Meticulously painted like old advertising signs but conveying the kind of telegraphed poetry you might find scrawled on a bathroom wall, Stephen Powers’s murals have been lodged into the street dialogue of cities from New York to Philadelphia to Belfast. A new book brings together the narrative of his public art for the first time.
A Love Letter to the City, published this month by Princeton Architectural Press, is part personal narrative, part monograph. Touching on Powers’s graffiti roots, when he went by ESPO, the compact book then moves into his fascination with the disappearing hand-lettered signs in Coney Island. He started by painting a free sign for the Eldorado Arcade and was soon taking over the iconic Cyclone roller coaster with bursts of color and sharply detailed typography.
Now Powers’s style is recognizable in the large-scale street art that crawls across urban walls. At the Fulton Mall, a rambling poem includes the lines “Euphoria / Is You for Me” tattooed on bridges crossing over the downtown Brooklyn traffic; in Philadelphia a giant painted Post-it note is memoed with: “Remember sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn’t.” Powers’s work blends into the barrage of advertisements and signs cluttering each city, and it’s the camouflage of these earnest, noncommercial messages that makes them powerful.
As Peter Eleey, curator and associate director of exhibitions and programs at MoMA PS1, puts it in his forward: “He offers self-help slogans turned outward to the neighborhood, with a punning visual style that mines the tricks of street trade as easily as his phrasing mimics the motivational calendar and the condolence card.”
“After sign painting as a trade was nearly extinct, it became interesting to me as a medium for art,” Powers writes. “I learned to paint signs as they had been painted for generations, but I used the letters and colors to talk about love and life instead of commercial concerns.” The book is a tour through the places where Powers has left these monolithic messages, although it’s too bad it’s not a larger publication, as the expansive murals could really use some large-scale pages to show their scale.
In Syracuse, New York, whose industry has faded like that of the sign painters, he lifted a font from an old car dealership ad and painted, in vivid hues originally used as federal government safety colors: “Spring Comes, Summer Waits.” In São Paulo, Brazil, he referenced the bright local food wrappers in a block-long mural, noting, “when I go into a community I try to find visual cues that are already there and introduce them into the work.” His most prolific project has been his 50 murals with Philadelphia Mural Arts, painting phrases like “If You Were Here I’d Be Home Now” as if pieced together from magnetic refrigerator letters and “Hug Me / Like I Hug the Block” splashed across a worn brick wall.
At the conclusion of all these statements, Powers’ final words in A Love Letter to the City are: “I’m [..] striving to be a twenty-first century cave painter, depicting our life and times on the walls around us. If the power goes out and the books are gone, the walls will be there, testifying.”
Stephen Powers’s A Love Letter to the City is available from Princeton Architectural Press.