Despite being just a few months away from completing their biggest creative undertaking to date, the vibe inside the Port Richmond studio of local art collective Amber Art and Design is surprisingly chill. Music is playing; coffee is brewing. Everyone appears to be in a functional meditation.
Meanwhile, in a cordoned-off area on one side of the room, several young men from the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership are hard at work putting the finishing touches on a piece of soon-to-be Philly music history: the far left half of The Roots Mural. Once complete, it will stand 40 feet high along the side of the World Communications Charter School near Broad and South Streets—just a few blocks from CAPA, where The Roots first planted their seeds—paying homage to homegrown, Grammy-Award-winning hip-hop trailblazers.
Since being selected to head the Mural Arts Program’s multifaceted and highly anticipated project over a year ago, Amber Art and Design’s team—Ernel Martinez, Charles Barbin, Willis Humphrey and Keir Johnston, along with multimedia artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh—have certainly had their work cut out for them. Luckily, as the only public art crew in town and, with a total of more than 50 murals under their combined belts, they’re exceptionally fit for the task.
In addition to their other commitments as long-time educators with Mural Arts, the group has led a slew of ongoing citywide engagement events, including panel discussions, community paint days, a gallery show and three weekly youth art classes dubbed “Roots 101.”
“We spent a lot of time as a collective just brainstorming,” Martinez says. “I mean months and months and months of brainstorming.”
Though finding consensus between five artists—each with their own visions, strengths and aesthetics—was no easy feat, the fact that they’re all long-time fans of The Roots certainly helped. “I used to go and catch them when they were just a college band at Penn,” Johnston admits.
After spending a great deal of quality time with the band—sitting in on a rehearsal, catching them a few times at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, attending their New Year’s Eve show in Atlantic City as Black Thought’s personal guests, even joining them for lunch to celebrate Questlove’s birthday—slowly but surely, their vision, as a group, took shape.
“I think they just wanted something that was really dynamic, profound,” Martinez says, “something that would stand out that did not look or feel like your traditional mural here in Philly.”
More specifically, it was important to both sides that the final design avoided cliché representations of Philly and incorporated former bandmates who have influenced their music. As Johnston notes, there were also a few minor fashion requests “like Quest, making sure the beard line was nice and tight.”
While an official date for the mural’s grand reveal has yet to be set, both Johnston, 33, and Martinez, 37, say they’re more excited than nervous, and hope that they can “keep the momentum going with future projects.” One project in the works is a line of ornate and hand-painted designer flowerpots. “Everybody likes flowers,” Johnston laughs, “but not too many people have sequined flowerpots.”
So, what’s kept the group motivated and inspired the past year or so? “We always usually have music playing,” Johnston says. “I’m not gonna say it’s just The Roots, but The Roots have been played many a time in the resonating of wet paint.”