The Painted Mug Cafe: An LGBTQ+ Space for Community Needs

The sign that sits above the main entrance of The Painted Mug Cafe. It's a blue background with white text. The logo, a coffee mug with a face styled in make-up, is pictured.
The front of The Painted Mug Cafe on 1527 Jackson St. (Photo: Lauren Rowello)

When housing prices skyrocketed during the pandemic, the value of Vinni Scarfo’s quaint two-bedroom home in South Philly doubled — so they decided to sell.

“I could put that towards the down payment of a larger building,” they said about their plans for the profit.

In February 2021, Scarfo gathered a group of local performers to pitch the idea of opening a new venue. A month later, they found the right property.

1527 Jackson St — which is now The Painted Mug Cafe — had previously housed an insurance business. Scarfo sold their home for above asking price and bought the new property for under, but transforming the space into a performance venue has taken a lot of work — and it’s still not fully renovated.

“This space down here is not just the building,” said Scarfo, gesturing around a long and narrow room where a few dozen chairs awaited patrons of the venue’s next show. “This is the blood, sweat and tears of our community.”

Together, Scarfo and other Philly’s nightlifers removed walls to create a max capacity for 50 people — 35 seats and additional standing room. They painted walls, covered exposed pipes, and made repairs.

A concession stand sits near the main entrance with sodas, seltzers and pre-packaged baked goods. A list of unused drag names currently up for grabs is written on the fridge. A new desk that serves as a DJ booth is tucked into a corner.

“The space is customizable,” Scarfo noted, pointing to a hand-built stage that folds up into the wall when not in use and a projector that can be powered up when needed. “We have pictures [on the website] of the space set up in a few different ways to give people an idea.”

The venue, which is only open during events, hosts private and public events. Scarfo noted that most ticketed events are produced in collaboration with the cafe, which takes a small portion of sales — often $5 per ticket — instead of charging a rental fee.

“So if an event does well, we do well,” they said.

The co-founders and board members have all worked as performers or producers and understand that costs can be prohibitive. The ticket-splitting approach creates less financial risk for newbies and allows established producers to make their shows more accessible by reducing ticket costs while still paying performers a living wage.

Staffers who work concessions, clean, prepare the space before shows, and conduct similar “behind the curtains” tasks on behalf of The Painted Mug are paid $20 per hour. But there’s still a lot of invisible and unpaid labor happening in the managing and organizing side of operations.

A stainless steel fridge sits behind a counter with signs and a tip jar. On the fridge, potential drag names are written with bright colored markers.
A list of unused drag names currently up for grabs written on the fridge at The Painted Mug Cafe. (Photo: Lauren Rowello)

“We have such a diverse community that we need a diverse group of voices — so we’ve always had a board that has collectively owned this,” Scarfo said about their business model. “Our goal is to be a cooperative business where everyone who works here sees the benefits of the business’s growth.”

Concession sales and ticket cuts assist with operating costs and improvements. Although the space aims to be as accessible as possible, some much-needed upgrades are still financially out of reach. The current priority is to add a wheelchair ramp, widen the entrance and update the bathroom for disabled patrons.

Scarfo said the venue, which previously won a Best of Philly award for sober karaoke, is “functionally a sober space,” as organizers have intentionally de-centered drugs and alcohol. The team is currently evaluating its BYOB policy for ticketed events. BYOBs are infrequent, and the venue clearly labels those that allow patrons to drink.

“We say often that this is an informed consent space,” Scarfo said. “We want folks to know what they’re walking into.”

This approach extends to the way The Painted Mug manages programming that welcomes youth. The team is intentional about ensuring shows are rated and include content warnings. 

Mini Mug sing-alongs and music experiences — which will be expanding soon — are geared toward young children. Events rated ages 16+ welcome those 13 and older with a guardian and those over 16 without. Further age restrictions are placed on events that include specific content warnings or where alcohol is present. 

“We’re mindful of making everybody in our space feel safe, so we take those precautions seriously,” Scarfo underlined.

“It’s one of the only places where 16 to 20-year-old people can even be here to perform in the city,” they added, noting that most venues are bars.

Yoojin Park got his start in drag performing at The Painted Mug. During a drag show in 2022, Park volunteered to participate in a dance-off style game — and the audience loved him. After the show, Park was approached by one of The Painted Mug’s co-founders — Bonner, who goes by Mo Betta in drag — who wanted to help Park develop his skills.

The opportunity gave Park, who was experiencing homelessness and contemplating a move to Korea, a new start in Philadelphia. He later debuted his drag persona — Eugene Rideher Betta — during a pageant at the venue and won. Park now produces a monthly amateur show at The Painted Mug (which is moving to a new format on first and third Wednesdays for the summer).

“It’s the only all-ages show in the city — if not, the tri-state area,” said Park, who was inspired to develop the program after realizing that youth he was working with at another organization didn’t have a place to perform.

“I found that there needed to be a safe space for both youth and newer performers to get their start,” he said. “That’s what The Mug gave to me, so I wanted to give that to others.”

With rising bans and attacks on drag, Park aimed to preserve space for people of all ages and experience levels to come together to share their art. It’s now a place where LGBTQ+ youth can build confidence and find positive community amongst each other. And the shows have also helped young people and families whose relationships have needed more tending, connection and support.

“It really is a place for everyone,” Park noted, underlining that The Painted Mug is a “third space” by design — offering a gathering place for all people to find safe and affirming community during a time when those places are hard to come by.

“I’m watching people find their chosen family,” he emphasized.

He and his mentor Bonner, who he views as a surrogate father, are both licensed social workers. They both imagine that the venue will continue to grow and evolve with the community — perhaps to host support groups workshops, and be available to the community for any other viable ideas.

“Our initial goal was to be this internal community resource,” Bonner said — noting that the planning team discussed using the space to address food insecurity, housing needs, and other aspects of instability. In a way, they’re still doing that by providing opportunities to LGBTQ+ performers, producers and community members.

Bonner often uses their social scientist skills in this setting by helping performers and producers improve their craft, become more resilient and independent, and build support networks.

“Using venues that we do not own comes with a limit. It may be in style this season — but next season, it may not be,” Bonner said about trends of supporting queer art or the community and the importance of owning property to share with each other.

Bonner wants The Painted Mug to eventually launch a satellite location to host larger shows, support schools who need a stage, and develop a theater program.

Their ultimate goal is to use their skills and resources to improve the social conditions of the most marginalized queer community members. This is also a mission of The Painted Mug Cafe.

“We are groundbreaking,” they underlined. “We are something different and new.”

For more information on The Painted Mug Cafe, visit

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