People who paint in public typically get hooked on it, every project a new high, which is why I was surprised to hear the heaviness in DISTORT’s voice when asked about his latest mural, “Reaching Out” (2021) in Kensington, Philadelphia.
The Jersey City-based artist collaborated with Philadelphia-based Gabe Tiberino on their sweeping two-story work in the North Philly neighborhood, which Tiberino told me is witnessing “probably one of the biggest opioid crises in the country.”
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“Reaching Out” extends a hand to the deep, spiritual parts of us that initiate self-improvement. The mural pairs classic WPA cinematography with an aerosol edge of shock-and-awe hues. High contrast and saturation obscure the deep symbolism woven into its composition, at first look. “Reaching Out” is laden with archetypal imagery like a tree-lined path, a light at the end of the tunnel, and a soaring eagle. Two hands grasp at each other amongst a churning sea — a Sistine Chapel for sinners, every one of us.
Mural Arts Philadelphia facilitated the mural — word is that they facilitate just about every one. Executive director Jane Golden founded the Mural Arts program in 1986, approaching the city’s Anti-Graffiti Network with her idea to rehabilitate illegal artists by rerouting their talents into public art. Today, Mural Arts Philadelphia is one of the oldest and most prestigious public art programs in the country. In 2017, the Philly Voice claimed the organization had overseen the creation of at least 4,000 murals. Some call it mastery, others monopoly.
While the aesthetics of “Reaching Out” are all the artists’ own, its subject matter comes from the building it’s on. Figures in the trees depict employees of Hispanic Community Counseling Services, located within the facades of 3221 Kensington Avenue alongside the Kensington Storefront — an endeavor of Mural Arts’s Porch Light program, where noted talents like Swoon have completed residencies. The Kensington Storefront provides safe haven and warm coffee for those in need while offering a space where artists can conduct community outreach to inform their murals in the neighborhood. This kind of connection is a central tenet of Mural Arts’s overall ethos.
DISTORT called the Kensington Storefront “the think tank where this artwork came from.” He and Tiberino devoted over two months talking with people and asking, “What does healing look like?” Participants made art in response — Tiberino and DISTORT adopted their visual concept of columns and archways from this experience, as participants mentioned the necessity of sturdy structures in early sobriety; higher powers like family, friends, even hobbies. Enough reasons to wake up in the morning, and these pillars can start supporting more complex structures.
Mural Arts came about in an era where spray paint kept close quarters with violent crime. The decades have since spawned a global muralism movement, with street art the darling of urban development. There are mural festivals from Eureka, California to Washington, DC in the United States alone. Murals are branded for the good of the people, but many cloak quieter violence such as gentrification — intentionally or not.
Artists have adapted to meet the breakneck pace of this global muralism movement — most festivals last a week at most. “It’s hard for me to peel away from the wall,” remarked muralist Emily Ding. Oftentimes, artists hardly have a chance to see the locale where their work will live. “It’s funny; once you’re painting it doesn’t matter where you are,” Brooklyn-based Jason Naylor mused. “You’re kind of in the same place.” This approach presents a missed opportunity for the people. It feels more like fast art than a labor of love.
“Both the inhale and exhale were done on site,” DISTORT said of “Reaching Out.”Artists partnering with Mural Arts often execute their work on parachute cloth, painted in the studio and then affixed to a facade. He and Tiberino painted everything in Kensington, without even projecting or gridding out their foundational sketch — two techniques that help muralists create work at the requisite clip. Tiberino and DISTORT learned to work quickly the old-fashioned, illegal way.
Despite the project’s apparent success, its artists ultimately understood that murals are not material resources, even though creating beauty in underserved neighborhoods holds space for people to feel seen. No one can save a struggling person from themselves. They have to do that. That person also needs detox clinics, reliable shelter, and emotional support for a fighting chance.
Material resources alone are not enough. Addiction is a spiritual malady. “Matters of the heart and spirit require medicines of the heart and spirit,” DISTORT says. His work with Tiberino, conducted in-person over multiple months, held space in a manner most modern murals don’t allow. After the artists’ departure, “Reaching Out” stands as a potent offering loaded with psychological power yet free from condescension, extending levity to anyone who treads Kensington with a heavy heart. The fact that it remains untagged among a city-wide graffiti hotspot proves the artwork’s resonance. Maybe it’s hard to quantify, but time alone can tell a mural’s impact.
“If public art is going to be helpful in any way, it needs to be done in person,” DISTORT said — and not at the rock star tempo it’s currently playing to. Months ago he swore he’d never return to Kensington, but now DISTORT sees that remark as a moment of weakness. He’s going back next week to look for a struggling college friend he encountered in the neighborhood while painting. Just because we can’t fully fix others doesn’t mean we stop reaching out.