In the post-graffiti painting of Steve Powers, a canvas as big as everything in the city you wouldn't otherwise see
The city released its plan to rezone Downtown Brooklyn in 2004, with a thought of reversing the flow of business money leaving Manhattan for New Jersey. If you go to the area—it's not quite a coherent neighborhood—you can see that the legacy of several decades' worth of haphazard development makes for a daunting project. The buildings, most of them, seem confused, haggard; if any work is done in the offices, it’s all conducted with great discretion. The plan, focused largely on reenergizing commerce in the Fulton Mall, is more heard than seen. But one would be mistaken to claim that nothing has been done: In recent months, Steve Powers has been offering his own plan for the area. He’s been using it as the canvas for what he calls a "love letter."
This particular Love Letter covers the giant Macy's parking deck on Hoyt Street: Two external passageways have been turned into the load-bearers for the giant-size message, “EUPHORIA/IS YOU FOR ME”; the entrance’s massive and wholly uninviting lintel struggles to make amends with “I WAS NURTURED HERE.” The enormous, fungal concrete construction—just the sort Powers loves to work with—has been turned into a place where tender intimacies call out to anyone walking by. This is the third of Powers' Love Letter projects, which focus on otherwise pilloried urban areas, sprucing them up with massive murals bearing tender and bittersweet phrases like “I HAD A NICE DREAM ABOUT YOU” and “I PAID THE LIGHT BILL JUST TO SEE YOUR FACE.” The former was one of more than 30 murals that formed the first Love Letter in West Philadelphia in 2009; the latter is from the second Love Letter, done in Syracuse in 2010 on three of the city's corroding bridges.
Powers began the Brooklyn Love Letter in August, at the same time he moved into a storefront space at 200 Livingston Street, out of which he operates ICY Signs, a sign shop and the project's home base.
“We spent most of September painting outside,” he said, referring to the Macy’s garage, which is across the street, “and only dedicated ourselves to the space in November.”
Livingston Street has been at the center of many recent arts-oriented efforts—for a brief period, Triple Canopy, Light Industry, and the Public School were housed just across the street from ICY Signs is now. Named after Powers' Philadelphia graffiti crew, it functions as a source of free hand-painted signs for neighborhood shops, another element of the Love Letter project. Each is designed, fabricated, and painted by Powers or one of his crewmates: Pat Griffin, Mike Levy, Mike Langley, Sam Meyerson, Dan Murphy, or Josh Smith.
Many of the phrases that end up on the Macy’s garage are the words of Brooklynites Powers encountered in the neighborhood, including David Villorente, a lifelong resident of the area and Powers' longtime friend. The project is something of a homeopathic palliative to the area's malaise—Powers uses the sentiments of nearby residents to reaffirm the love that many feel for this unsentimental place. It may not look much like a discrete or inviting neighborhood, but, as more expressionless business spaces are constructed, Powers' project reminds those who walk by of the emotional value it carries for those who know it.
Powers grew up in Philadelphia and moved to New York in 1994. He may still be best known by his graffiti moniker, ESPO, although he stopped writing graffiti in 1999, and soon after that took up sign painting. He has since exhibited his signs and sign-like canvases at the Venice and Liverpool Biennials and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Deitch Projects, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, among other galleries and museums. (Jeffrey Deitch, now the director of MOCA, has been one of Powers’ greatest art-world champions.) As a 2007-2008 Fulbright scholar, he painted murals across Dublin and Belfast with the assistance of teenagers from local housing projects.
ESPO got his start writing graffiti as a teenager in the 1980s, but it was his work in the mid-‘90s that cemented his reputation as one of the most consequential figures in the last pre-millennial generation of writers. During this time he founded the seminal magazine On the Go, which published photographs of graffiti from across the country, introducing writers from previously unconnected scenes to one another’s styles; it was through On the Go that he met Villorente, who was then covering graffiti for The Source. Powers' best-known graffiti pieces from the era eschewed immediacy and clamor for a subversively quiet style. Some disguised themselves so well in advertising tropes that they escaped the inspections of most passersby, including Giuliani’s anti-graffiti police corps. His c. 1996 “Greetings from ESPOland” piece on Bedford Avenue and South Fifth, which mined a travel billboard aesthetic and depicted visions of urban crime and drug use, is perhaps his most famous work to use this sneaky approach.
The roots of his street beautification projects today reach back to those years as well. He began working on storefront security gates in 1997, turning his previously meaningless moniker into an acronym for Exterior Surface Painting Outreach. He described it last month as “a one-man community improvement association,” explaining, “I genuinely was improving the visual appearance of the gate, in almost the same way the current mayor’s graffiti removal team works.” Such security gates are routinely coated in a mess of tags, so Powers would show up during daylight hours (sometimes representing himself as pseudo-official in capacity), buff over the tags on the storefront security gates with black paint, and apply his obscurantist tag in giant, bold letters, usually covering the entire gate. It must have been either their unobtrusive style—indeed, their quite lovely style—or the sheer brazenness of his conspicuous working method that allowed him to often finish these pieces without notice. He even ended up received several requests from storeowners—“a restaurant gate on Second Avenue comes to mind,” he recalled. “I almost painted the gate of Scrap Yard, the graffiti shop on West Broadway but I ran out of time/interest.”
