Painting With a Purpose on a Mural Arts Co-op

One of Philadelphia's many murals.

This is one of a regular series profiling Drexel students and their co-ops.  

There are thousands of murals spread throughout Philadelphia, each one carrying the message of its creator and the imprint of the artists who brought it to life. Drexel senior Darian Ehya grew up in the city’s suburbs and every time he came downtown he was struck by those murals — mainly, their ability to use visual art to express something about the surrounding community. For six months last year, he went straight to the source, working as a graphic design intern at Mural Arts Program, one of the country’s largest public art organizations and the driving force behind all those elegantly painted walls.

Ehya, a graphic design major in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, was the program’s only in-house designer during his co-op last spring and summer. That meant he was responsible for all fliers, postcards, maps, posters and social media graphics that Mural Arts needed to promote projects and events. It also meant he had a front-row seat to witness how the organization functions, and the role it plays in the city.

“I knew they did a lot of community work beforehand. One of my goals with graphic design is to find a way to help people through art and design, and they’re definitely doing that,” said Ehya.

Mural Arts runs three different programs that caught Ehya’s attention. The Art Education initiative offers in-school and afterschool programs to students in the city and has a perfect graduation rate for enrolled high school seniors. The Restorative Justice program helps teach new skills to individuals caught up in the criminal justice system, empowering them to make positive contributions to their communities. The Porch Light initiative focuses on mental health and wellness.

“Once I got there I learned how much more they were doing than I thought,” said Ehya, “and how effective it’s been.”

Because of the broad nature of his role at Mural Arts, Ehya was able to see the full scope of what the organization does. He created maps to help people find murals in neighborhoods around the city and did the same for the decorative donkeys that appeared when the Democratic National Convention came to town. He made a poster series celebrating the accomplishments of the Southwest Roots initiative, which connected residents to the natural and cultural aspects of Bartram’s Garden, and another series when the median on Broad Street was painted for the DNC.

It was the first time Ehya had worked within an established brand — everything in Westphal is designed from scratch — and along the way he learned how to put his own creative spin on Mural Arts’ designs to make work that carried his mark. He said he might end up at a branding firm after his time at Drexel is over, but he wants to explore different aspects of graphic design. After transferring to Drexel following a stretch learning about architecture at Temple University, he’s still finding new ways that design exists in the world, whether that means on the internet or with interactive media.

Ehya also wants to get more involved with street art. During a study abroad visit to London two summers ago, he was hooked by the sheer size of the independent artist community and the work they put up in public.

“It’s cool to see art out in public and not just sheltered in museums and galleries,” said Ehya.

In addition to street artists like Shepard Fairey, Ehya said he’s influenced by pop artists including Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring. Among all those murals in Philadelphia, he gravitates toward Candy Chang’s “The Atlas of Tomorrow,” a black-and-white, interactive design that translates the ancient Chinese text “I Ching” into a tool meant to inspire philosophical thinking. It’s just the type of work Ehya wants to put into the world.

“I’m trying to figure out how to make art that’s on one hand beautiful and also something meaningful that people will take something away from,” he said.

After soaking in the experience of a co-op at the Mural Arts Program, he’s one step closer.

About the Drexel Co-op program: More than 98 percent of eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different internships during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from more than 1,700 employers in 33 states and 48 international locations — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged placements.