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Queering the City

MAP-ping Queerness? Street Art in Philadelphia

Lara Cox


Dans cet article, nous positionnons le street art comme un outil qui « queerise » la ville de Philadelphie. La sixième commune des États-Unis est réputée pour ses peintures murales grâce à Mural Arts Philadelphia (MAP), initiative développée sous l’égide de sa directrice, Jane Golden, en 1987. Depuis plusieurs années, Philadelphie est également considérée comme une ville queer. Dans un premier temps, en nous appuyant sur le paradigme de Felix Driver de la géographie imaginaire, nous analysons la représentation des communautés queers dans le street art de la ville. Nous tournant dans un deuxième temps vers la théorie non représentationnelle, nous démontrons à l’aide de plusieurs exemples que le street art peut participer à la constitution d’espaces queers minoritaires sur le plan ethnoracial. Le street art de Philadelphie permet l’autodétermination des individus, le rassemblement, la protestation et le dialogue aussi bien entre les membres de la communauté queer qu’entre cette communauté et le reste de la cité. Nous soulevons également l’importance de la géographie numérique, ainsi que le rôle des réseaux sociaux dans la constitution des espaces queers de Philadelphie.

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1A common narrative runs that New York was where queer liberation originated in the United States. However, in recent years, Philadelphia has been re-branded as a rival birthplace of the movement. Two years prior to Stonewall, the sixth most populous city in the United States hosted the first LGBT sit-in in 1965 and the country’s first LGBT march in 1966. Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program (commonly abbreviated to “MAP”) has played a role in marking the city’s LGBT history, particularly with its murals “Pride and Progress” (2003), “A Tribute to Gloria Casarez” (2015) (in homage to the city’s first director of LGBT affairs), and gay artist Keith Haring’s “We, the Youth” (1987). MAP literally helps to “map” the city as a queer one.

2This article reflects on how street art “queers” Philadelphia, that is, how it allows residents and outsiders to see the city in ways that stand outside of heteronormativity. I approach this process of “queering” the city from two angles. I consider firstly how street art represents the queer community. Secondly, I turn to the reappropriation or reframing of street art by prominent queer individuals of Philadelphia (Nikki López, Amber Hikes) and one of the city’s queer collectives (her philly moves). They repurpose art that ostensibly does not represent the LGBTQIA community. Redirecting these “straight” images towards queer ends allows the performance of queer identity in space.

3The first part of the article, considering how murals represent the queer community of the city, draws on human geographer Felix Driver’s paradigm of image-based or “imaginative geography.” For Driver, visual representations of cultures help form “collective imaginations” (Driver 241), producing changes in human space. In part one, I turn to some flagship LGBTQIA+ murals of Philadelphia, and I reflect on the way these murals have helped bring into being queer spaces in the city—particularly in the central “gaybourhood.” Philadelphia is a racially and ethnically diverse city—44.8% white, 43.6% Black or African American, 7.8% Asian, 15.2% Hispanic or Latin American (“Quick Facts”). Whilst gaybourhood street art visually represents queer people of colour, this has had little impact on changing white dominance in this city quarter (in its bars, housing, etc.).

4In parts two and three of this article, in which I look at the reappropriation of “straight” street art, I shift paradigms from Driver’s “imaginative geography” and how murals represent the LGBTQIA+ culture in Philadelphia, to what street art allows the queer community to do in space, according to the “non-representational” branch of the geographies of sexuality (Binnie 31). I also study how queer Philadelphians of colour use street art for self-determination, protest, and to trouble the heteronormativity of the city space. Graffiti—as opposed to muralism—is considered in the second part, and analysed in the third part are the city’s “unofficial” LGBT MAP murals—defined in this way because they do not openly claim to represent gender and sexual non-normativity.


5One of MAP’s very first murals was by the now-renowned gay artist Keith Haring (1958-1990): “We, the Youth” (1987). The mural was commissioned to celebrate the bicentennial of the US Constitution, and it was completed just three years after Jane Golden, an artist and MAP’s Executive Director, began the MAP initiative, which sought to forge collaboration between city governance and disaffected graffiti artists. Golden’s ambition constituted a latter-day echo of the “Movement murals” that had transformed Black neighbourhoods suffering from dilapidation in the post-civil rights era, such as those revived by the Chicago Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) (Webster and Rohr 14). Located in the African American neighbourhood of Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, “We, the Youth” was a collaboration between Haring and a racially diverse youth group from the Philadelphia-based Brandywine Workshop and CityKids, a foundation in New York. While Haring produced the black outlines of his signature cartoon-like figures in a joyful dance-like scene (arms raised, legs bent as if in action), the young artists from Philadelphia and New York filled in the figures in bold primary and secondary colours (MAP, “We, the Youth”).