These works, with their furtively ameliorative presence, could scarcely have been more distinct from most graffiti of the period (or of any other), or more poignant given with what vitriol Giuliani empowered his graffiti-removal programs. Nonetheless, many of Powers’ gate pieces have faded from public view, not so much from concerted anti-graffiti efforts as from the uncoordinated effects of time and weather and, of course, other writers.
Because of this, the few extant ESPO pieces in New York—he said he painted “about seventy gates in the five boroughs”—may only be found with some degree of effort and planning. Powers, on the other hand, is quite easy to find: On most days, he is working at the storefront sign shop in on Livingston.
Jamestown Properties has donated the space to ICY Signs free of charge, and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership has offered their Love Letter project twenty-three thousand in funding; this is in addition to the fifty thousand that Macy's contributed to the garage project, and to twenty thousand of Powers' own money that he said he was investing in the endeavor. They have thus far made signs for Fulton Eyes, the Brooklyn Ballet, and C’s World of Beauty. The concrete slab above RDCPT (Red Carpet, a sneaker and hat store) bears, in his distinctive, clean lettering, the polka-dotted phrase “ALL I NEED IS YOU AND NEW SHOES.” As of last week, Powers was hoping to finish ones for Tony’s Famous Pizzeria and Brooklyn USA by the end of the first week of the year. In strictly legal terms, Powers has gone legit: where once he used the illegal methods of graffiti to better a storefront, now he uses the legal ones of sign painting.
The Livingston Street space also marks a culmination of numerous earlier iterations: in 2005, Creative Time sponsored Powers’ renovation of Coney Island storefronts, and an ICY Sign Shop opened on Surf Avenue; in 2009, another ICY Sign Shop operated out of Philadelphia. Until a few weeks ago, the ICY Signs on Livingston had also functioned as a gallery for work that had earlier been exhibited in Art in the Streets, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’ recent survey of American graffiti and street art from the 1960s through the 1980s. This work was in turn an update of Street Market, a 2000 exhibition at Deitch Projects featuring work by Powers, Todd James, and Barry McGee that recreated the dispossessed ephemera of an urban street corner. Most of these signs from those old shows has since been sold, and Powers and the rest of the ICY crew are now at work on new signs to fill the space, in which Powers intends to remain “until the right tenant appears or another opportunity beckons,” and which those interested may see by appointment.
On a Tuesday in mid-December at the shop, an ICY sign painter hunched before an in-progress work, smiling devilishly; he was drinking a Budweiser tall boy and listening to The Times They Are a-Changin’ at what must have been the CD player’s top volume. Bob Dylan’s voice echoed through the 5,400-square-foot concrete space like an unoiled handbell. Near the entrance, a desk was illuminated by two light bulbs suspended from the ceiling by thin cords, with upside-down paint buckets as lampshades. More than fifty signs from the MOCA, LA exhibit hung on the walls, where they were waiting to be sold off during three Saturday afternoon salons. The signs’ orientations seemed to have been dictated less by any systematic curatorial vision than by pragmatic spatial thinking: rarely did so much as an inch of wall space separate any two signs. The majority of these were by Powers and James, a New York artist who also got his start writing graffiti. Most of James’s pieces were marked by his tag, REAS, and they have the allure of something created quickly and cheekily: a giddy-eyed spray can, lying along the bottom of the frame with a drunk, curling smile, writes “BLIGHT” across the undifferentiated space above him; another offers a wormlike rendering of the grim reaper, bloody sickle in hand, beside a phone number: 1 800 I KILLU MON, the sign’s elongated verticality suggesting a subway advertisement.
Powers’ work was much more evocative of his entrenchment in the traditions of sign painting—the lines are clean and the colors vibrantly appealing. Case studies in good advertising, they are only interested in selling whatever idea they try to convey, even if that's usually an idea. The content of the pieces speak to a largely depressive disposition: “GETTING UP IS NOT FOR AMATEURS,” reads one; “TO BE HUMAN IS TO BE BLESSED WITH FORGET,” another. One lists the days of the week: “MONDANE, DUESDAY, THIRSTY, FRIEDAY, SADDERDAY, SOMEDAY,” and then begins again, straight to the point, with “MUNDANE.” In the center of the workspace was a black, cuboid construction of sandwich boards, a sleeping monster that underscored the disaffectedly skeptical nature of the painted works around it; each sandwich board took the medium’s standard-fare cynical text and out-cynicized it: “THE END IS NEAR HERE”; “WE BUY GOLD, PAY 1/3 PRICE.”
