Six free-standing murals have sprouted on the lawn of LOVE Park in Center City Philadelphia, encouraging passersby to vote.
The cluster of murals, called “To The Polls,” were created by six artists, some of whom used dire imagery and text to get their message over about the presidential election. One facing the LOVE sculpture reads “Democracy is essential for the world we are fighting for: VOTE.” It features a black and white image of a dense crowd protesting at night, their faces illuminated by their phones.
“The world ‘essential’ has become so important since COVID: Who is essential, what jobs are essential?” said curator Conrad Benner, creator of street art blog StreetsDept.com. “It’s one of the words of the year … and it got pulled unto that mural.”
While get-out-the-vote campaigns pop up every year, particularly before presidential elections, the messaging on the temporary murals in To The Polls draw particularly from the mood of this tumultuous year.
Khalid Dennis spray-painted a graffiti-style mural with the words “Vote for those who can’t breathe,” using another crucial phrase associated with the killings of Black people by police officers using chokeholds or, in the case of George Floyd, a knee on the neck.
“This is supposed to be the land of the free, home of the brave, but a lot of times we don’t get to feel like that as minorities,” said Dennis, who is Black. “We feel suffocated and oppressed where we live. We want to feel free.”
Dennis, a Philadelphia native who often presents his work under the name BKLvisions, painted his mural with a background of bright yellow with vibrant reds and blues. It can easily be seen from Benjamin Franklin Parkway on the other side of the park. Despite the reference to death in the message, it’s a pretty upbeat piece.
“All my colors are bright colors. A lot of abstract lines. Bright pinks, neon greens, yellows, all bright colors,” he said. “A lot of my artworks speak about love and community empowerment, bringing positive energy to the city of Philadelphia.”
This is the second time an exhibition called “To The Polls” has appeared in Philadelphia as the result of a partnership between Benner and Mural Arts Philadelphia. The first was in 2018 when several murals were installed indoors inside a converted warehouse at 10th and Spring Garden streets.
Last year, Benner started pitching Mural Arts to make an exhibition of new voting-related murals under the same name for the 2020 election, but this time make it outdoors. He said that in January the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and Mural Arts hammered out an agreement to use LOVE Park as the location.
Since January, Benner has been working on selecting artists and coordinating the exhibition. The artist submitted their design ideas in mid-summer, when the COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests had been on the top of everyone’s minds for months.
“With temporary public art projects, it’s going to be more responsive,” said Benner. “You can react to the moment you are in, and express the frustration you’re feeling in the moment.”
Artist D’nae Harrison made a mural that attempts to generate excitement about Election Day on Nov. 3, painting that date at the top of her image, even though mail-in voters do not need to wait that long.
Harrison, who in 2016 painted “Shaded Oppression” critical of that year’s presidential election, this year created a mural with raised arms as though in celebration, against a backdrop of the American flag.
However, she took liberties with the coloring of that flag, substituting its traditional colors with warmer browns and earth tones.
“It’s not the average American flag. It’s a multi-cultural abstraction of the flag,” said Harrison. “I wanted it to be more inclusive than the red, white and blue.”
Another piece, on the flip side of Harrison’s mural, recalls the long history of fighting for voting rights stretching back to the 19th century. Alexandra González has created an image of a traditional Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) altar, below which is a list of names of activists who fought for the right to vote, including less-celebrated figures like Nina Otero-Warren, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Miguel Trujillo and Amzie Moore.
The bilingual mural, called “Altar to our voting rights ancestors / Altar a los ancestros que lucharon por los derechos del votante,” includes text written in both English and Spanish reading “Let’s honor their legacy by exercising our right to vote. Vote for justice. Vote for our collective liberation.”
The exhibition is designed to encourage people to take their own photos of the works and post them to social media, to spread the message to vote in the current election. If passersby point their phones at the right angle, they can get the Día de los Muertos altar with the William Penn statue in the background, towering at the peak of the City Hall.
WHYY is a media partner in the “To the Polls” exhibition and one of the murals features the station’s logo.