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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - With 3,553 murals Philadelphia boasts the largest public art program in the United States and is a model for other cities around the world seeking to transform urban landscapes.
While its historic charms, such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, are confined to the Old City, the massive art works that depict local heroes, national legends and community pleasures are dotted throughout the center of a region of more than 5 million people.
The art works have also earned it international praise as the "City of Murals."
"It's like the autobiography of a city," says Jane Golden, the executive director of the Mural Arts Program as she oversees the painting of "How Philly Moves" which will be one of the largest murals in America.
When it is completed in a few months it will feature 27 dancers, in various poses and costumes, symbolizing the movement theme. It will stretch for half a mile long, reach about 75 feet high and cover the side of contiguous parking garages at the Philadelphia International Airport.
"We have the largest program in the world," Golden said, adding it is an example for cities such as Rome, Paris, London, Dublin, Hanoi, Bosnia, Fiji and Auckland.
"I think we have raised Philadelphia's international standing," she added.
The murals, which first started appearing in 1984 when the city was trying to combat graffiti, began with an organization called the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. But it soon morphed into the city mural program.
Golden says only a half dozen of the art works have been defaced since the program started.
In addition to beautifying the city and raising its international status, the murals have helped troubled youths and prisoners who have worked on them. The murals are painted on parachute paper, which is applied to buildings like wallpaper and then sealed.
The program has helped young people through education and training, and prisoners, who are paid for their work, to break the cycle of crime and violence in communities.
One of the most popular murals is of former basketball player Julius "Dr. J." Irving, who is dressed in a business suit and not in the uniform of his Philadelphia 76ers team.
Other favorites include one of former Major League baseball player Jackie Robinson sliding into a base. It is painted in black and white, symbolizing the fact that Robinson was the first African America baseball player in the major leagues.
In the traditionally Italian-American neighborhood of South Philadelphia murals of singer Frank Sinatra and former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo are a popular sight.
For visitors to the city, the Mural Arts Program offers different types of guided mural tours by trolley, train and bicycle, and a self-guided walking tour of the "Mural Mile" in Center City.
Visitors can download a map or call a number on their cellphone and punch in a code for the site to get some history and context about what they are viewing. Full details can be found here
Last year about 15,000 people visiting Philadelphia took the tours.