PHILADELPHIA — Last Monday, October 16, workers began chipping away at Isaiah Zagar’s legendary mural at the former Painted Bride Art Center in Old City. It took Zagar nine years to complete the 7,000-square-foot mosaic in the 1990s that defined his eclectic style. But today, after five years of fighting to save it, preservationists only have weeks to salvage as many one-of-a-kind tiles as they can before the building is demolished.
“It’s really hard on the team,” said Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG), Zagar’s immersive mosaic art environment and headquarters of the team that preserves and provides education about Zagar’s work. “What we do is protect this work. When you see the scale of this piece and watch them take it apart … it’s breaking my soul.”
When 208 Vine Street was sold to Atrium Design Group for redevelopment in 2018, architect Shimi Zakin presented a design that would have kept the mural intact. The proposal was initially approved by the city but nixed when neighbors took issue with granting Zakin an exception to build above the area’s 65-foot height limit. Without this height variance, Zakin said that he is heartbroken that he cannot create an economical design that incorporates the existing mural.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he told Hyperallergic. “I’m actually not driving by [the site], because it’s hard for me to see the lift there and that they’re removing it.”
Isaiah Zagar is known for creating over 200 iconic glittering mosaics out of tiles and mirrors, many of them concentrated in South Philadelphia. The beating heart is Philadelphia Magic Gardens, which Zagar covered completely with found objects and tiles. Smith said that the Painted Bride mural, officially titled “Skin of the Bride,” was an “incredible historic moment in his career” when he developed his singular aesthetic.
“It was the first time he worked on this massive scale, which of course was translated to the rest of Philadelphia,” Smith added.
Now, PMG preservationists have to let the vast majority of the mural go, and must carve out individual tiles that they hope to incorporate into future murals.
“We’re prioritizing pieces by significant artists,” said PMG Preservation and Facilities Manager Stacy Holder. These include tiles created by Guadalajara ceramicist Jorge Wilmot in addition to those handmade by Zagar, who no longer creates new work. PMG is in conversation with the developer to incorporate some of these tiles into the ground floor of the exterior of the new design. For now, they will remain in storage at the PMG headquarters.
To Smith, a key piece of Philadelphia art history is being destroyed. Elements of Zagar’s mural (including the title itself) references Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” (1915-1923), held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; portraits of prominent 1990s Philly drag queens; and even a hand-painted transcription of an entire newspaper article describing an art performance tribute for a South Street horseradish vendor who died in 1976.
“This [mural] could have never happened anywhere else,” said Holder, a sentiment that Smith enthusiastically echoed. “I think there’s something so scrappy and gritty about Philadelphia,” she added. The work is emblematic of many Philly artists’ signature do-it-yourself aesthetics and punk mentality. Indeed, lore has it that Zagar began the mural with permission to only cover a portion of the building, and went a little outside the lines before he was officially allowed to cover the entire structure.
“It feels like the world is really against us right now, at every turn,” Smith said. “I think the city could have had more input here, and perhaps a little more vision, for public art as a whole. I think it’s a missed opportunity, and I’ve been really hoping that this wakes the city up a little bit about how to protect our resources.”