Sound+Color: Stephen Powers
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Stephen Powers was in his early thirties when he discovered that city walls were the best canvas for his work. Combining his painstaking attention to detail with a sincere desire to pay homage to those in the community, Powers' celebrates the words and phrases of strangers he meets by documenting their stories on massive scales. Whether it be long conversations or brief interactions, Powers work fuses language with landscapes in a city's most unexpected and beautiful places.
His most recent claim to fame is for painting the mural on the cover of fellow Philadelphian Kurt Vile's latest record, "Walking On A Pretty Daze." Though the work has since been painted over, Powers has reassured us that he isn't angry, "People shouldn't care about spray paint on walls—it's all creative and unsightly just like Philly!"
We had the chance to pick Powers' brain about leaving acronyms behind, collaborating with Kurt Vile, and why it doesn't matter if anyone calls graffiti "art."
Can you talk a little bit about Exterior Surface Painting Outreach (ESPO) and ICY? And, though you're not painting under that pseudonym any longer, how did that affect your work now?
Exterior Surface Painting Outreach was a Backronym to give me a ready explanation for painting my name on roll-down gates around New York. It was making use of the perception that buffing graffiti was better than painting graffiti, so I painted graffiti using the tactics of a neighborhood buffman. In the course of painting gates a basic truth emerged; if I painted generously it would be received gratefully. The exchange rate fluctuates from block to block but its all better than arrest and confinement.
How did you get connected with Kurt Vile? Do you have a favorite song of his?
I hit him up for a film project that is still in the works. I think the Sagrada Familia Cathedral [in Barcelona] will be finished first, but there's too many favorites. Today it's "Freeway." I'm trying to hook up a remix with Philly MC, Freeway on it. Stay tuned.
Even though the mural was painted over, the cover art for "Waking On A Pretty Daze" still exists, which in it's own way keeps the spirit of writing and painting murals alive. How did you initially feel when you found out it'd been painted over and how do you feel now?
It's all good—it's just paint, so it's going to fade in time anyway. The roller paint was blasted off and we fixed it. [We] added a couple things so it's better now. I was surprised that anybody gave a care!
Do you go back to your murals? Which one the most? Why?
As I was just typing, I'm looking into returning to Ireland where I started painting love letters. I'm hoping to reconnect with the youth I worked with there and paint some more. I'm not sure I'd touch up anything old, but it would be nice to bring it back to where it started.
You've said that you like to take note of the people that live where you're painting—how do they influence the end result? Any specific moments you could talk about?
If I write my name on a wall the community hates it; If I write the community's name on the wall, they love it and take ownership of it. Every wall that doesn't get painted over is living, and it's living because people are taking care of it.
"Graffiti Artist" is a title you've previously mentioned not liking to be called. Being called a "writer" seems like more than just a title for you—what is about words that strike you?
Graffiti is an advertisement for self; art is an expression of humanity. Graffiti is great just the way it is, it's functioned perfectly for thousands of years. Attempting to make it art or making writers into artists is just setting a pretentious trap for people who are insecure about marking surfaces. Kids don't fall for it—make graffiti and/or make art!
When and how did your interest in typography come about?
Early! That Singer sewing machine logo with the words inside the "S." I remember being in diapers looking amazed at that [lettering].
Who would like to collaborate with in the future?
The Dum Dum Girls, Evie Sands, Lily's. That would be a great show—I'm gonna set that up.
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