A new mural depicting the dangers of gambling addiction is up in a South Philadelphia neighborhood that’s full of immigrants from Southeast Asia.
Some neighbors want to use the mural to protest casinos.
The mural, “Fables of Fortune,” at Seventh and Wolf streets features five Asian languages and their symbols of money, luck, and gambling. It includes innocent games of chance such as lucky chess — commonly played with candy by children in Vietnam — and an image of a trolley used by SugarHouse to transport gamblers to its casino in Fishtown. It also depicts silhouettes of people holding protest signs.
Eric Okdeh, an artist with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, worked with neighborhood residents for a year to design the elements of the composition. He slipped in a symbol of his own personal connection to problem gambling: running horses.
“The racetrack image,” said Okdeh, whose father has a gambling addiction. “I remember spending many, many weekends as a kid at the racetrack.”
Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities connected the Mural Arts Program with the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition to make this work in the interest of public health.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Asians are culturally more prone to problem gambling than other demographic groups, although it’s difficult to find hard, statistical data to support that.
“Our view is, we are listening to the community,” said Dr. Arthur C. Evans, behavioral health department commissioner. “If the community is identifying it as a problem, we’re going to work with the community around it. It doesn’t matter what the research says.”
Evans says the mural — the newest of two-dozen murals related to mental health and addiction issues — is meant to raise awareness of gambling addiction and encourage people to seek help.
Getting people to admit to a gambling addiction is the first, most difficult hurdle of the process. The director of the Mural Arts Program, Jane Golden, said this was a particularly challenging public outreach project.
“It’s the kind of project where you have to ask people to open up,” said Golden. “You want people to talk about darkness and what it means to move to the light, and what it means to have a work of art that would do something to deal with gambling addiction.”
The Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition had been involved with recent protests against a casino bid near Chinatown, primarily using the argument that casinos disproportionately market to Asian gamblers.
This new mural could be used to protest future casino development.
“Absolutely. That’s the beauty of this mural,” said Thoai Nguyen, coalition CEO. “To ignite discussions on both an intellectual level and a community-organizing level. It ignites resistance. Maybe there could be community action centered around here if a casino is proposed anywhere near here. We need to speak out against the casino industry.”
Last year, Philadelphia’s second casino license was issued to LIVE! Hotel and Casino near the sports complex in South Philadelphia, about two miles from this neighborhood.