Favorite Spot: The Back Alley Mosaics of Isaiah Zagar
Neighborhood: South Philly
Address: Throughout South Philadelphia, mostly in Bella Vista, Hawthorne and Queen Village
I am: A photographer, editor and writer with a focus on food and drink and a love of design.
Years in Philly: Eight years
Current Home: Bella Vista
My love note:
“Art is the center of the real world.” — Isaiah Zagar
When I first moved to Philadelphia, I saw this motto emblazoned on South Street storefronts and thought it clever, but rather mystic and quaint. I was wrong. In the past eight years I’ve come to realize it’s one of the underlying truths of humanity. I even know where to glimpse that center.
Not beneath the latticed pyramids of the Louvre in Paris. Not behind the marble columns of the Met in New York. Not on the museum-strewn Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and not even at the Magic Gardens, Isaiah Zagar’s monumental found-object, building-size tourist attraction.
The real world isn’t carefully curated galleries. It’s people living in homes and working in storefronts, in cities all over the world. In the jumble of South Philly streets below Center City, where single-family row houses mingle with bakeries, delis, auto shops, florists and cafes, art makes a striking surprise appearance.
Wander around the corner of a brick-lined block into one of the many narrow alleyways there, and instead of uneven wooden fences and trash-catching garage doors, you’ll be struck with a swirling, gleaming, unabashed explosion of color and shape. Isaiah Zagar has been here.
You might even lose your footing on uneven cobblestones as you turn down another lane and catch sight of crazy characters with blue noses, green hats, yellow snarling teeth and red grinning lips, dancing their way along stepping stones of glinting mirror glass embedded in the mundane back walls of unmatched buildings.
Hundreds of mosaics dot the landscape, but you can’t find them all on a list, not even on the official Magic Gardens map. These creations don’t demand to be seen, though the reverse shadows of bright sun that reflect onto the sidewalk at certain times of day can be enticing invitations. They exist as part of the landscape. Each random discovery of a back-alley Zagar mural discovery is a bonus, a snippet of beauty and fun that proves there’s more to life than eat-sleep-work. That’s art, and that’s the center of the real world.