Mass Appeal Issue #56 Cover Story: Stephen “Espo” Powers
The Philadelphia transplant has a way with words.
Mass Appeal is excited to present our Issue #56 cover story featuring Stephen “Espo” Powers. Read an excerpt of the story below, and subscribe to get the issue as soon as it ships.
Lead photo by Adam Wallacavage / Courtesy of ESPO
You can’t front on the fact that Stephen “Espo” Powers can do a multitude of things. Well. It’s as if he has more arms than an octopus, and a third eye with impeccable vision.
He hails from Philadelphia, but has made a home in New York since the early 1990s. In 1989 he up and published a magazine called On The Go. It started out as a graffiti ‘zine much like Mass Appeal did, and it would go on to touch on music, culture, humor and politics in the way that so many other magazines would try to in the years thereafter. This scribe used to publish a magazine called ego trip, and while in some ways we saw OTG as a competitor (felt like it was sometimes easier to get money selling crack than it was getting money from some-timey advertisers; anyone else hustling on the block was seen as a beast tryin’ to stop your eat) we were fans of what they did and considered them brothers, if not first cousins.
After OTG went away, Steve Powers found a way to stand up as an individual and artist. Philadelphia has a rich history when it comes to writing culture and Powers has channeled what was local and bridged it to what was happening in New York and beyond. His public works of art are wildly inspirational and conversational—the quick wit that he shined inside of the pages of his magazine now smiles back at the passers by who read the catchy phrases embedded in his pieces. It’s work that blurs the lines between visionary and literary. The same can be said for his fine art work. An Espo on your wall is like having a call-and-response session from the man known to sport a hi-top fade and bright yellow raincoat.
He has written books. His art has appeared on album covers. In 2007, he was a Fulbright Scholar. He’s a dad, a significant other. The owner and proprietor of the Brooklyn-based Icy Signs—the location where the following conversation was conducted. You can’t really put Stephen in a box; you can’t just describe him as simply one thing or the other. What follows is a window into the methods of his brilliant, Technicolor madness.
Martha Cooper / Courtesy of ESPO
Mass Appeal: Obviously, we’ve got to go way back…to your hometown, Philadelphia. What are your earliest memories of just drawing in general?
Espo: I drew a car when I was three years old that I can still think about in my mind. Maybe I’ll redraw it some day. It was like me just drawing something out of my mind on a piece of paper on my dining room floor. I lived in like—it wasn’t abject poverty but it really looked like it. It was like, a dirty-ass house filled with people and I think our basic, basic needs were being met, but…it was a fight for a little bit of space and some peace and quiet everyday. There was eight or nine of us at that moment. It was a big house, so it could definitely accommodate that many people but there was also a bunch of cats. At one point we had 24 cats living in the house. So you had a mass of humanity, the parents are working and not really interacting with each other and the kids are just raising themselves. You know, my mom wasn’t big on house cleaning–and she’s still not a big house cleaning person. The place was a dump, it was falling down. Its still there, out in Overbrook–64th and Drexel.
So was art at all a part of your family lexicon?
Nobody in my family had anything to do with art and they were mathematicians. My mom was religious and had a masters in theology and in math. My father was an inventor and was working, he was an electrical engineer. Part of the reason we were in abject poverty to my mind was he had been working on his doctoral thesis for 16 years. By the time he finished his doctoral thesis I was already a teenager and at that point I decided him and his thesis were going to take a walk and he left the family.
Well, he had time in-between that to produce children…
He was definitely down for making kids and riding his motorcycle and collecting guns. He was a real smart-ass weirdo. What’s fashionable now is they would say he had Asperger’s. But, in the mid ‘70s that wasn’t really worth a shit. He was just a weird dude. Neighbors didn’t really like him, his family didn’t really like him, his coworkers put up with him because he was brilliant and he knew his way around computers and getting patents done. But he was like an overgrown kid and art was the furthest thing from his mind. My mom was down for rock and roll, she was down for Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, but art was a total mystery for them. When I popped up with some talent my mom didn’t see it. Nobody really saw it. But, there was a co-worker of hers where she taught—my mom taught at a private school. The art teacher there spotted what I was doing and told my mom that I had talent and that she would nurture it.
How old were you?
I was probably six or seven at that point. But they really looked at it as an affliction. They felt bad for me, they felt I was never…They thought, “oh, too bad you’re talented, you’re gonna be useless for anything else.” My whole family–they’re all brilliant people. They just thought the ticket to success was education. Even then they could see computers were coming and they were trying to position us to like be computer programmers in the early ‘80s. Me being an artist just was so far from their reality.
When did you bridge that with graffiti?
When my dad split. It was already happening when he was leaving. I was 15, but by the time I was 16 I really wrapped my head around what it was that I was looking at. I started looking at it as a 15 year old trying to make sense of it. When I was 15, I made the decision to really get into it and do it.
Do you think his departure had a hand in you getting deeper into it?
It made it easier certainly. It might have been a way of defining myself as my own person and not my father’s son. I knew I was going to be an artist; I never wanted to do anything else. I really thought I was gonna be, like, drawing Wolverine; I was hoping I would be drawing for Marvel Comics. As a sophomore in high school I realized that comic book artists didn’t make money; comic book art was shitted on as a creative expression. For most of the guys, even if you were the best comic book artist, you were low on the totem pole of “real” artistry. I realized that with no money, I’m going to get no respect. Right about the time that I had that thought, graffiti showed up. Subway Art came out, Style Wars made it onto PBS. For a few years in Philadelphia, it was something every kid did. I realized in New York they had been doing it like that for 20 years. Every kid in New York had a tag for 20 years. I started writing graffiti in September of ‘84 and by ‘85 and ‘86 there was nothing else.
And what did you start out writing?
