Our Score this week comes from an absolute phenomenon. His name is Stephen Powers but you may know him by the name of ESPO (Exterior Surface Painter Outreach). He created a project and published a book that will probably define love letters, romantic gestures and beautiful typography. But, as you’ll see from our Q+A with him, he’s down to earth, modest and philosophical about his work.
Hi, Stephen. In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you were a mischievous creator from a young age. Being from a family of 6 children, did your siblings influence you to become different from them, or are they of a similar nature to you?
We were all similar, art was my way of distinguishing myself from the herd.
Could you sum-up what you want people to think/feel/do when they see your work?
Hopefully they see that something I’ve painted represents a feeling for them so completely, that it becomes the icon in their brain for that feeling. Or they can enjoy the pretty colours, that’s fine too.
You grew-up in Philadelphia, what impact did spending your younger years there have on you?
Philly was an exciting town in the 70′s, the music and energy were peaking. I still keep hoping that will come back. But when the MOVE
incidents happened in 78 and 83, the party ended. It’s still a great place, but it’s missing that optimism.
We’ve seen you quoted as saying that your graffiti was powered by your sense of adventure. What was it like when you were young and one of many writers in Philly, all who were trying to make their mark together on a city and beyond?
It was really fun, like the teacher left the classroom type fun. Soon I could see that the trick was not to be a kid, forever, but to find a way to be your own parent.
When you first got into graffiti, how did you set about developing your style?
First by copying Subway Art, then by drawing on what was around me in Philly.
The combination of your wonderful phrases and sign-writing style has been something that has inspired us for a several years. What was it that made you move away from tagging and begin to work in other ways?
It was time to grow up. I had been making graffiti that looked like advertising since 1994, so it wasn’t a stretch to make paintings that looked like signs.
Did you work under anyone when learning the craft of sign writing?
For the first 3 years I was on my own, then I got to work with Justin Green, who you should look up — he filled in the blanks and offered arcane philosophies. That was 10 years ago. I just finished a 2 week shift with him and he’s still doing it.
How many people do you normally paint with on a project?
6-20. Right now I got 6 people working with me in my shop and 4 more working on love letter walls in Philadelphia.
If you could work anywhere in the world, where would it be?
San Francisco, Mumbai, Berlin, Moscow, Amsterdam.
Where’s your favourite place to sit and have a think about all the stuff that’s going down?
How do you make a living as an artist?
I sell prints and paintings.
What was the name of the last track that you listened to?
Fascination Street, extended mix on 12″, honestly!
When you’re not painting in your studio or in the wider world, what do you do with your time?
Hang with my family, clean the bathroom.
You use metal as your canvas, have you ever wanted to experiment with other materials?
Tell us about a piece of art, or a project that has inspired you recently?
Music! Probably Bob Dylan turning a phrase or two. Oh and Guided By Voices, all of it.
Who (or what) has been your biggest inspiration?
The world is pretty screwed up at times, but it’s a wonderful place in equal measure – what would you do to try and increase more of the good bits?
I’d try to understand and communicate that understanding.
If you could give one person the power to make your decisions for you, who would you give it to?
My wife, she’s the smart one in the family.
You collaborated with Os Gemeos in Brazil and you’ve spoken very highly about the way they are part of their community — the same goes for your work in Philadelphia, Brooklyn and beyond. Why do you think art is so useful in building community vibes?
Yes — we can be the voice of the people, we have to listen and speak what they are thinking.
How do you go about funding your art and projects?
I’ll do it for free, then the money appears. This has happened almost everytime.
Can you give advice to budding young creatives that want to make a living from their art and ideas?
Do it until they pay you for it. Treat your passions like a job, get up early and stay late.
Do you think there is a difference between the work that artists produce in the UK and in the US?
We bought your book ‘The Art of Getting Over’ and it felt like the most amazing glimpse into those early years of your creative life and also a very truthful recollection of the scene that you were part of. How do you feel about the book now?
That’s all still true.
Would you ever think about writing a new book that chronicled this recent period of your artistic life and the current vibe within the art scene?
You’ve got a little boy now. Do you think the process of creating art will be different for his generation?
No, it all starts with a crayon. But he loves video games and thinks in construction of levels, so he’s proving me wrong.
When you were a young graffiti writer, how did you support yourself?
Like a bird. How do birds support themselves?
You’ve been raided by the cops before, how do you feel about the relationship between writers and the NYPD Vandal Squad? Do you think that there’s a way for cities to harness the creativity of writer instead of ‘booking’ them? Or do you think that the clash between both sides is what keeps it changing?
Kids should be made to paint walls when they are caught. But painting walls makes money for private companies, so they get sent to jail, which
makes money for private companies. So there’s no positive option if a judge doesn’t care about the youth, and he’s got no options in front of him now for the kids he feels bad about.
You used to run a magazine called ‘On the Go’. What tips do you have for a young creative that’s looking to launch their own magazine or creative project?
Start small — consistency in output is the key. Give it away [for free].
If you could leave a message for people in the next century, what would it be?
If you’re not over that racial bullshit, you might as well be here in 2012.
Enjoy Stephen sharing his experience and thinking at PSFK New York, 2010.
Well, there you have it. Thanks very much to Stephen for taking the time to talk to us about his work and we think you’ll agree it is truly inspirational! You can follow him on twitter and check more of his work and history out, on his site. ’til next time you lot.
Posted in: Weekly Score