Philadelphia’s first trans mural kicks of Mural Arts Month

Mural Arts’ executive director, Jane Golden (left), with mural models Tazmere Stephens (second from left) and Jourdyn Wood (second from right) and artist Kah Tangi, celebrate the dedication of We Are Universal to Philadelphia’s trans community

Mural Arts’ executive director, Jane Golden (left), with mural models Tazmere Stephens (second from left) and Jourdyn Wood (second from right) and artist Kah Tangni, celebrate the dedication of We Are Universal to Philadelphia’s trans community on Sept. 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s poet laureate Trapeta Mayson came to the dedication of a new mural in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood.

Of the more than 4,000 murals created by Mural Arts Philadelphia, this one – called “We Are Universal” – is the first celebrating trans and gender non-conforming people. Mayson read her poem, “We’ll Make Something Out of This, Too.”

We are all in our dojo of life and this world has become our sensei,

And we are stealth students studying this new language, this new thing,

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Meditating and marveling

Moving and mourning

Meditating and marveling

Moving and mourning

Marinating and musing

Each day another chance to practice being human.

The mural was made by artist Kah Yangni in collaboration with residents of Morris Home, run by the city’s Department of Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) as the only residential recovery center in the country geared specifically toward trans and gender non-conforming people.

“It’s really exciting that, in the city that has thousands of murals, we get our first one,” said Yangni. “I think that’s so cool.”

Monica Rivera, alumni of Morris Home, sang This Place, by Tamela Mann, at the mural dedication of We Are Universal to Philadelphia’s trans community
Monica Rivera, alumni of Morris Home, sang This Place, by Tamela Mann, at the mural dedication of We Are Universal to Philadelphia’s trans community on Sept. 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The mural is on a 100 foot long wall along Frankford Avenue at West Thompson Street, covering its 2,200 square feet with bright gradients of pinks, yellows, and purples. Its line drawings of residents at Morris Home, with simple flowers, vines, and butterfly shapes, resemble doodles in a sketchbook. The mural features text written in an uneven, crayon-like font:

We’re trans, we’re survivors.

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We are joyful

We feel rage

We are Universal.

“I like making art that looks hand-drawn. It feels really warm and human,” said Yangni. “When you’re trying to get people to feel healed, I think there’s something about being able to sense that, like, a human being actually made this that works better than really clean lines.”

Kah Yangi, lead muralist, said “We are here, we live here too,” at the dedication of the We Are Universal mural in Fishtown
Kah Yangni, lead muralist, said “We are here, we live here too,” at the dedication of the We Are Universal mural in Fishtown, on Sept. 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mural Arts Philadelphia is using the dedication of “We Are Universal” to launch its Mural Arts Month, a series of dedications and events through October highlighting social justice issues at the heart of the public art program.

Mental health is one such issue Mural Arts has addressed many times through its longtime partnership with the DBHIDS.

“Fifteen years ago we partnered with Mural Arts to create the Porch Light project, that’s a combination of behavioral health with art,” said DBHIDS deputy commissioner Roland Lamb “If anybody understands behavioral health, you know that there’s art in people’s recovery. There’s art in people struggling. There’s art and overcoming. Art bridges the gap between us as individuals.”

Mural Arts Month will feature new murals, such as artists Deborah Willis’ and Michelle Jones’ “Point of Triangulation” addressing formerly incarcerated people re-integrating in society; a projected mural at Cherry Street pier about BIPOC activists fighting for climate justice; and a mural by Reginald Dwayne Betts and Titus Kaphar featuring a redacted version of the Declaration of Independence.

Mural Arts staff joined Morris Home residents and alumni to celebrate the dedication of We Are Universal to Philadelphia’s trans community
Mural Arts staff joined Morris Home residents and alumni to celebrate the dedication of We Are Universal to Philadelphia’s trans community on Sept. 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The 25 events in Mural Arts Month also include non-mural presentations, such as a gallery exhibition of work done by Fellows in Mural Arts’ Black Artist Fellowship program; tours of a new installation in an underground SEPTA concourse painted by people, many experiencing homelessness, paid through Mural Arts’ day labor program; and an outdoor screening in Mifflin Square Park — a largely Cambodian neighborhood — of films made by English language learners of all ages.

Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said murals are meant to beautify their environments, while also addressing issues like mental health, criminal justice reform, and climate justice.

Morris Home residents Jourdyn Wood (left) and Tazmere Stephens (right) are featured in the We Are Universal mural, dedicated to Philadelphia’s trans community
Morris Home residents Jourdyn Wood (left) and Tazmere Stephens (right) are featured in the We Are Universal mural, dedicated to Philadelphia’s trans community. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I think that the mural obscures the power behind it,” she said in Fishtown at the dedication of “We Are Universal.” “For every project that people see, like the one we’re standing in front of, that’s two years of work with Morris [Home]. It is workshops, it’s programs, it’s very deep, meaningful, hard conversations that were really both sorrowful and incredibly triumphant.”

A full list of Mural Arts Month activities can be found here.

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