6Images can have such an impact on communities that they produce progressive changes in space (Driver 236). Maureen O’Connell, writing on MAP, argues that artistic representation has played a major role in “civic dialogue,” with “[c]itizens at large […] beginning to listen to what these images, and, more important, the people who created them, have to say” about topics such as “racial harmony” (xvii). Accordingly, in the 1987 promotional video for “We, the Youth,” a number of Point Breeze residents commented that they felt “uplifted” by the piece’s multi-hued figures, which, according to local African American resident Jean McNair, transcended racial divides (Brandywine Workshop & Archives). If “We, the Youth” could be deemed to promote a racially harmonious message in space, the mural also invites queer people to congregate in the neighbourhood. Haring’s openly gay identity and his legacy of AIDS activism have earned this mural a spot on the LGBTQIA+ map for readers of the Visit Philadelphia website (“Essential Guide”).

  • 1 Details of the Foundation’s donations can be found at the Haring Foundation Website: (...)

7However, if “We, the Youth” uses Haring’s legacy to secure the presence of queer visitors in Point Breeze, as Natalie Oswin reminds us, “‘queer’ space” can never be “just ‘queer’ space” since “sexual norms cannot be understood apart from hierarchies of race, class, gender, and nationality” (110). The extent to which the mural is playing a part in exacerbating the white gentrification of Point Breeze is more of an open question (Falconer). Posthumously, Haring has become a renowned artist and his work is showcased in major art galleries around the world. Erica and Lucas Bryant, a white couple, saved the mural from disrepair by buying the house attached to it and contacting the Haring Foundation, which funded its restoration (Hahn). It is ironic that the foundation, which also funds AIDS charities to perpetuate Haring’s activist legacy, has not, to date, invested money in the local organizations (for instance Philadelphia’s FIGHT) working on the ground in Point Breeze to combat the neighbourhood’s high HIV positivity rate among its African American population, the result of widespread intravenous drug-use and poverty.1

8MAP murals have a function in preserving local activist memory and inserting it into the present-day city space. This is the case for “Pride and Progress.” This is a 55-by-165-foot mural designed by Ann Northrup that celebrates the city’s legacy of queer activism. “Pride and Progress” lines the western wall of the William Way LGBT Community Center, and depicts on its left side a muscular man who looks like Touko Valio Laaksonen, the Finnish-born artist better known as Tom of Finland. This figure is seen gluing to the centre’s present-day brick wall a poster that memorializes the city’s first LGBT march (on July 4, 1966), implying spatial continuity between the city’s activist past and its present-day queerness. The mural’s right side blurs the material divide between fantasy and reality, as a painted recreation of the city’s Drake Hotel—a nod, perhaps to this location’s hosting of the first East Coast Homophile Organization (ECHO) Convention in 1962 (Skiba)—towers an anonymous sunny plaza. This space is the setting for rainbow-hued streamers and shirts, and a jubilant queer community, who are of a mix of races and ethnicities. Completed in 2003, the mural envisions Philadelphia as a queer space. The multiple colours of “Pride and Progress” have been echoed since 2007 by the thirty-six rainbow street signs and road markings of the city’s central Gayborhood, where the mural is found.

9The artistic production of a liminal space between reality (the LGBT centre’s bricks, the Drake Hotel) and fantasy (the unnamed plaza) in “Pride and Progress” is, however, ominously telling of a racial utopia that does not prevail in material space. Like the Marais in Paris or Chelsea in New York, Philadelphia’s Gayborhood is economically affluent, white-dominated, and has a history of racism against queer people of colour. An African American queer activist and former head of the city Office of LGBT affairs, Amber Hikes reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018 that the district’s queer bars’ Black clientele experienced being refused entry and over-zealous ID screening (Boren).

Pride and Progress © 2002 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ann Northrup, 1315 Spruce Street. Photo by Jack Ramsdale. Used with permission from MAP.

