Aug 25

Meet The Artist: Ernel Martinez

by: Natalie Pompillio


Ernel Martinez has lost count of his Mural Arts Philadelphia projects. The Belize-born artist became involved with the program more than a decade ago when, as a University of Pennsylvania MFA student, he studied with Mural Arts Philadelphia Executive Director Jane Golden. Martinez’s murals include Malcolm X (2005, Ridge St and Diamond Ave.); Why We Love Coltrane (2017, 29th and Diamond Streets); Aspire: No Limits (2016, 2022-2099 Ellsworth St.); and Ed Bradley (2018, 949 Belmont Ave.). His Heart of a Champion: A Tribute to Smokin’ Joe Frazier (2020, 1302 W. Alleghany Ave.), was recently named the city’s best 2020 mural by Philadelphia magazine.

Heart of a Champion: Tribute to Smokin' Joe Frazier © 2020 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ernel Martinez, 13th Street and Allegheny Avenue. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Martinez, a member of the North Philadelphia-based collective Amber Arts & Design, answered a few questions for us:

Q: Out of all the murals you’ve done in the city, which is your favorite?

A: That’s like picking a favorite child. They all mean something different in a different way, but if I had to pick one I’d say I’m most proud of the Paul Robeson mural in West Philadelphia. The mural is 40 feet tall and he carried himself like he was 40 feet tall himself.

Paul Robeson © 2012 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ernel Martinez, 4502 Chestnut Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Q: Can you share any “behind-the-scenes” stories about any of your projects?

A: The Joe Frazier mural went up across the street from his sister’s house. She was very ill when I was installing the mural and her daughter came by and introduced herself and said her mother was excited about the project. The daughter took pictures as it was being installed and she’d take them to her mother’s bedside. They made her smile, gave her a little joy. She got to see the finished mural but died that week.

Q: What’s your favorite city mural that you didn’t paint?

A: One of my favorite artists is Parris Stancell. (Stancell’s murals include A Celebration of Poetry, 2004, 1531 W. Girard Ave.) It was his artwork that got me inspired to become a mural artist. We have completely different styles of painting but I appreciate his use of color and scale.

Q: What’s the strangest/funniest/nicest thing anybody’s ever said about your work?

A: I’ve gotten some comments that were full of profanity. A pack of guys come by, cussing up a storm, but always in a complimentary way. I get a chuckle when that happens. …. When you do public art in a city like Philadelphia, people don’t hold back punches. But I love the honesty, good and bad. It makes me a better artist.

Charles Fuller © City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ernel Martinez, 1631 West Girard Avenue. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Q: If you could paint any wall in the city, where would it be, what would you put there and why?

A: I would paint a mural of Soujourner Truth somewhere in Center City. We need a mural to honor her in a high-profile place, maybe right off the highway.

Q: Where else can people catch or buy your work?

A: Amber Art and Design.

Last updated: Aug 25, 2021

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