Monica Yant Kinney: Public painting party for Philly airport's enormous dancer murals

Posted: October 07, 2010

When we last checked in with Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou, the West Philadelphia photographer was shuffling through 11,000 digital images of 172 dancers on his Mac, laboring over whether to immortalize this break-dancer, that salsa queen, or the clogger in between.

The designer had more than his own aesthetic to consider. The subjects of How Philly Moves will star in Philadelphia's most audacious mural yet, a supersize visual gateway befitting the city's status as having the largest public-art program in America.

These dancers will leap across a half-mile of parking decks at Philadelphia International Airport at such larger-than-life scale that the turn of a lip or hip will be visible to drivers whizzing by on I-95.

Calling How Philly Moves "epic" barely does justice to the $500,000, 50,000-square-foot, six-wall endeavor. The most prominent figure - a belly dancer with a red scarf - measures 8,540 square feet, nearly twice the size of a basketball court.

Beyond the immensity lies the complexity of painting on concrete parking decks pocked with "negative," or open, space between floors.

"Some of my favorite photos wouldn't work," Tiziou explains, "because a hand or face would be lost in that gap."

Groovin' grandmas

In the end, 26 people made the cut, from a 62-year-old grandmother getting her groove on to an angelic 4-year-old ballerina practicing fifth position with arms raised gracefully over her head.

Traditional Indian, Latin, Aztec dance are all represented. So are hula and tap. There's even an amateur who, Tiziou recalls, "put on some Green Day and just sort of thrashed around as she would in her bedroom."

A Drexel University dance-therapy student leading a charge in a wheelchair lends emotional gravitas to the collage. And lest anyone think the deck was stacked in favor of classically trained dancers, consider the Fishtown linguist who told the photographer he "gets invited to weddings for the express purposes of getting things moving during the reception."

Once the design gained final approval, lead muralist Jon Laidacker and four assistants began the months-long task of translating movement for the masses.

"This," he says appreciatively, "is the closest thing any of us has had to job security."

Each digital photograph gets projected and sketched onto parachute cloth, an absorbent and durable polyester material. The sheets resemble topographical maps, with squiggly lines (representing shirts, arms, legs) and numbers (skin tone, costume colors). The work is tedious and surprisingly technical.

"On a project like this," Laidacker explains, "math is our best tool."

Painting party

On the third floor of the Gallery, in a 2,900-square-foot donated space once occupied by the Eternity Kids clothing shop, the muralists prepare for a painting party.

From noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, anyone seeking to help make Philly history can pop by the studio at the Gallery and pick up a brush. (Just want to watch? Mural-making will be on display from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday as part of the citywide Open Studio Tours.)

One of the real people the public will paint is Darlin Garcia, a Latin social dancer from Maple Shade, whom Tiziou's lens captured eyes closed, mid-twirl. Garcia's outstretched arms span 72 feet.

The muralists pause to admire the stranger, clearly in awe of another artist's gifts.

"We really are treating each individual dancer as [his or her] own separate mural," Laidacker offers. "We're spending so much time on this project, we almost feel like we're getting to know them without ever having met them."

For information on the community paint day or the mural studio tour, see

To see a photo gallery, visit

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