But Powers is not a disenchanted soul. He is one of the more unabashedly romantic painters (sign or otherwise) you’re likely to meet. “I had to put off one restaurant because they already have excellent signage,” he said. And he has one of the sunnier appearances of any artist you're likely to come across, with upright hair equal parts flattop and Bello Nock, the headlining clown for the Big Apple Circus. When I first met him, he was wearing a scarlet Lacoste cardigan sweater over a mustard-yellow polo shirt, with pleated mustard-yellow socks to match. The polo shirt collar hung over the cardigan’s neckline like cartoon rabbit teeth, and the sweater’s unfurling cotton strands did nothing to quiet the impression: his torso looked like a giant red chrysanthemum, and with the polo shirt he bore a certain resemblance to his own sign paintings, yellow and red being the most prominent colors in much of his work. He has a noticeable scar above his right eyebrow, which he attributes to “the Philly Wars of 1985”: “I fell off my bike behind enemy lines,” he explained.
He speaks in a low, warbling baritone that, absent his self-confident pronouncements, would mark him as distinctly nervous. When he talks he moves his arms in restless wave-like rotations, creating something of a body-length flutter. But his speech—forthright, sincere, populated with just-out-of-date idiomatic expressions—is nothing if not assured, and this finds its way into his work.
“When I started, it seemed like a small road,” Powers said of sign painting. “I didn’t know it would open up into an eight-lane highway.”
He had largely abandoned graffiti and any professional use of ESPO after he was arrested in 2000 for possession of, among other things, a decorative pair of brass knuckles; he believes that this, and his later conviction—criminal mischief was the charge—were retaliatory efforts for his participation in a protest against the city’s efforts to close down the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation show. During the protest, Powers and others threw fake elephant dung at a caricature of Rudy Giuliani, which Powers had painted for the event. “I pled guilty only because I was,” he said. “And I was ready to grow on.”
Powers had some difficulty deciding where exactly to grow. "I was looking for something to do and get good at that wasn't graffiti," he said. “For a while I was wondering, Should I take some oil painting classes? And that might’ve been the way to go.” He thought for a moment. “It still might be the way to go.” Then he reassured himself: “But I’m a verbal guy. I just wanted to stay with letters.”
He describes his shift to sign painting as a “lateral move”; he elaborated on this in a video for Vice: “There was enamel and metal in graffiti and there was enamel and metal in signs. So they both strive for some sort of visual communication with letters.”
Discussing the role of ICY Signs a few weeks ago, Powers said, “I like signs for their inherent utility, that they convey information and direction.” But the antiquated aesthetic of sign painting has a particular artistic allure for him: "Richard Serra said that art can have no utility," he said. Then he thought about it. "Part of me wants to disagree with that. Why can't it? Even if it's just giving strength and insight and hope to people." It's precisely the nostalgic grip of Powers' method that allows his Love Letter projects to be so brazenly heart-on-his-sleeve in their declarations, to have "the Hallmark stuff," as he called it. What Love Letter to Brooklyn conjures is a certain purity of affection for a place, which feels almost antediluvian beside the economic calculations of the rezoned downtown.
Speaking about the potential for a sign painting, which typically only survives as long as the store or product it's intended to publicize, to be a lasting work of art, Powers said, “Enamel on metal will last a long time. At least as long as paint on cave wall.” He likes cave painting, and finds its inclinations and abilities in graffiti. When talking about his intentions with the Love Letter projects, he said, "Hopefully I'm cutting a lot of the meandering messaging and getting right to the heart of it, in a way that cave painting used to do, in a way that the best graffiti does. And I'm not even talking about name-oriented graffiti—I'm talking about, like, 'Steve Loves Mary.' "
Powers appreciates a challenge, and the technical expertise necessary to establish oneself as a serious sign painter is comparable to that necessary to establish oneself as a serious graffiti writer, which, though many still consider it juvenile mischief, has elaborate codes and, among top-ranked practitioners, serious aesthetic requirements for respect. A general rule is that a piece everyone can respect artistically is a piece that's less likely to get written over immediately, and the longer you're up, the better.
“I love craft,” Powers said. “You’re a shithead until further notice.” He said as much in his 1999 book The Art of Getting Over, a personal history of graffiti written as a kind of swan song: in a section titled “Espo’s Rules of Graffiti,” the first rule is “You suck until further notice.” His programmatic approach and concern for technical mastery are as fundamental to his approach to sign painting as to graffiti, and are also fundamental to the social worlds of each. This separates him from many of the other artists who have, in recent years, expanded their exhibition spaces from the street into the gallery (following a tradition nearly as old as modern American graffiti itself). It's tempting to corral Powers in with Shepard Fairey, Banksy, or SWOON, but Powers' method distinguishes him from such street artists. Street art grows from graffiti but has always been more invested in vanguardism than traditionalism. Powers adores traditions, and it's part of what still ties him to graffiti, rich with codes, legends, and secret histories. He likes working within boundaries. This is why sign painting, with a proud and defensive history all its own, suits his instincts so well.