10One mural that did seem to shore up the spatial presence of queer people of colour in the Gayborhood is “A Tribute to Gloria Casarez” (2015). Designed by Latina Michelle Angela Ortiz, the mural pays tribute to the eponymous first director of LGBT affairs at City Hall. It combines motifs of Pima Mexican pottery (found in the spirals emanating from Casarez’s body) (Ortiz) with scenes from the Philadelphia Dyke March (2012). Men of colour are depicted in tender embrace. The mural both marks Casarez’s ethnicity and her legacy as a tireless agitator for lesbian rights and AIDS prevention in transgender and gay men of colour communities, as the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI). “A Tribute” was painted by over fifty of Casarez’s family and friends, providing the opportunity for queer friends and allies across races and ethnicities to contribute a visual representation that would change the white-dominated Gayborhood (Colletta). The mural features on one of the four walls of what used to be the 12th Street gym, an affordable and inclusive space “where race, body type, sexuality, age, class were all represented” (Eichel). When the gym was closed for financial reasons in 2018 and the mural was at risk of being demolished, twitter user #Disbandthepolice (who identifies as “Them/They” and “BBWC” in likely reference to Philadelphia’s Black and Brown Workers Cooperative) appealed to LGBT city government representative Amber Hikes and state senator Brian Sims to “open another community space.” #Disbandthepolice used the mural and Casarez’s role in LGBT health activism to argue that the space should “stand as a wellness centre,” continuing 12th Street’s legacy in accessible “health and exercise” (#Disbandthepolice).

A Tribute to Gloria Casarez © City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Michelle Angela Ortiz, 12th Street Gym, 204 South 12th Street. Photo by Steve Weinik. Used with permission from MAP.

11#Disbandthepolice’s reaction to “A Tribute” demonstrates the power images have to galvanize people to fight for the maintenance of racially diverse, economically accessible queer presence in material space. Nonetheless, it also shows the limits of such “imaginative geographies” to achieve these goals of preservation. Unlike Haring’s mural, which had the good fortune to be spared by a white couple admiring the (white gay) artist’s work, the Gloria Casarez mural will be moved to an as-of-yet unknown location (NBC10 Staff) after retail, residential, and office space giant Midwood Investment and Development bought the richly valued Gayborhood site in 2018. The prospect of an “open community space” (#Disbandthepolice) that reflects the vision present in “A Tribute to Gloria Casarez,” is a distant one.

12The case studies of “We, the Youth” and “A Tribute to Gloria Casarez” demonstrate that images are not particularly effective in creating material spaces which are made accessible to queer people of colour: Haring’s image has contributed to the gentrification of the surrounding neighbourhood while the Casarez mural was unable to spare the inclusive 12th Street gym from closure. I therefore shift focus from what street-based art represents about the LGBTQIA+ communities to what it allows these communities to do. That is why I move from Driver’s theory of the “imaginative geographies” that shape “collective imaginations” (Driver 241) to how the murals are harnessed by individuals who perform queer identity in space.

Graffiti and Queer Philadelphia

13Images do not solely represent certain pre-existing communities; they may also spur the creation of certain communities that did not exist before. The “non-representational” approach to the geographies of sexuality considers individuals’ and communities’ “performance [as] the mechanism for constituting everyday spaces and activities” (Rogers 781). This approach follows Judith Butler’s idea that identities are produced by the performance of actions, acts, and gestures. Hence identity politics is fundamentally a matter of performing identities that are always in the process of being created, rather than representing identities that are alleged to already pre-exist. One fruitful terrain for exploring how images bring queer space into being lies in another form of visual expression in public spaces: graffiti. Before Jane Golden took over Mural Arts Philadelphia in 1987, the initiative went by the less euphemistic name of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), developed by Mayor William Goode in 1984. Graffiti, sprayed often under time constraints and vulnerable to erasure by the forces of law and order, may be considered a performative act—an ephemeral “process more than a finished product” (Hardin 44; see also, Pabón-Colón 22). Graffiti has also historically served as a method of political resistance for America’s racialized under-classes. Some sources, for instance, attribute the origins of tagging to Philadelphia’s African American community, as an expression of Black outrage and self-affirmation following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 (Thompson 240).

