On a recent afternoon, artist Steve Powers rolls into the parking lot at 44 South 2nd Street, where he’s continuing work on his latest Mural Arts project “Philadelphia.” After traveling the world with his murals and graffiti, Steve (who goes by his moniker ESPO) is back in his old stomping grounds, creating new work on the wall of Olde City Tattoo that includes a veritable smorgasbord of Philly-specific references.
It’s a bit of a homecoming for the artist made famous by his iconic “Love Letter” murals to Philly. These 50 colorful “brick valentines” are painted onto the rooftops and walls of buildings stretching from 46th to 63rd streets along the Market Street corridor. Best viewed from the Market-Frankford Line—SEPTA’s busiest transit line in Philly—the murals have become iconic to Philly’s urban fabric and a welcome series of sights along the elevated rail line.
While he was in town, Curbed Philly caught up with Powers to talk about how all 50 murals came to be and how his West Philly neighbors got on board with his “crazy” idea.
Let’s talk about how it all began.
I grew up in West Philadelphia. I was on the 21 bus [route], but I grew up taking the train all the time. When I was looking for places to paint as a 16 year old, all the places I wanted to hit were along the train line. I wanted it to be stuff that I could see on the way to where I was going. My entire interaction with the city was on that train, and I wanted to provide something for the people that took the train every day.
I grew up in a big family and nobody was really psyched about my decision to start writing graffiti at the age of 16, but what convinced my family was the approach I was taking with it, and the fact that I was being creative about it—being choosy about what I painted.
The rooftops out in West Philadelphia were really perfect, because they were on top of buildings—some commercial, some private residences—but they were an appreciated and respected place for people to paint in the neighborhood for 20 years before I started painting there. It was an expression of the community. It was very basic and word-of-mouth, but people literally were painting people’s houses with express or implied permission of the residents of the house and owners of the house. So it was an army of community projects that was happening organically, without the city and local support or city and financial support from grants.
So how did the Market-Frankford El Love Letter project start?
At first we had a meeting with Mural Arts. Pew sponsored it, and I planned it with Mural Arts. We did a ton of community meetings, and asked people to come and volunteer and come and get paid. Then, the budget got contracted severely when we started. We totally miscalculated how much it was going to cost. So I had a very small amount for labor, and I asked a room full of people if they would work for 75 dollars a day for eight to 10 hours of work. And at that point, everyone left the room—except for the graffiti writers and the people that were really excited about the possibilities of painting in this neighborhood. We literally went from a meeting with 60 people to about seven.
That’s weeding out the wheat from the chaff!
We got committed believers and we were willing to work with that and we did a great amount art work. We ended up hiring people from the neighborhood and we could afford to hire people at a better rate than we were getting paid. [...] The core group of people who were painting it got nothing or very little, and were happy to get it. It was a unique and amazing moment for us to do it.
What order did you create the murals in?
It’s all hopscotch. It was all over, according to what we got permission for and what we had the supplies for, and what personnel we had to paint. The first ones were the two [murals] at 52nd street that said, “If You Were Here I’d Be Home Now” and “Hold Tight,” and they all went from there. We were just running back and forth on the line as we got permission forms signed. It sounded overwhelming and really crazy.
Why was it crazy?
Because I was just coming to a neighborhood that’d had no activity for a long time. The train line had been closed for eight to 10 years in parts before I got there and just as it was opening up, I showed up and said, “I’m gonna paint 50 walls, I’m gonna paint this huge project, I’m gonna tell a love story, it’s gonna reflect all these huge ideals, it’s gonna be bigger than life and it’s gonna be this huge undertaking.” People reacted as they react when politicians [come here]. They told us, “It sounds like what politicians tell us every four years when they come around and make all these promises.”
But you’re from the neighborhood.
That tipped it a little bit. But it was mostly [that] they wanted to actually see activity, and then they went along with it. So as soon as we demonstrated some action, we got much more reaction and people really got into it.
What’s the process of creating one of your murals? It’s like a giant canvas—is it piecemeal, or do you design the whole thing first, or is there some improvisation?
It’s all improv. I had eight of 50 walls even remotely figured out, and we wrote everything else as we went along. It would be like for a recording artist to go in the studio and write songs in that place. So that’s what we did. We were inspired by things that were happening around us. One of the guys we were working with lost his cell phone—he lost his cell phone, he lost minutes—we got him a new cell phone, we got him minutes, and we made one of the wall about that experience. So that’s how I do it. I transcribe—I’m an “emotional stenographer.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.