He still considers himself “a terrible sign painter in a lot of respects.” “I’ve been chewed out by some of the best sign painters in the world,” he said. One renowned New York City sign painter took particular umbrage with his past as a graffiti writer—perhaps a reaction to graffiti’s close but deviant relationship with sign painting: While both have a similar marketing bent, graffiti usually displays this inclination without the permission of its host surfaces—which, aggravatingly to sign painters, are often signs.
“He was telling me how his son used to be into graffiti, but then he straightened his life out,” he said of the sign painter, shrugging and letting the recollection drag into silence. “But really it’s about, Are you painting every day? Are you doing stuff to advance your craft? And the answer’s yes. My approach is sound. My method is aligned with the ways of old.”
He mentioned Justin Green, a one-time cartoonist who had taken up sign painting and, in turn, had taught the medium to Powers. Green had at first encountered harsh criticism from established practitioners for being an outsider. “You could see how there was some resentment,” Powers said. “They want someone who’s down there in the trenches each day, and I think they saw him as sort of a dilettante.” Powers was staring into his computer screen; it was difficult to tell if he was distracted or bored or just thinking intently.
“They hopefully will accept me,” he offered finally. “But I’m not too concerned about it. A lot of people hate graffiti.”
He gave an example: “I love architecture, so when architects yell at me, I totally get it.” He elaborated. “I never wrote on a marble building, you know what I mean? I never wrote on a church or a temple or any landmark design. I purposely sought out ugly buildings. That’s still my M.O.” But what if, given his current work, he was commissioned to paint a beautiful building? He considered for a moment, then said, “No, I don’t think I would.”
This ethical sensibility runs through much of Powers’ work, and in many ways it seems better suited to sign painting than to graffiti, where the urge to get up, to get your name over everything, can override any sense of civic engagement. And the illegality of uncommissioned graffiti never escaped him: “It was always tinged with, ‘There might be repercussions with this one,’” he said, breaking into a quick, anxious smile. Powers finds real joy in the social dialogue of his commissioned projects, in being able to paint unopposed, and even encouraged, by the public.
Powers explained his next project, which he’ll be doing in part as a fundraiser for Creative Time. Called 2Cents: it invites Creative Time contributors to submit two words—one representing what they find good in the world, the other representing what they find bad—to Powers, who will then realize both words on a series of diptych signs in downtown Brooklyn. He’d only received three entries thus far, one of which had been rejected. “Somebody sent in ‘Optimism’ and ‘Female Genital Mutilation,’” he said. “Thank God that was three words.” He had already begun working one of the other entries, perhaps the simplest: “Love” and “Hate.” “I figured I had to get those out of the way as soon as possible,” he said. The third submission was “Guacamole” and “Wal-Mart.” Powers doesn’t laugh often, but he did thinking about those two words, and it seemed fitting that it was at someone else’s joke.
He has a number of other projects in the works; they seem to breed exponentially, but most, he said, aren’t “definite enough to mention.” There’s a commission from the New Yorker for an illustration to accompany a fiction story. He has recently returned to his Daily Metaltation series: each day, he makes a new painting and posts it to the blog on his website, First and Fifteenth. He recently completed his newest Love Letter project on the peeling maroon façade of the triangular corner building at the corner of Livingston and Boerum place, just down the way from the ICY shop.
“There’s a sandwich shop and a bar,” he said, explaining the building’s attributes. “And whatever else I can’t see. There may be a lot of things I can’t see. There usually are a lot of things I can’t see.”
He referred to the mural as “a love song for New York and for transit and for relationships.”
It looks somewhat like a subway map, altered to more intimate ends. (The photo at left is linked courtesy of photographer Luna Park.)
“We’ve switched the stations and replaced them with emotional states,” he said. “A lot of them are emotional states like not being sure, or breaking up.” Last month, while looking at a mock-up of the project on his computer, he traced a route that began at a stop called “Love”; it looked like it was on the 2/3 line. “Until finally,” he said, “two lines meet at ‘Maybe.’ Then they move on to ‘Yes,’ and it looks like the next destination is ‘Always.’” He leaned in, as if he too were striving to discern what he had done.
Then he sat back and shrugged. “We’ll see. Ten years from now, I might move into television acting.” He continued staring at the screen, refusing a smile, and in his silence the space was filled with Bob Dylan’s nasal whine, rhapsodizing about all the girls that he ever did hurt.