Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Courtesy of Stephen Powers
Produced by: Dan Hwang
Stephen “ESPO” Powers is a graffiti legend whose pieces adorned many corners of the New York City landscape, and he continues to add to his reputation and relevance as a commissioned sign and mural painter. While at a certain stage in the development of graffiti, an impressive work that garnered respect may cover the width of a building, Powers has upped the ante in recent years. A profound Baltimore project displayed his work across 35 abandoned row houses; the message in top-to-bottom letters boldly emblazoned was simple and uplifting: “FOREVER TOGETHER. I AM HERE BECAUSE ITS HOME.”
This past summer, those who trekked New York City’s “Summer Streets” route got a look at 30 of Powers’ signs which boast his trademark minimalist drawings and wordplay. In a press release about his Summer Streets series, he stated: “art is about finding a way, and signs are about showing the way, and where those ways meet.” These whimsical signs encapsulate much of the personality of the artist who crafted them.
Powers didn’t want to do this interview. I arrived in Brooklyn at Icy Signs, his studio/sign painting shop, on a snowy day and kicked the snow off of my sneakers and shuffled my feet as I walked in. He stood with his arms crossed wearing a purple polo shirt and bright cropped pants with mismatched socks. He had some reservations about doing a sit-down for a site like ours. At his desk, he brought up the homepage of our site and saw pictures of Jordans and articles about Supreme. With a half-smirk–which he flashed throughout our time–he asked why we wanted to do a piece on him when our readers would like scroll right past it in search of the latest news on Kanye. This was and is a valid question.
Many who grew up in the internet and social media generation have a limited window of what they consider “history.” If they can’t easily search it or scroll to it, it doesn’t exist. Our project is about reaching those with this limited vantage point. He had considered all of this beforehand, of course, and finally, after venting, agreed to sit and talk.
We began, and he candidly recounted his difficult upbringing before methodically and colorfully charted his history in art. A half hour later, he again harped on what bothered him about today’s landscape. The most poignant portions of the discussion centered on the parasitic nature of many sites which compete for clicks and views. He noted that the artist or designer whose work we display is often just a vehicle for added traffic in order to snatch up advertising. His point was that if we are just aggregators of information, why should an artist who is generating the content for us not also directly profit from his blood, sweat, and tears?
His frustration mirrors that of many creatives whose large-scale, multi-dimensional work is often reduced to the screen of a phone or a tablet. When viewed in a square, the scale and perspective of a work is lost. The viewer can see a limited permutation of the work, but the physical experience of the piece in real life is incalculably more visceral. Think of the dark room sifting through slides or images of a Renoir or Matisse in Art History classes versus the experience of encountering the larger-scale work in person with all of the texture and color in tact.
As you click through the interview, take a moment to view the images in detail and then consider his deliberate responses to our questions. And if you really want the full experience, stop by his shop, Icy Signs, and watch the master at work. You can even purchase his iconic paintings and prints in the shop so that you can have a piece to view on your own walls on those rare moments when you turn off your devices and look up.
FRESHNESS: Can you explain your background coming from Philly and how you first got into art?
Stephen Powers: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and I was on the edge of Philadelphia, four blocks within the city limits in West Philadelphia in Overbrook. It was a really pretty sheltered middle-class existence, except for the fact that we lived in a really rundown house with twenty-four cats, a big Catholic family, and never enough money to go around, That was probably bad for a lot of things, but it was good for art. My family, they are all survivors. Some of them came out with more bruises than others, but it wasn’t easy for any for us. I’m gonna’ say I had it better than anybody else. I slipped past the pitfalls and found I was good at drawing, and that got me through.
Art gave me a way to process all the information in a really positive way that nobody else in my family had. There is no other artist in my family. It’s like four generations and going back; there are no creative people in my family.
So, you had to find your own path for art? Did you find it in school?
No. School was fine. School was at least tolerant. If I wasn’t doing art, I was acting up. I was a kid causing trouble and trying to create complete chaos in the class, and I was really good at it. I was actually in a class that was like a murderous row of a real trouble-makers.
So you are self-educated as far as art goes or at least as far as without family influence?