14Some artists’ graffiti has been appropriated by queer people of colour in Philadelphia. Queer Latinx Philadelphian and AIDS activist Nikki López gave an interview to Ernest Owens for Philly Mag in 2016. López pinpointed queer of colour “spots formed by queer Latinx folks in West [and North] Philly” at parties, nightclubs, and demonstrations (Owens). These areas are far away from the city’s white-dominated Gayborhood. In the article, López is pictured in front of a wall of graffiti, and her presence has the effect of queering the wall. The graffiti pays homage to dancer Jesus “Headspinz,” who died in 2016 from unknown circumstances. Headspinz shares the same surname and Hispanic ethnicity as Nikki López. A message sprayed in red, reading “Go out and get her,” flirts with the lower half of Nikki López’s body, turning the imperative into an expression of queer desire. The tattooed writing on the activist’s arm visually complements the black tags behind her, some of which also read “Rock in Peace brother” in homage to Headspinz. This implies an affinity between López’s queer body and the graffiti. Her pink shorts and black top transform similar hues on the wall behind her into echoes of Act Up’s “Silence=Death” famous campaign poster of 1987, an interpretation enabled by Philly Mag’s identification of her as the then newly appointed Executive Director of Philadelphia’s Latinx AIDS outreach organization GALAEI, founded in 1989 as the Gay and Lesbian AIDS Education Initiative. GALAEI now reaches out more largely to QTBIPOC (queer, trans, black, indigenous, and people of colour) communities. What would otherwise be interpreted as a non-specifically queer gesture of final respect to Headspinz is resignified as a site of queer Latinx self-affirmation in Philadelphia.

15While López shows a way to queer street art, it is ironic that this should be found in an article about LGBTQ of colour space in Philadelphia, when the wall is, in fact, an iconic piece located in Baltimore’s “Graffiti Alley” (“Jesus”). This knowledge indirectly serves as a critique of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which has been so successful at eradicating graffiti and replacing it with murals—they have cleaned over forty thousand walls in the city (De Wavrin 115). As this example suggests, MAP’s success has compelled queer people of colour to seek out street art a hundred miles southwest of the city.

16On occasion, however, the power imbalance between MAP and Philadelphian graffiti artists has been overturned. In 2015, taggers defaced the image of Bill Cosby in the “Father’s Day” MAP mural (created in 2008) with the words “rapist” and “dudes with ludes”—an action that accelerated MAP’s decision to de-commission the mural following years of disrepair due to water seepage (Middleton). The taggers’ words were an angered response to the allegations (which turned to a conviction) of sexual aggression and misconduct levelled at the African American actor by more than sixty women. The words may also be regarded as a barometer of the collective groundswell against Cosby in the locality of North Philadelphia, where the mural is situated, headed by African American women at the actor’s alma mater Temple University and local women residents (Gabriel).

17While it is likely that the taggers or their intentions were not necessarily allied with the LGBTQIA+ community, their gestures may be considered both feminist and queer, insofar as their criticisms of an alleged (and subsequently convicted) sexual aggressor “refus[e] to play by the rules of heteropatriarchy” (Bell and Valentine 19). In particular, the phrase “dudes with ludes” echoes the transphobic slur “chicks with dicks.” This reappropriation transforms an assault on transgender women into an attack on dominant, heteronormative masculinity inherent in the use of the word “dude.” “Dudes with ludes” angrily mocks Cosby for having drugged a number of women with the tranquillizer Quaaludes before having sex with them. The tags are also, quite literally, non-representational (Thrift) forms of queered space: they efface and deny the visual representation of Cosby as a paternal figure offered in MAP’s “Father’s Day” mural. With the mural’s accelerated de-commissioning, which took place in July 2015, the tags demonstrate the power that ephemeral queer sites of protest have in leading to longstanding changes in place.

18It is not just graffiti that has enabled the performance of queer identity in space. In the following, I turn to examples where individuals and a queer collective in Philadelphia have reappropriated for queer purposes the MAP murals that do not officially represent the LGBTQIA+ community.

MAP’s Unofficial LGBTQIA+ Murals

19In February 2019, in honour of Black History Month, then Executive Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, Amber Hikes published “Seven Black LGBTQ Philadelphians Making History Today!” on the city government website. Hikes chose an image of the MAP mural “Colorful Legacy” (2015) to head her article, whose content united short biographies on prominent queer activists from the founder of Colours Organization, Michael Hinson, to the producer of LesBe Real Talk Radio/Media, Kati “Jazz” Gray-Sadler (Hikes). In this union between image and content, Hikes queered a mural that was not officially part of MAP’s LGBTQIA+ repertoire. It is the appropriation by queers of colour of such murals in Philadelphia that is the subject of this final part.

