per person. Maybe a homespun tour of alley murals could be fashioned. I’d pay a couple of bucks to listen to homeowners, kids and artists talk about their inspiration and their neighborhood. We could use the proceeds to pay for mural maintenance and supplies for additional murals. Who’s in?

Katie Hargrave is a multi-media artist interested in the production of American identity through politics, history, mythology and narrative. Her work elevates stories from popular culture, those hidden in the archives, and the everyday conversations from passersby and participants. Originally from Chicago, Katie moved to Minneapolis last summer and has been spending her time exploring the alleyways and gearing up for a series of projects based on Minnesota history. Visit her at http://www.katiehargrave.us.

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