No, there is nobody in my family. They encouraged me, but they were also thinking it was a really bad idea. They thought that I would have a very poverty-stricken, drug-addicted life, and they are only half-right, but they honestly thought it was going to be a really hard road for me. They were encouraging, but they thought that the only hope for anybody in the family was getting an education and getting as far away from the situation as possible.
What were your first attempts at art?
I was life-drawing and I was into comics. I probably would have been a comic book artist, but I got hip that there was no money in comics. My favorite artists were already fighting with Marvel and trying to get their cut. They were trying to get control of their creations.
You sniffed out the corporate side pretty early?
It was easy to see. I was a big comic books fan. I was collecting comics, going to the comic book store every week. Once you get to that level, then you start reading the Comic Books Journal and you start reading about the business behind it, and all that was really interesting to me. When I realized that Frank Miller wasn’t making money, who was the big Daredevil comic artist at the time, then I thought “this is bullshit.” Todd MacFarlane came after I got out of it, and he started to change it.
He had a name for himself?
He was amazing. When you’re making art, you’re looking for freedom. I mean, art is really just a pretext for freedom.
How did you find your freedom through art?
Through graffiti. Graffiti presented itself and Style Wars went into syndication in the summer of ’84, I guess. It’s in the fall of ’84. It’s amazing because it really was like a bomb went off worldwide, certainly nationally. There was graffiti in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s graffiti scene possibly predates New York’s, but it wasn’t connecting with me. I was fascinated by it, but I’ve never really seen a way into it or a reason to do it until Style Wars came on TV and until the entire neighborhood was into it.
The kids in my neighborhood were like, “You can draw Wolverine really good, but you can’t do graffiti.” I remember vividly telling a guy that I could master graffiti in about a month. I figured it would take me a month to be really good at graffiti, and it took me about sixteen years.
Did you take on the name ESPO around then?
Yeah. ESPO was the name. I’ve been writing ESPO since ’84.
Like many graffiti writers, did you just like the letters?
My name is Steve Powers and I was writing SP, which you can’t really do in Philadelphia because writers from South Philly would write SP after their name.
To rep the neighborhood?
Yeah. They would say where they were from. I loved writing SP. I thought SP was great, shout-out to SP, but a friend of mine, my dear friend Tom said, “No. You should write ESPO.” He decided. Tom was like my guru. He was my graffiti guru for at least the first year.
Did you also just want more letters visually? I’ve heard that story too.
No. First of all, two letters is easier. There was a certain symmetry that in the SP; there is a lot there to play with. ESPO really fit the bill because it was like SONY. It was a name that had four letters. It had two syllables, and it had a lot of power. It didn’t mean anything. SONY didn’t mean anything. SONY was just a cool sounding word, but whatever meaning it had would be determined by what I brought to it. It was like an empty vessel.
Philly is a funny place like that. Philly has a lot of really silly names, like really awesome made up names like Kadism, K-A-D-I-S-M. Where did that come from? I understand it if I break it up in parts, but together, it’s this whole other dimension and it becomes its own thing. Now, it’s a world-renowned symbol of excellence, but when I was growing up, it was just another scary thing I didn’t understand.
So you did some art studies? Then you went to University Of The Arts? What were some things you picked up during formal art classes?
I went to school in suburban Philadelphia, to Archbishop Carroll, because they had an art program where instead of taking a language course, I could take art one day a week or every day. I had one period a day, five days a week, but it sucked. What art school has to do is to prepare you for the crushing monotony of the creating every day. Creating is a hard, daily, obsessive-compulsive operation that requires patience. It requires dedication, and it requires really digging it up, day after day. As an artist, you find your own way to a place where you can find something you like to do every day, but before you do that, art school is about doing these exercises, solving problems, completing tasks, exercising your hands and your eyes, and doing these monotonous exercises.
Suddenly, you have a teacher telling you that you have to draw this pile of objects that’s on the table. You might have drawn the pile of objects on your own, of your own self-motivated interest, but as soon as the teacher comes into the frame and tells you to draw that pile of objects on the table, it’s a natural rebellion takes place. I am just like, “Fuck this,” and “Fuck this teacher,” and “She is not that good,” and it’s a whole vortex of emotions. It’s not the teacher’s fault. She is doing the best she can. This is how she was taught. She is passing it on, but it was bad for me.
