AO Interview: 50 Mural ‘Love Letter’ Project by Steve Powers aka Espo takes shape in multiple Philadephia locations viewable from one elevated train.

August 27th, 2009

via The World’s Best Ever

Steve Powers- a famed graffiti artist known as ESPO, was born and raised in Philadelphia, and had his first museum solo show in Pennsylvania. In 1994 he moved to New York City. A Fulbright Scholar- Steve Powers painted a project similar to love letter in the streets of Dublin and Belfast, now returning to his hometown to conduct a massive graffiti project carrying the same title.  The “Love Letter” is planned to be complete by Labor Day.

A mural from Love Letter Project curated by Steve Powers via Gradient

Related Links:
Steve Powers (Bio) [Deitch Projects]
Love Letter Project [A Love Letter For You]
A Love Letter Project [Design You Trust]
Artists Steven Powers Curated Love Letter Project [Gradient]
Steve Powers Philadelphia Mural Arts Project [Curated]
Steve Powers Love Letters to Philadelphia [The World's Best Ever]
Love Letter to Philadelphia [The Wall Street Journal]

More text, pictures and interview with Steve Powers after the jump…
This love is real, Via A Love Letter For You

Conceived as a succession of 50 painted walls throughout a section of Philadelphia- “Love Letter” will also encompass two books, a documentary film, a sign school and a shop to provide training in sign design for the local youth.  ESPO has launched the project sponsored by Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Between 63d and 45th street on Market Street, 50 walls will showcase work created with help of several international and local artists. Facing the Market elevated train the works will be visible to the riders.
I Love You, via Gradient

The placement of individual murals in a linear manner, to be “read” by the riders of the Market train, draws a significant, to the genres of graffiti and signage parallel- that of the rapport between art and language.  Also, the succession of works could be read not merely as reminiscent of the reading of letters in Western writing, but could connote a film strip suggesting animation.  The Love Letter Project proposes a niche inclusive of many disciplines. Produced during only one month, the project should shape up into a 22 block exhibit.

A mural from Love Letter Project curated by Steve Powers via Gradient

Interview with Steve Powers ESPO

ArtObserved: How was the idea for the Love Letter Project conceived?

Steve Powers: I returned back to Philadelphia 5 years ago and I saw that the rooftops that I painted at youth in the 80s in Philadelphia were painted brown, and the city was blocked off due to a construction project that was running way past the completion date. So the market street was blocked and I felt that the community that I grew up in and around has been suffering a lot. I saw an opportunity to paint these rooftops that were all painted brown. I guess there was concern about having the neighborhood look  clean and not so much having traffic flowing down Market Street.  I thought it would be appropriate to make a love letter for the neighborhood

AO: When Razz and Estro and Mr Blint and yourself wrote your names on Market street, it was buffed down and painted brown. Why do you think that this time is different?

SP: Well, first and most significant is The Anti-Graffiti Program has been given a list of the addresses I’ve painted and understand that these locations are not to be buffed. And personally, as an experiment, I really want to see if I take the names out of it, the names kind of imply the ownership of the space belongs to the name; and strip the graffiti of ego and property damage and trespassing and all the things that complicate peoples appreciation for it; and replace it with emotional content, something universal that people want to take ownership of… I really believe its going to withstand its going to do the thing that graffiti didn’t do the first time around: giving people something to hold on to for themselves, They should take ownership of it in a way that was hard when it said “Clyde”.

AO: How long do you think it would last? How would you feel if they buff it down again?

SP: I wouldn’t care. It’s designed to last from 5 minutes to 80 years. Its public art you know, I am not too concerned about it either way. I had the first wall I painted for this project painted brown. I met the buff man. He knew I did it, but he said “I thought you were just doing it for some girl”, which of course, is exactly what I wanted people to think. He was also impressed at how fast we repainted it.

AO: About the sentimental content; are you thinking of anyone in particular when creating the Love Letter Project?

SP: Of course! I am thinking about my loved ones, I am thinking of cheese steaks, I am thinking of ice cream., I am thinking about Krylon spray paint, Dock Street beer…

AO: I know 40 other artists are collaborating.

SP: Right now we are down to four but we had as many as 20

AO: What is the selection process for that?

SP: The selection process was informing 60 people that the job was paying $75 a day plus food and tokens for a ten hour day then getting out of the way of the door as 40 people ran out and then there were 20 that were interested in painting no matter the pay scale. They were the ones we hired.

AO: Also I want to go back to the topic of appealing to the mass and them caring about the work since it has less issues…

SP: It has just as many issues, it’s just that the painting and the signs that we are doing are structured in a way that people can put themselves in the shoes of the person painting, or the person being painted to. We are really hoping that that savvy young man on the train right now is telling his amour that he painted these walls just for her. We are hoping we will have many successful romances.

AO: Do you think the cultural appropriation changes the nature of graffiti and the whole subcultural aspect of it?