20“Colorful Legacy” was painted by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Keir Johnston as the culmination of a year-long series of workshops uniting Black and Asian American North and South Philadelphian men in a discussion of the social problems they face and ways to overcome challenges (MAP, “Colorful Legacy”). The fact that Hikes chose “Colorful Legacy” as a frontispiece for her article on Black queer Philadelphians invites viewers to reinterpret the mural’s expressions of Black, implicitly straight male self-affirmation in a queer way. The word “Proud” on the right side of the mural, an index of Black pride from the civil rights movement, also conjures up LGBTQIA+ pride marches in Hikes’ reframing. Hikes headed what became a global “More Color More Pride” initiative in 2017, by introducing to Philadelphia’s City Hall a pride flag which added black and brown to the now standard LGBTQIA+ rainbow flag to symbolize racial inclusivity (Orso). In “Colorful Legacy,” the combination of multi-hued “rays” (red, yellow, orange, green) symbolizes the powers of the Black male imagination. The blacks and browns of the central identifiably male face both recall Hikes’s “More Color More Pride” initiative and put a racialized and gendered face on it.

Colorful Legacy © 2015 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Willis Nomo Humphrey & Keir Johnston. 4008 Chestnut Street. Photo by Steve Weinik. Used with permission from MAP.

21Digital sexualities geographers Catherine Nash and Andrew Gorman-Murray argue that online media can “highlight the possibilities and potentialities of seeing locations queerly” (36). Hikes’s 2019 online publication is an illustration of this: she helps visitors to the city government website see one of Philadelphia’s artistic landmarks, “Colorful Legacy,” queerly by uniting it with some of its most prominent activist Black queer residents, including Hikes herself.

22Grassroots appropriations of MAP murals which are not officially queer have not only taken place online, but also in physical space, as can be seen by considering the work of her philly moves, a collective of queer and trans women of colour. In the spring of 2017, they published a zine entitled “The Middle of the Night.” On the last three pages, queer and trans women of colour figure alongside select images of “A Love Letter for You,” the mural series created by Philadelphia-born Steve Powers, more commonly known under the street name “Espo.”

23her philly moves’s stated goal was to “secur[e] spaces […] in which QTWOC [queer and trans women of colour] can build community” (“Middle of the Night” 3). The zine’s collage on its final page brings together queer and trans women of colour, an Espo mural, and images of city transport, which reconfigure Philadelphia as the aimed-for safe space. In reality, Espo’s murals are painted messages lining the route of the city’s Market-Frankford light rail, affectionately known as the “El” train to Philadelphia residents. In the zine, other modes of city transport (the number 11 bus, the number 15 trolley) are added to an image of the El train, as if to extend to these other transport routes the reach of one of Espo’s murals reading “Open your Eyes/ I see the Sunrise” (“Middle of the Night” 20). Meanwhile five pairs of lips and three pairs of eyes belonging to women of colour bring embodied life to the missive “Open Your Eyes/ I see the Sunrise.” These body parts are highly sensual: the mouths are red and full-bodied, with a tongue licking one pair of lips; the eyes are lined with makeup as if to emphasize the zine’s female readers’ act of intentional looking. Espo’s mural, reimagined as a far-reaching message covering whole swathes of Philadelphia, is transformed into an expression of woman-on-woman desire by virtue of this sensuality. This desire is aimed to reflect that of the zine’s target queer and trans women of colour readership.

24The transport lines on the zine’s final page in fact serve both the less affluent, predominantly African American and Hispanic neighbourhoods of Philadelphia (Yeadon, Cobbs Creek, Port Richmond, Yorktown) and the city’s gentrified, predominantly white districts (the Gayborhood, Fishtown). “The Middle of the Night” reimagines Philadelphia as a city that privileges the needs and desires of queer and trans women of colour across these neighbourhoods, doing away with the spatial segregation of citizens based on hierarchies of race and class. This is another example of the way digital media “allow us to annotate, narrate, and contest online, both individual and collective meanings about particular physical locations offline” (Nash and Gorman-Murray 36).

