In a city known for its murals, one shines brighter than the rest in trying to prevent crime with the flip of a switch.
Lighting designer Drew Billiau and painter David Guinn are on a mission to create a mural with a purpose in South Philadelphia. Their mural, called “Electric Street” incorporates lights to brighten and attract foot traffic to Percy Street, a small winding alley accessible near 9th and Wharton streets.
“By having other eyes on the street, it wouldn’t be a private place anymore where people could go back and do whatever they want,” says Guinn.
“The first idea was to provide something safe in that area,” says Billiau.
According to the Philadelphia Police Department, there have been five aggravated assaults, two burglaries, 10 robberies, and 52 thefts within a two-block radius of Percy Street in the past six months. Those are the reported crimes; Guinn and Billiau said they saw other illicit activity while they were working on their mural earlier this year.
“There’s tagging that goes on, evidence of drugs and other things [in the alley],” says Guinn. “
“There was always vandalism,” says local café owner Liza Hussain. “They always spray painted and people would go back there to pee in the alley. That degraded the neighborhood.”
Overall, crime in the area has been on a decline over the last two years, but Hussain says that warmer weather consistently brings more vandalism and petty crime to the area surrounding her business, Global Crepes & Local Shakes at 1309 S. 9th St. The cafe is located directly across the street from the entrance to Percy Street and the mural lights up the front of her cafe at dusk.
“Originally the project was just going to be lights and we decided it would be interesting to have something there visible during the day to attract people’s attention,” says Guinn.
“I see a lot of murals with a light component but that is to light the mural versus where the light itself becomes a piece of the art, says Billiau.
Billiau and Guinn received funding for their project from the Knight Foundation and the Mural Arts Program. The lights both outline and enhance the bright geometric painted mural underneath. The artists hope that the lighting component, made out of an LED material called Flexi Neon, will attract the right kind of foot traffic to the alley at night.
Guinn and Billiau hope to receive more funding from organizations like the Mural Arts Program and the Knight foundation in order to expand their project to the rest of the street.
Although “Electric Street” is located near the brightly lit, famous cheesesteak destinations Pat’s and Geno’s on East Passyunk Avenue, the similar style of lighting attracts people for different reasons.
“I think people coming to check out the Pat’s and Geno’s glowing ‘Cheesesteak Vegas’ will definitely see this and think ‘What’s that?’” says mural viewer Lauren Holguin. “It keeps the setting clear that this is something happening in Philly and specifically this South Philadelphia neighborhood.”
“The more people it brings, the better,” says Hussain.
The mural officially debuts at its opening event on Wednesday, Aug. 17.