SP: You know graffiti is just for its own terms and to do its own things. You know graffiti is mostly… I am looking at it from the perspective  of what it did for me 25 years ago, That it’s a great way for teenagers to figure out what they are, to be the things they want to be, and to realize themselves. Graffiti is self-realization. But I think as far as what this project is doing for me, its hopefully validating the efforts of a lot of guys who painted these rooftops, who spent their young lives doing what they wanted to do. It’s a way of extending what they did well past the expiration date. Giving these wonderful neglected spaces … It’s not graffiti because we have a permission we have a grant to do it, we are taking a lot of negative aspects out of it. But for the people that were there when walls were painted the first time around you will recognize many familiar color schemes and styles that were there from 20 years ago.

AO: I read a comment about the Love Letter project saying that same kids who looked up to you growing up had a feeling that you are taking the walls away from them.

SP: The walls were taken away 10 years ago when they were painted brown, now they are being painted brown on regular basis, they are in the hands of the writers for the day or a week their  painting on the roof lasts before the buff man comes around. What was once permanent is now similar to web posting,  a mark goes up and is fleeting and then goes away. Some of the walls we’ve painted are hard to access, those will probably last long, some of the spots will last 5 minutes; till someone gets an itch and they want to paint that particular spot. You know, mural artists at the mural arts program use paint that lasts 20 years. We’re using spray paint and regular bucket paint. It’s the ephemeral nature of graffiti it’s meant to fade. You know the sun takes care of all the problems- it is the most dedicated anti graffiti person. We should be putting resourses to use in better ways… like child care and raising families and eliminating hate of possible… its possible…

AO: When does a graffiti become a mural?

SP: I’m confused, it’s a sign project. In the course of work several people comment saying: “That’s not art that’s words.” A mural is totally pictural, I know this, I am an art professional. As far as murals go, in the context of murals in Philadelphia you are thinking of these three stories high elaborate hallucinatory fables of positivity. And what we are putting on the table is a much more direct verbal experience, that is a natural experience that’s speaking to the give and take of everyday life. Its positive in the fact that it is saying love exists but it also says: “love exists but you have to work for it every day of your life.”

AO: What do you think about the fact that the riders in the train..

SP: Hold on a second, the train is just going by as you are asking that question.

AO: What do you think about the fact that the riders in the train will see the graffiti in a sort of a linear film strip or animation manner?

SP: You gotta stop saying it’s a graffiti… and the reason it’s not a graffiti is because it’s not illegal, and there is no name at the center of the painting.  We are painting signs. When you see one you get a general message of love, when you see all you get a much stronger accumulative experience. There’s a lot of what we have painted that’s evocative of graffiti. We’re using spray paint and the bright colors and placement of graffiti, but everything else is drawing from the sign tradition that is in west Philly or elsewhere.

AO: You know in the museum of history of Paris all that the very first room has are the signs from old Paris to recreate the whole city.

SP: I didn’t know that, it sounds beautiful.

Graffiti is like a kid testing a microphone, and signs are an adult speaking into the microphone eloquently and with authority. You know I am down for the kid testing the microphone and yelling his head off, but signs are much more skilled, and are much better at communicating, signs do a much better job at getting the point across effectively and efficiently.

The youth of the 70s 80s and early 90s that made a lot of things happen for themselves with no money, no support, no permission, and no back up from society, I am coming back as an adult in 2009 with all of those things. So you know I don’t forget were I came from I am just backtracking a little bit to where I started.

AO: How does it make you feel?

SP: U know its just another day of job…


Its just another day of the job… I don’t get too impressed with myself

AO: I am sure everyone else is impressed enough.

SP: Ahh no… They are asking me why I didn’t do this earlier… they are right. Why didn’t I do this earlier?  We are here now, we are happy to be here. And it’s been a great summer and will be a really exciting fall.

AO: I think I might have to come to Philly and see it.

SP: I am here now I’m on 53d street ready to paint.

A mural from ESPO’s Love Letter Project via Upperplayground

Stephen J. Powers, a Fulbright scholar, became well known for writing graffiti in Philadelphia and New York under the name ESPO, which stands for – “Exterior Surface Painting Outreach.” He was the editor and publisher of On the Go Magazine. By 1999 Steve Powers had painted around 90 gates of stores or businesses that were already damaged. This same year he was arrested for vandalism when he protested against Giuliani’s decisions.  In 2000 Powers stepped away from graffiti and moved towards another path in his career.  Having shown at Venice Biennial and Deitch Gallery, Steve Powers had his first solo show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.    ESPO was one of the featured artists in the popular art documentary film Beautiful Losers.  He has also curated shows including “The Dreamland Artists Club” and organized the waterboarding-thrill ride at Coney Island which was produced in part by Creative Time. One of his recent projects include “The Church of the Open Tab.” Powers has written books, worked on album covers and designed clothes for fashion brands like Calvin Klein.