25The meanings accruing to Espo’s murals in “The Middle of the Night” differ sharply from the official description on MAP’s website: “The murals collectively express a love letter from a guy to a girl, from an artist to his hometown, and from local residents to their neighborhood of West Philadelphia” (my emphasis) (MAP, “A Love Letter for You”). This official blurb interlinks the artist’s murals, heterosexual desire, and the way people (the artist and local residents) are connected in space. By reconfiguring Espo’s murals in a network of queer desire, “The Middle of the Night” also implicitly signals the way that the “city organizes and ‘naturalizes’ heterosexuality” (Hubbard 211). While “The Middle of the Night” points out the heteronormativity of space shored up by Mural Arts Philadelphia, the zine’s queered take on Espo’s murals also illustrates how communities may use images to highlight that the “straightness of our streets is an artefact, not a natural fact” (Bell and Valentine 19).

Further Points for Reflection

  • 2 These pink triangles are a cartographical nod to the now-accepted visual emblem of LGBTQIA+ identif (...)

26On August 31, 2016, the curator of the William Way LGBT Community Center’s LGBT archives, Bob Skiba, published “The Philadelphia LGBT Mapping Project,” another example of a digital transformation of the city space into queer space (Skiba). The Google map of Philadelphia and the surrounding area is marked by over 1,100 pink triangles,2 which denote the cultural and historical events of the LGBTQIA+ community in the city. Looking closely at the annotated map, what might shock the navigator of queer of colour space in Philadelphia is the sheer number of places that belong firmly—mournfully—to the past: 124 defunct spaces versus 16 spaces existing still today. In particular, a considerable number of queer African American bars, jazz clubs, and ballrooms have lost out to white-dominated urban regeneration and gentrification. For instance, the Black bars just north of Market Street, established “in the face of Gayborhood racism” (Skiba), were forced to close when the city’s Convention Center was built.

27Yet, the angle taken on murals and graffiti in this article affords us the possibility of transforming this narrative about queer of colour Philadelphia from a history of loss and mourning into a present-day reality that is considerably more positive. As we have seen, street art can evoke desire (her philly moves’ appropriation of Espo’s “A Love Letter for You,” Nikki López’s juxtaposition against the “Go out and get her” tag in the Headspinz graffitied wall). It can be used as a ludic mode of protest (the tag “dudes with ludes” on the Cosby mural). It can also celebrate queer individuals (Amber Hikes’ use of “A Colorful Legacy” to symbolize Black queer Philadelphians today). Additionally, I have concentrated on how the street art enables impassioned conversation among queer people of colour, and between the queer and wider communities in Philadelphia today, citing #Disbandthepolice’s pleas to city officials to save the Gloria Casarez mural and the racially inclusive 12th Street community space that used to lie behind the wall.

28Focusing mainly on individuals’ reception and reinterpretation of murals and graffiti as queer, I have chosen not to go into detail about street art made by contemporary prominent queer artists in the city. This is due to pragmatic reasons. Firstly, Philadelphia’s MAP initiative, which dominates the field of street art in the city, is not exclusively or even mainly focused on queer rights. In addition, the contemporary key players in US queer street art—Little Ricky, Homo Riot, Hugo Gyrl, Jilly Ballistic, Diva Dog, among others—are largely centred in the bigger coastal cities of New York and Los Angeles. However, there are two queer artists whose comments about Philadelphia confirm the findings of this article.

29Los Angeles-based Diva Dog hails from Philadelphia. He has expressed his conviction about the positive impact of street art and its role in community-building. The artist has taken the “More Color More Pride” flag innovated by Amber Hikes and exported it to Los Angeles, transforming his trademark rainbow-coloured dog stickers so that they feature black and brown hues. It was the artist’s upbringing in gentrified “suburban Philadelphia” (Paint the Town 00:30:37) that inspired his aesthetic, which can now be found on lampposts, as a badge of inclusive queerness, in Los Angeles. Describing his experience of being the only queer kid in a Catholic all-boys’ school, Diva Dog recounts how getting his beagle Baron saved him from isolation, and he hopes too that his “More Color More Pride” canine motifs will provide similar comfort for passers-by in Los Angeles, making them “smile” and feel “protect[ed]” (Paint the Town 00:31:52).

