The neighborhood of South Street in Philadelphia has been an artistic hub for decades. Beginning in the ‘60s, South Philly was one of the first areas of Philadelphia to create immersive art experiences. Isaiah Zagar is one of the many artists that have dedicated their lives to enriching art in the City of Brotherly Love.
Starting his journey when he moved to South Philly in the late ‘60s, Zagar became a street artist, focusing mainly on reconstructing buildings and public walls with gorgeous mosaics. This time period was actually coined as the “South Street Renaissance” - as it was the prime decade for street art, restoration, and immersive experiences.
It’s no surprise that when Zagar transitioned from creating art on public walls to public lots, that he would want to create his own art installation. After perfecting his craft in the ‘90s, to fit his art style into vacant Philly lots, the idea for the Magic Gardens was born.
Launching in 2008, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens became a place where Zagar could showcase all of his street art in one location. The “magic” behind this garden derives from the preservation that it holds for the artists who are a part of it. The non-profit creates a space for all mediums of art to be showcased as an outdoor, immersive art museum.
My first trip to the Magic Gardens was during my senior year of high school. I hadn’t been to Philly too much at that point, compared to the amounts of trips I’ve taken to this day, so I wanted to do something that would enrich my cultural ties to the city. I surely wasn’t disappointed. As we were in the age of Instagram backgrounds - the Magic Gardens couldn’t have been a better selfie backdrop.
I say this because there was art all around us. It truly was like walking into a curated Instagram location. Every part of the museum, including the outside and neighboring public walls, are covered in mosaics and street art by Zagar. I have always loved the cultural connection that art brings, from one admirer to another, but immersive experiences are even more spectacular. It draws together all of your senses, not just visual.
My second trip was just as magical - for lack of a better word. I returned a few years later with my boyfriend for our first anniversary, wanting to show him my love for art in a way that he could also enjoy. If I’m being honest, he’s not the type who will typically enjoy a traditional art museum. So, immersive art experiences have become our thing.
It’s a great way for an art buff like myself to appreciate creativity - while also entertaining my boyfriend who is more into experiences. This time felt less like an Instagram takeover and more of a time to walk and reflect. I remember strolling through the museum with my boyfriend as the sun was about to set. It was a warm night in August, and we were surrounded by other couples and families, it was a beautiful setting.
I think the reason why I love the Magic Gardens so much is that it perfectly represents the culture of South Philly. It’s eclectic - maybe a little “out there” - but it’s beautiful and individualistic. The art scene in South Philly is so different compared to that of New York or Chicago. It’s something that I haven’t been able to duplicate anywhere else.
Art is all about what you feel and see, it’s what the artist is pulling from you subconsciously. The Magic Gardens at surface level is an empty lot with a walk-through art installation. But when you look deeper, it’s the culmination of one man from this exact neighborhood’s work. It’s a representation of the type of people that dwell in this part of Philadelphia.
The Magic Gardens is a place that I find hard to put into words, but it’s an attraction that I can’t recommend enough. Even if art isn’t your thing, it’s something that everyone can enjoy. Whether you’re going for the perfect Instagram background or to look at every bit of the art-covered walls, you are bound to have an amazing time of cultural reflection.
It’ll bring you closer to the culture of Philadelphia in a way that is different from any other immersive experience in the city. When you step through the cast-iron archway, you are truly surrounded by magic.
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