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July 10, 2015

Philly coffee shops blend mural art, coffee

Ultimo Coffee the latest shop to add a mural to its space

Coffee The Arts
Aaron Ultimo with Mural Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Aaron Ultimo with his shop's new mural, created by artist and Free People designer Kris Chau.

Art galleries have long been a presence in Philadelphia coffee shops, but a commitment to murals -- seemingly a no-brainer for a city so devoted to them -- is an altogether more recent phenomenon. 

It started in recent years with 2010's seen-better-days Shepard Fairey outdoor mural at Rocket Cat Cafe in Fishtown, and became more prominent when Elixr Coffee moved to its Sydenham Street location in Center City circa 2012 and launched a mural rotation program, swapping out indoor murals every six months, and outdoor murals every three months. 

But in the past few months, Benna's West, Monkey and the Elephant and Ultimo Coffee have joined the coffee-shop-mural lineup.

"It gives our space a little more of a 'visual life,'" Aaron Ultimo, Ultimo Coffee's owner and namesake, told 

The shop added the mural to its space in late June, a chalk-drawn creation from painter and Free People designer Kris Chau. Ultimo said he and his wife, co-owner Elizabeth Ultimo, had been considering refreshing the space, and organically came upon the idea of doing a mural when Chau, who previously lived upstairs at the shop, brought up the idea in jest.

"I told her she could do whatever she wants, and she asked me for coffee imagery," he said. "So, I told her how coffee grows in the jungle, and told her a coffee origin story of how it was ‘discovered,' which involves dancing goats. She incorporated her own version of that into the piece and spun it in her own direction."

Some of the other animals in the mural were additions by Chau, but look closely at the mural, and you'll notice some storytelling elements that call back to "Kaldi" mythology, which essentially tells the story of a goat that got a buzz after chewing on a discovered bush fruit. 

You'll also notice that the perched eagle is drawn in a shape that recalls Ultimo's logo

Ultimo added that the mural, ultimately, makes the space a little more "playful" and a little less "stark." He also mentioned that he's open to doing another one for his second location in Graduate Hospital.

“We’re always trying to find ways to keep our space fresh – especially now that we’ve been here for six years," he said. "The coffee will always be great, but the thought is, 'What can we do to keep people coming back and interested in what we’re doing?' This is a little bit of an attempt to do something different."

Below, catch three other Philly coffee shops bringing visual life to their spaces.

Monkey and the Elephant


The Monkey and the Elephant's mural, a graffiti-art piece created by artist-in-residence Sophie Roach. Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice

Also new to the coffee-shop mural scene this summer is nonprofit coffee shop The Monkey and the Elephant's graffiti mural, created as part of a partnership with Paradigm Gallery and its "HAHA x" program, which brings artists from across the country to Philadelphia for community-based arts projects. Created by Austin, Texas-based artist Sophie Roach, the mural spans three walls in the cafe's outdoor seating area and is designed as a collection of abstract shapes that pop with interspersed neon colors.

Benna's West


Benna's West's mural, created by local artist and illustrator Lisa Conn. Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice

The Benna's West mural, unveiled during the South Broad Street shop's opening in April, was drawn by Lisa Conn -- a barista for Benna's Cafe in Bella Vista and an artist transplant from Florida. 

Conn told PhillyVoice that, though she had a rough sketch, she started by drawing a single line (with Sharpie) and began branching out from there.

"I‘ve always kind of liked figurative drawings, and I draw these girls that take the form of trees because I like the idea of being in a city and touching a tree -- being close to nature still," she said. "I find feeling in that, and I knew with Benna’s West it would be a woodsy feeling in the interior, so I thought that would go well with that."

Benna's owner Nancy Trachtenberg told PhillyVoice in April that she plans to swap out murals as time goes on.

Elixr Coffee


Elixr Coffee's indoor wall mural, created by local abstract artist Andrew Jeffrey Wright. Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice

Elixr Coffee's latest was unveiled in March and drawn by University of the Arts graduate Andrew Jeffrey Wright, who specializes in abstract art -- specifically shapes that don't necessarily derive from "anything in nature," he told PhillyVoice. 

“It’s not a minimal piece. There’s a lot going on there," he said. "But it is one shape that's repeated and vibrating and creating ripples throughout it. And in a weird way, it’s an X with these vibrations coming off of it."

It's all about giving coffee shop patrons -- who are more likely to take the time to truly digest the piece -- something they wouldn't experience outside of that space.

"It's creating something that doesn't exist in nature. It's creating a 'new art,'" he said. "It gives people something to think about and feel when they look at it."

Elixr will unveil new indoor and outdoor murals in September.