30Non-binary queer artist of colour Kah Yangni lives and works in West Philadelphia. They similarly described how street art can resonate with passers-by’s “emotional” worlds (Art Ignites Change 00:23:59). Creating their mural "#Tothepolls2020” in Philadelphia’s Love Park in advance of the presidential elections, Yangni recounted how they felt connected to the wider, non-specifically LGBTQIA+ community from the reactions that the work garnered. Seeking to represent the disenfranchised, particularly trans and undocumented workers, “#Tothepolls2020” was reposted on Instagram, according to the artist, by a “white woman with a PhD,” who thus made good on the artwork’s statement “I vote to protect the people I love.” The artist also described how they felt connected to others who felt “scared” and wanted profound political change at the tail end of the Trump era (Art Ignites Change 00:12:00). For Yangni, because street art appeals to community members’ sense of the “beautiful” (Art Ignites Change 00:23:59), it “hits on the values behind [why] someone would vote,” in a way that goes beyond the somewhat functional imperatives to vote articulated by campaigners driving through the streets of the city with a megaphone (Art Ignites Change 00:24:22).

31Kah Yangni indicates that queer street art can also reach audiences well beyond the LGBTQIA+ community, thereby playing a role in fostering tolerance and acceptance on the streets. Their account seems to corroborate the assumption of this article that public imagery can precipitate queer-friendly public spaces. However, what would deserve further research is whether this widened tolerance will then lead to the greater presence of queer people in space. As the examples located in the white-dominated areas of the city suggest (particularly the “Gayborhood”), queer murals can become a Trojan horse for gentrification and fail to encourage more black and brown queer presence.

32I have largely concentrated on the online usage of Philadelphia’s street art for queer purposes (Nikki López, Amber Hikes, her philly moves). Geographers Nash and Gorman-Murray are indeed optimistic about the power of the digital to transform physical space, insisting on a feedback loop between the two. Digital users may use Twitter, Facebook, and other digital platforms to promote queer-friendly city spaces, which will encourage LGBTQIA+ congregation in physical, non-virtual reality (Nash and Gorman-Murray 37). Yet this feedback loop is not necessarily automatic. Accordingly, it behoves us to ask, in future research, questions such as: does Amber Hikes’ reframing of “Colorful Legacy” actually encourage queer of colour congregation around the Chestnut Street carpark where the mural is located? In which case, this could pose a challenge to the University of Pennsylvania Police headquarters situated just behind Chestnut Street, whose squad cars often park in front of the mural (Hess). Another question might be whether the collage on the final page of her philly moves’s zine reflects the circulation of LGBTQIA+ individuals in spaces outside the city’s main gaybourhood? The zine’s re-appropriation of MAP’s murals could bring attention to less well-known queer-friendly parts of the city, such as Northern Yorktown, served by the number 15 trolley referenced by “The Middle of the Night,” where 100% of the LGBTQIA+ residents declared feeling accepted, according to a poll conducted by the website (“Yorktown Residents”).

33It seems likely that such questions can only be fully answered by carrying out interviews with residents, urban street collectives, and LGBTQIA+ associations on the ground in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, having focused my attention on how street art represents the LGBTQIA+ community and is used online by queer individuals for self-affirmation, this article hopes to have made a modest contribution to “MAP-ping” queer Philadelphia today.

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1 Details of the Foundation’s donations can be found at the Haring Foundation Website:

2 These pink triangles are a cartographical nod to the now-accepted visual emblem of LGBTQIA+ identification, popularised by Act Up’s controversial reappropriation in the late 1980s of the Nazi classification symbol for homosexual deportees.

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Table des illustrations

Crédits Pride and Progress © 2002 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ann Northrup, 1315 Spruce Street. Photo by Jack Ramsdale. Used with permission from MAP.
Fichier image/jpeg, 277k
Crédits A Tribute to Gloria Casarez © City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Michelle Angela Ortiz, 12th Street Gym, 204 South 12th Street. Photo by Steve Weinik. Used with permission from MAP.
Fichier image/jpeg, 307k
Crédits Colorful Legacy © 2015 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Willis Nomo Humphrey & Keir Johnston. 4008 Chestnut Street. Photo by Steve Weinik. Used with permission from MAP.
Fichier image/jpeg, 473k
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Lara Cox, « MAP-ping Queerness? Street Art in Philadelphia »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lara Cox

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, CAS

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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