It is no question that the larger-than-life pieces of artwork depicted on walls of buildings across the city of Philadelphia are pleasing to the average eye. However, although several of the murals are driven by singular artists who create them for recognition or fame, a majority of the wall paintings have much to do with community-based volunteer work. For example, Jane Golden, a driving force behind The Mural Arts Program and an expert in revolutionary urban art, came up with an idea several years ago to introduce the organization to troubled youths with poor upbringings and even worse reputations. These young men, most of which had come from deprived childhoods, were channeling their misfortune through public vandalism and graffiti. Golden, seeing the good in all, took a risk and reached out to the boys, hoping to capture their attention. She tried to persuade them into making the leap from illegal action to beneficial doings by turning their urge to make graffiti art into a desire for mural art. The young men’s participation in the program would also act as community service. Knowledge of this turned the offer into one they simply could not refuse. As months went by, the mural arts gained large amounts of popularity, giving each individual project even more meaning and continuing to help Philadelphia's citizens and visitors of all ages.
While many of the murals produced through the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program rely heavily on pictorals to get their point across, it can easily be argued that type is the most important factor. Just like anything in the art world, images without words or captions are generally intended to be left open for interpretation. However, the Mural Arts Program is more than just an opportunity to display abstract art. Each piece has one or several specific messages attached to it, and it is crucial that these messages are easily read by anybody and everybody who views them. That being said, it's great to see murals that produce a hybrid of both pictures and words with such beauty and cohesiveness. It is even often that, in these works of large-scale art, the picture is the word (like in the first image). Pieces such as these may be considered even more successful than others, for they cover both type and image in the matter of a single glance.
Now that the importance of typography's role in the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program has been explained, it must also be stated that typeface and font do, indeed, matter here. Just like a publication as physically miniscule as a newspaper article, the purpose of these gigantic murals is to be read. In addition, nobody wants passerbys crashing into each other in attempts to decipher a word or phrase on the side of a building. Therefore, the copy must be very easily legible. Unique and pretty to look at, sure—but understandability comes first. This means serifs and sans serifs that are the perfect size, weight, color, et cetera; and tracked an appropriate, thus readable amount. Upon first glance, all of the murals you see in the City of Philadelphia may not seem to have taken typography into such consideration, but that's because they represent it so flawlessly. It would be absurd to not put thought into the manner in which words are presented to the community, visually. After all, words are the way we communicate and help one another as citizens and as human beings—very fitting when considering The Mural Arts Program's true purpose.
To hear more from founder Jane Golden, find out where all of the murals are located throughout Philadelphia, and more: http://www.muralarts.org/