I did what was right for me was graffiti presented itself. I immediately recognized graffiti as it had line; it had color; it had design; it had the whole world. It had complete freedom and at that point, and looking at the math and realizing the history of it, it was only twenty years old at that point. The argument could be made that it was thirty thousand years old, but what I was looking at was twenty years old, and I felt this is like getting down with photography in 1900. This is like getting on the ground floor of a medium of expression. I’d be crazy not to throw my lot in with this. I thought, “this is the best,” so I did it.
At that point, as soon as I latched onto graffiti, as soon as I latched onto art as graffiti, graffiti as art as a concept, everything went out the window. Artistry meant shit to me. I knew who Matisse was. I loved Matisse. Even as a baby, I loved Matisse. I love the impressionists; I love art, but graffiti was even better. It is the original primal expression of self. No disrespect to Matisse, but graffiti rules. I’m maintaining a very expensive lifestyle just living in New York, and I love what I do and I am grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had and have been extended to me. It’s a really bright future.
What are some things that annoy you about magazines and sites like ours on the internet?
We are on a landscape now that requires artists to make work that makes sense on the computer and makes sense in real life. The project that we did in Baltimore was fascinating because we painted thirty-seven row homes in a row, and it didn’t translate online. You didn’t even ask me about it.
That’s right. We haven’t done most of your new stuff.
It’s one of those things that didn’t really translate.
Is it because it’s hard to zoom out to physically capture it or is it not working online because you have to see it in person?
It’s impossible to capture it and you have to see it in person. It’s kind of where I think graffiti is running into trouble, where it’s like graffiti on the internet doesn’t look as good as graffiti in person.
Right, because people think in that square of image capture. You’re right.
I am starting to think in that square and I am starting to paint in a way that makes sense in the square, and I am not sure if the work is suffering. I am not sure if the work is improving. I do know that work is changing to meet that square.
Yes, but you’re still painting. Most people are rendering. You’re still using your hands.
No, a lot of people are definitely painting. Sign painting is bigger than it’s been in thirty years. Like I said, I am running into people who are saying I am imitating other people. That’s happening because everything is online and free to borrow at the click of a mouse. You can take it and just be blithe about it when you are called on it.
In a way, it’s a big compliment and a measure of success.
I am thriving in this environment. I have to wake up every day and put something new in that box. The problem I think with Freshness Mag and the animosity I have towards Freshness and a lot of sites that exist online is that you’re aggregators that are looking for batteries to shove in your remote to see if you can turn the box on, to see if you can get some clicks going. Do you know what I mean? You’re basically looking for things that’ll generate clicks. I probably won’t do that for you.
That’s true. We do these artist features because we like them and want to tell a story that is sort of lost.
A natural resentment is going to build up in people like me who are the creators of the content. And we’re not even being met on our level. We’re asked to talk, then supply the pictures, then promote the article on social media. I don’t even get asked anything interesting. I’m just asked about my past and I end up reciting my wikipedia page.
It’s great that everything is flattened out and everything is democratic, and everything is just available online. You can sit in your underwear and see the world. At the same time, it’s diminished the joy of discovering a lot of work. I’m cool. I know how to go out into the natural world and make my own discoveries. I love the internet for learning too, but it’s more about putting something in the square that I just thought up. I’ll feel and translate that feeling into something and try to make it understandable to people. And I’ll know instantly if the work is connecting.
You talked very personally at the beginning about what art did for you as a kid and what it got you out of. What would you tell the kid who is probably the same age as you were then, thinking he or she doesn’t know what to do. What can you tell that kid?
To the kid that wants to draw, wants to get out of their situation, you have to do this every day. Skating will do this for you. Music will do this for you. Getting outside of yourself and doing something every day is all it takes, but you have to do it every day. You have to be at it every day. You have to chase after it. You have to wrestle it down, every single day.
I’ve spent thirty minutes drawing already today, and I’ll do it every day. If you spend just thirty minutes a day… I don’t draw to be a better drawer. I draw as a way of pushing ideas out of my brain, down my arm and onto the paper. Painting, it’s kind of like the reverse of that. It’s like dancing backwards.