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Credit: Photo: Jack Ramsdale

This mural—titled Spring—was painted by David Guinn. It is located in Philadelphia at 13th and Pine Streets. It is copyright of the artist and the city of Philadelphia.

The very thought of tackling a graffiti-ridden city strikes terror in the heart of even the most seasoned public works officials. Even after the graffiti tags are cleaned up, the battle continues. It's usually a matter of only days before it comes back—sometimes on a larger scale.

But there's a different way to combat graffiti. Cities like Philadelphia have found murals to be an effective graffiti-prevention tool. Not only are the murals successful in curbing graffiti, but the murals also have turned into a tourist attraction, which generates more income for the city.

The city of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (MAP) started in 1984 as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, which the then-mayor Wilson Goode established. Goode believed it was important to have an organization that not only eliminated graffiti, but that also worked with the graffiti writers.

Approximately 150 instructors and artists are hired each year. Some are local and some have moved to Philadelphia for the mural opportunities from as far away as Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, and Haiti. Since the program's inception, 2500 murals have been painted, and in the past year, 148 were completed.

In the early 1980s, graffiti was rampant in Philadelphia. “There wasn't a wall that wasn't covered,” said Brian Campbell, executive assistant/communications for MAP. The incidence of graffiti has gone up again in the past five years, said Campbell. “They (graffiti artists) tend to respect the murals and so the murals don't get tagged as much,” he said.

If murals are graffitied, which isn't often, MAP tries to respond in 24 to 48 hours. “Otherwise it would just encourage more graffiti,” said Campbell. MAP uses weatherproof paint that resists ultraviolet light, making the murals more durable. Inevitably as they age, the murals need to be touched up. In response, MAP recently implemented a program for the restoration of 25 murals each year.

A typical-size mural—three stories high and 50 to 60 feet long—takes two to four months to complete. On average, murals are painted by teams of two people. Occasionally, as many as 10 people work on a project.

Funding is the greatest issue for MAP. Even though MAP is a city program, the city's contribution represents only 1/4 of the budget, which is $3 million per year. The rest is funds raised from individuals, corporations, foundations, and an earned income program where tours, calendars, and note cards are sold.

“I think one of the wonderful things about our program is that we are a model of a public-private partnership,” said Jane Golden, director of MAP. “There's a limit to government funding, though, and we understand that so we use the government money as a base and build from that. We're able to leverage the public dollars with private dollars.”

Golden contributes some of MAP's success to developing relationships with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Public Property.

Farther south, Baltimore paints murals to help abate graffiti. Although Baltimore is not recognized as the “City of Murals” as Philadelphia is, Baltimore's mural project, in partnership with the police department, won a Graffiti Hurts award from Keep America Beautiful Inc., Stamford, Conn., in 2004.

Burlington, Vt, another Graffiti Hurts award winner, paints murals to abate graffiti. Seven murals were painted since its 2001 commencement. A local survey by the city reported that 92% of respondents noticed a decrease in graffiti in their neighborhood.