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June 12, 2024

A new mural in Washington Square West set off one irate neighbor. Now, the community is rallying around it

Rumors and outrage have swirled since Mural Arts installed 'Home Is Where We Are' by Ukrainian artist Yuliya Semenova last month.

Arts & Culture Murals
Mural Arts Provided image/Steve Weinik

The artist of this mural said on Instagram it 'represents a lot of difficult feelings' including grief and hope, and the idea of creating new homes. 'Many people, Ukrainians, and other nationalities, do not know if they ever have an opportunity to come back home,' she wrote.

In mid-May, a new mural appeared along the wall of Tuck Barre & Yoga at Seventh and Rodman streets. In the weeks since, the piece has sparked sustained complaints from one resident, backlash to those complaints and mass confusion on social media as the community rallies to save a mural that is, as of Wednesday, still there.

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The art in question is "Home Is Where We Are," the first city mural by Ukrainian artist Yuliya Semenova. The Mural Arts piece, which contrasts jagged slashes of color and smoke with a spray of dandelions and the Philadelphia skyline, is a "meditation on being an immigrant while witnessing your home country in (the) midst of war," according to its plaque. Upon its completion, the work had the enthusiastic support of Tuck Barre & Yoga, the building owner and several members of the Washington Square West community, Mural Arts said.

But one resident wasn't a fan. Mural Arts soon received emails from the disgruntled neighbor, a lone but nevertheless loud dissenting voice.

"The tenor was generally just displeasure," Chad Eric Smith, senior director of communications and brand management for Mural Arts, said. "He referred to the mural as graffiti, which I'm sure he meant to say in a disparaging way, but we don't personally think graffiti is a bad thing. Unauthorized art is, but graffiti is a style of art ... I think he referred to it as an eyesore, as well."

In a May 30 Instagram post, Tuck Barre & Yoga wrote that the unidentified neighbor had said something far more incendiary, using a word with a racist history.

The fitness studio claims the upset resident "wrote and complained to every city representative he could as he believes that murals lead to the 'ghetto-ization' of our city" and that Mural Arts would be removing the piece "after feeling pressure from multiple city leaders and agencies."

The post was flooded with shocked and angry commenters — later, the outrage spilled over to the Philly subreddit, too — bent on fighting the decision.

Tuck Barre & Yoga, which also operates studios in Northern Liberties and Point Breeze, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Mural Arts disputes several parts of their account. Smith, who did not correspond with the angry resident directly, said he never saw the phrase "ghetto-ization" in writing, and that the city never pressured Mural Arts to take the piece down.

As part of Mural Arts new Small Walls program, which gives artists opportunities to lead their first Philadelphia mural, "Home Is Where We Are" was always meant to be a temporary, one-year installation, he explained, that would be rotated out with new work in 2025. But Mural Arts' interim COO did briefly consider moving the mural to a "more welcoming location," Smith said, and shared that possibility with Semenova before abandoning the plan.

"Because of that statement having been out there, I think people started flooding the city, or Councilmember Squilla (who represents the 1st District)," Smith said. "I think they were confused. They were like, 'Why are we getting all these comments?' And we were like, 'We don't know, we never said that.' I think that was kind of a mischaracterization.

"What I can tell you is that, as of this moment in time, Mural Arts has made no decision to remove the mural."

Councilmember Mark Squilla declined to comment on the situation, referring to a previous statement by Mural Arts.

The city's public art program blames the confusion partly on its own insufficient community outreach prior to the mural's installation. "Home Is Where We Are" took only a week to install, making its sudden appearance potentially jarring or at least surprising to residents who were unaware of the project.

"During the project’s initial phase, our team did not engage with the local neighbors as thoroughly as we should have, though we did secure support from the building owner," Mural Arts said in the statement it had issued earlier in the controversy. "We deeply regret this oversight and take full responsibility for it."

Now, the group is conducting that outreach. According to Smith, two of his colleagues recently canvassed the neighborhood with flyers containing a QR code to an electronic survey about the piece. Mural Arts plans to make a decision after reviewing the responses, which are due Sunday, though Smith doubts the group will ultimately remove "Home Is Where We Are" before its full year is up.

"Anything is possible, but my inclination is that won't be the case," Smith said. "Just because if what we've been reading on social media and what we've been getting via emails is reflected in the surveys, then my guess would be that the mural would stay up."

"I think we feel that public art doesn't necessarily have to be something everyone agrees with."

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