The first time I can recall finding myself in a unique neighborhood with its own special sense of place occurred in my youth on a family trip to Philadelphia, and it left a lasting impression on me. My family and I made the trip to visit relatives, but when several members of the clan came down with food poisoning on day one, all of our vacation plans were suddenly on hold. I was a young teenager in a new town essentially confined to the house, so it wasn’t long before my boredom and curiosity led me out on some long aimless walks around the city. It’s a special memory for me because, at my young age, I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to discover and learn about a new place completely on my own before.
As I wandered through the neighborhoods, I began to notice repeated instances of intricate mosaic work made from the reassembled pieces of broken mirrors, glass bottles, tiles, pottery etc. It was popping up everywhere—in unexpected places like alleyways, retail building facades, even residential homes. Some applications were small—a few dashes of a sparkly pattern on an otherwise unassuming concrete wall; some were massive—whole buildings covered top to bottom in murals made from tiny broken pieces or even rows of consecutive houses, each gleaming in the sunlight with patterns of reflective glass adorning all of their exterior surfaces. It was clear to me that all of this artwork was unified in some way, but it seemed impossible for one artist to be behind it all — it seemed like it was everywhere; in public, private, and commercial space; sometimes hidden, sometimes boldly on display.
As a young person who knew little about art in general, let alone folk art or public art, this was a magical discovery for me. It felt as if I had somehow left a boring family weekend and stumbled into an alternate reality which resembled Candyland more than the drab suburban landscapes I was accustomed to. It was incredible. It felt like I had caught onto some mysterious conspiracy that everyone in this part of town was in on. I recall standing awestruck in front of some of these murals and thinking, “wow, Philadelphia is so cool”.
Of course, all of this is the work of legendary Philadelphia folk artist, Isaiah Zagar. His artwork is plastered (cemented?) all throughout the city, radiating out from the epicenter of creative output; his magnum opus The Magic Gardens. Zagar transformed a residential house into a living art museum, covering every single inch of every single room—walls, ceilings, floors, light fixtures etc.—with his beautiful, intricate, deeply personal, and often political mosaic work. He was able to purchase the adjoining lots with the help of the community and thus his fantasy world spilled out into a outdoor garden of dug-out channels and passageways, all 110% saturated with his art and then some.
Later in life, I have made it a point to visit the Magic Gardens each time I find myself in Philadelphia and, even on repeated visits, it is always an inspiring and amazing experience. The name may sound silly or childish out of context, but standing inside of this living piece of art is truly magical and the term Magic Garden is really the only way to describe what this artist has created.
Even more incredible to me is the way that the local community has embraced this wild and somewhat insane concept and allowed the hyper-prolific artist to spread his beautiful work outside of his “gallery” and infiltrate an entire neighborhood, creating a unique and special place. Isaiah Zagar may be a one-in-a-million rare breed of artist, but I believe that through good design and branding, any neighborhood or community can create its own unique identity and achieve some this same magic.