If you’re walking through Center City, it’s hard to miss the giant black and white figure looming on the side of the Graham Building. The massive work is on a 25 story building, visible enough to become an addition to the city skyline. So how did this impressive, moving, huge portrait of a street food vendor end up looking out over Center City?
It started with a concept. French artist JR was interested in highlighting issues surrounding immigration, had an idea for a pose for his subject, and the intention that the image would look as if it were half-hidden within the surrounding buildings. The figure’s face, however, was literally a blank canvas, open to interpretation until the right person crossed JR’s path. In the spring, JR spent time wandering Philadelphia until he met Ibrahim Shah, a recent immigrant from Pakistan. With Ibrahim’s permission, JR took a snapshot, and the blank canvas had a face.
Imagination is always the starting point, but executing the vision, especially when it’s as large and complex as this mural, takes a village. JR and his team crafted the image and printed the pieces in their studio, and bit by bit, the mailed pieces showed up at the front door of Mural Arts.
On a 95 degree day in July, installation started. The printed pieces of the mural went up along the wall section by section, attached to the wall with a stronger version of wheatpaste. Soaring above street level, the artist team was on a swing stage provided by Jenkintown Building Services - and in addition to the stage, Jenkintown helped Mural Arts’ staff photographer, Steve Weinik, get access to the rooftops for some of the stunning in-progress and final shots.
After four days, the work was almost complete, but JR’s design included Ibrahim’s fingers, wrapped around the corner of the building. To attach the hands, the artist team rappelled down the side of the building on seats, engaging in a bit of urban mountain climbing.
And finally, in the midst of a busy morning on the food truck, Ibrahim got a break of a few minutes to see the mural. His response? “Wow. It’s nice!”
You’ve read about the process. Watch the mural come together in 15 seconds!
Photos by Steve Weinik
Video by Tweed Video