Two decades ago the Mural Arts Program's celebrated director tried to save a talented painted from the streets. Now they're working together in prison.
Inside a conference room at Graterford Prison some 31 miles west of the city, Scott Feifer, a 41-year-old seventh-grade English teacher from Lancaster, lays out the deal to his 13 creative writing students.
"Write about what you love and know," he urges the seven Graterford inmates in maroon jumpsuits and six teens sporting the green knit shirts of St. Gabriel's Hall, a Montgomery County reformatory. "Write about your favorite food. It might take you someplace you don't expect. Write about anything, write till your hand starts to hurt, but keep your heart close at hand."
Ten minutes later he asks his proteges to read their work.
Tom, a professorial-looking lifer from Philadelphia, tells about a long ago hot night in his Center City apartment when he thought he had everything he needed to be happy--money, girls' phone numbers and lots of drugs.
Stan, another lifer from Philly, writes of manning a booth at a recent family fun day at the prison, and how it jolted him into realizing he'd never have children.
Others reflect on childhoods shortened by tough lives on the street, on growing up poor, on beatings by thugs and cops, on joyful block parties.
Then it's Jane Golden's turn to read. Golden is the turbocharged director of Philly's celebrated Mural Arts Program, the won't-take-no-for-an-answer dervish who over the past two decades has commandeered some 2,700 walls, many once graffiti-marred, and left behind likenesses of Julius Erving, Jackie Robinson and Mario Lanza, as well as dozens of anonymous yet poignant countenances and scenes.
Golden's back in the news now that her organization's All Join Hands antiviolence mural covering one side of Ben Franklin High School is nearing dedication.
"I remember," she begins, "the early days, going to El stops and asking graffiti writers whether they'd like a new profession, driving up to drug corners like Eighth and Butler. I remember thinking if we lost one more kid to crack or violence, then shame on all of us."
It was near the end of the '80s, and Golden--then in her early 30s--was standing across the street from a row house, accompanied by her assistant, notorious graffiti writer Anthony "Tran" Jones.
In her pocket she carried the Pledge, a sheet of paper bearing the inscription of the Anti-Graffiti Network.
Golden's mission was to get Hernan "Spel" Cortes' signature on that card.
Those who signed and kept their word to stop defacing walls were granted amnesty from prosecution in a city whose mayor, Wilson Goode, had declared war on graffiti.
"Graffiti is bad. It's ugly," Goode announced late in '83. "It mars this entire city. It keeps businesses away. It destroys neighborhoods."
|Still lifer: Spel (in a prison photo)|
Spencer, who died in 1996, initially envisioned her diverting graffiti taggers toward various arts and crafts, but Golden convinced him painting murals would be better.
Sitting in the Thomas Eakins House in Spring Garden, Mural Arts headquarters since 2001, Golden recalls why the idea seemed natural.
Geek Invasion 2013