For most of its existence, the Thompson and Tulip Street tunnels that connect Olde Richmond to Port Richmond have been an eyesore for the community.
“They’re a trash magnet, there’s short dumping there, they’re dark,” said Olde Richmond Civic Association Sergeant at Arms Matt Ludwig. “Both physically and psychologically, the viaduct acts like a wall between Olde Richmond and Port Richmond.”
It was ORCA’s goal to change that, and the solution the organization came up with was to commission two new murals for each tunnel.
“What we want to do is get more people walking through the tunnels,” Ludwig said. “The bottom line is creating a safer environment down there.”
As a result, ORCA put together a mural advisory committee that consisted of more than 20 people to find people interested in commissioning the two murals. Ultimately, the committee decided on the city of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program. A $50,000 state grant, Ludwig said, was acquired to help fund the mural. According to Kali Silverman, who was Mural Arts’ project manager for these murals, additional funding was provided by the city on top of it. From there, Mural Arts went on to connect ORCA with artists who were capable of coming up with creative ideas to paint in the tunnels. At the end of that process, ORCA chose Brooklyn-based Adam Fujita to complete the Thompson Street mural and local artist Lauren West to complete the Tulip Street tunnel.
Fujita finished up his mural in just the last few weeks, although special lighting is expected to be added to it to enhance the experience early next year. West just began painting the Tulip Street tunnel Monday morning and expects the whole thing to be finished in about a month and a half, although that guesstimate is highly dependent on whether the weather cooperates. Prior to West’s painting, a crew from The Guild, which is a paid apprenticeship program from Mural Arts comprised of about 24 returning citizens who were recently incarcerated, spent time scrubbing the walls of dirt and priming them a solid white.
Ludwig said it was a goal of ORCA’s to create “a sense of place” under the tunnels, or as he alternatively put it, “an instagrammable location.”
“We want something where people can feel safe to go to and from between Port Richmond and Old Richmond, but we want to draw people from outside the neighborhood to this,” he said. “We want to create an instagrammable location.”
Fujita, who couldn’t be reached before the Star’s deadline, painted his mural in his trademark style, which involves the use of neon colors and spray paint. His work consists of a purple base, with images of butterflies and other animals native to Pennsylvania like raccoons and deer. The bright colors on the dark purple background transform a formerly dark and damp environment into something colorful and cosmopolitan.
The design for West’s mural incorporates references to Old Richmond’s industrial past, its waterfront area and urban agriculture. It’ll be completed in West’s signature playful style, marked with her – as she calls it – “sense of childlike simplicity.”
“I want my art to be enjoyed by everyone,” said West in an interview with the Star. “I have a sense of childlike simplicity in some of my illustrations. It’s accessible to a lot of viewers and not intimidating.”
West’s mural art can also be seen on the side of a building at 10th and Buttonwood streets in Callowhill. Her work is also featured in Von Nieda Park in Camden, New Jersey. West actually used to live in Port Richmond, which informed her on what to incorporate into her mural.
“Because I have such a strong knowledge of the area, I just made mental notes of this theme of the relationship between man and nature,” she said, talking about her inspiration for the mural. “Living in an urban environment, I really love the dynamic of the introduction of buildings and people and how plants and animals adapt to those spaces. You can walk through the city and see morning glories growing up a steel chain-linked fence. There might be a pile of dirt that a dump truck left and there’s grass growing out of it. If you really take time to look, it’s everywhere.”
West references this concept in mockups of her mural, which were made available for the Star for viewing (but not for publishing). The mockup shows man’s connection with nature in images of flowers growing out of planters made of old tires and birds sitting on telephone lines adorned with pairs of shows that were tied together and thrown over, left to hang and sway with the wind.
“This mural is going back to the history of the River Wards and knowing that the Delaware River is such a unique space from the land and to the people and nature,” she said. “I wanted to honor that.”
Ludwig said the two artists were chosen, in part, because of their vastly different styles.
“We didn’t want to be consistent,” he said.
When all is said and done and both murals are complete, Silverman is optimistic they can create the “sense of place” ORCA is going for.
“Creating a space that is centered around art that feels exciting and safe to walk through makes people care about the area more,” she said. “Small investments make a big difference.”