At first I wrote my initials—S.P.—which became a problem once I ventured past my neighborhood because people from South Philly wrote S.P. after their name. So it was kind of redundant to write S.P. It gave off the wrong message. So my good friend Tom, rest in peace, said I should write Espo…That was it. It was decided. That’s what I wrote. Tom was a neighborhood guy. He knew a little bit more than me, he had a handstyle before me and for the first year I was writing graffiti he had a say on everything that I did. He was the mentor.
Well, it’s interesting that you talked about Style Wars and Subway Art as an influence. Philly also had its own kind of thing going on for a long time so was your entree kind of influenced by both simultaneously?
Well, at first it was Subway Art and Style Wars heavily. I was developing in a very New York way. The handstyle was a very New York handstyle. Then, once I got a measure of fame in Philadelphia, I started getting shit for not having a “Philadelphia” handstyle and then the pendulum swung back the other way where I got really into developing a Philly handstyle and calming down on the New York influences. So I try to do a little bit of both. Certainly by ‘89 I was pretty proficient in both Philadelphia styles and New York styles.
And that feels like where Philly is now—combination of this indigenous thing and a hybrid thing happening.
I went back a few days ago and there was so much graffiti in Philly. There’s more graffiti in Philly than there’s been since the early ‘90s. It’s great. They’re not even trying to do anything nice–they’re just trying to do really good tags. The race is on is the gist: smash as much of the streets as possible with barebones graffiti. Except for the people who are doing really elegant blockbusters and doing really elegant things with large letters.
For me, graffiti was a way to know the city. The best thing that graffiti gives people in Philadelphia is a way of breaking out of the colloquial sections that define Philadelphia. Philly is very much the “Overbrook section,” the “Tacony section,” the “Honey Park section.” It’s all divided up by neighborhoods. Graffiti offered a way of having access to everywhere. People otherwise have no interest in knowing anything except for maybe the sports arenas and maybe where the good sandwiches are.
Was Philly was racially polarized?
Yeah man! It’s still racially polarized. Graffiti was the antidote to that. Graffiti was about going out and seeing the rest of it. My friend, Kadism, he still feels like he hasn’t seen it all yet and it’s something that drives him to paint to this day. He’s interested in knowing the totality of his city. That was the best thing to me. When I moved to New York at the age of 25, I was obsessed with roaming around and seeing New York.
Well, speaking of making that transition from Philly to New York, one thing that kind of brought you here was the ‘zine you did, On The Go.
On The Go was a way of extending my involvement in graffiti past, well past the expiration point. I started graffiti at 16—that was way too old—and I got a lot of shit for graffiti from my peers…I was totally late to the party and I was getting into something everybody else was getting out of. On The Go represented an opportunity to stay with it, continue being a part of it, even though I hardly painted when I was publishing the magazine.
And you started publishing in…
1989—as a Xerox fanzine in like January or February ‘89. It was gonna be a graffiti ‘zine, but my friend Meez had an interest in hardcore [music], so we started writing about hardcore, and it could have just been a hardcore and graffiti ‘zine, but I got a dub copy of [N.W.A’s] Straight Outta Compton and that was a real revelatory thing for me. I don’t think it was even the whole record. But there was enough on it to know that this was something brand new and really interesting and I really wanted to write about it. It’s funny to read what I wrote about that record. I called it an “irresponsible masterpiece.” You could see what was going to come out of that.
What would you say came out of that?
Tupac! Gangsta rap as a whole, gangsta rap as an industry. Snoop Dogg! It became the pose. When N.W.A dropped that, there was no other pose. It’s still the most compelling image. It’s the role everybody wants to play. Who can blame them? It looks like the most fun; you get to do whatever you want. That’s why I thought it was irresponsible. Still, I don’t think they had any responsibility other than to make a really great record.
How many issues of On The Go did you publish?
We did 18 issues. We have a 19th issue that we never finished that we are in the process of publishing now. We are also looking to do a retrospective of all of the other issues—The Greatest Hits, if you will. We stopped publishing in ’97. I think that issue would have come out in ’98. Jay Z would have been on the cover. We did a really great fashion spread that was in line with the other fashion spreads that we had done that were making fun of fashion spreads…I’m kind of hyped to see it eventually come out. The Jay Z thing is great—it’s a youthful Jay Z smiling on the cover. What could be better? I really don’t want to get back into the periodical business, though. This is really just taking a moment to take advantage of the fact that the ‘90s are hot, and to remind people that Ari Forman is a genius designer and Max Glazer is a genius writer and that’s it.
After the magazine folded, seems like you found new stimulation in the streets.
Once the magazine had run its course, it was time to figure out what Steve was going to do. I didn’t have any answers. I’d already been talking to Todd James about what art was going to look like—he didn’t have any ideas. So, I did the thing I knew I could do well, that I wanted to do. I went and painted graffiti. I told my then girlfriend, and now wife, that I was going to take the time to live off of her earnings and write graffiti and do the things I needed to do to get it out of my system. She—the trooper that she is—went along with it. I spent the better part of ‘97, ‘98, and ‘99 writing graffiti. I think I was pretty much done by the beginning of ‘99. But from ‘97 to ‘98, I was writing everyday, trying to get paint everyday, trying to find spots everyday. We were racking tomato sauce everyday and just living the life of an overgrown teenager.
Tell us the acronym that was the foundation of your “business”.
I had a conversation in late 1996 with a gentleman named Carl Weston [from Video Graf] and we talked about the fact that he felt that street graffiti was dead. I thought there was a loophole to be had. There was a way to paint illegally on the streets, do blockbusters and get away with it. It was a concept that me and Revs had talked about, just being bored and going and painting over graffiti on a gate and doing it as boring as possible and then at the last minute adding a little bit of black paint to make it say something. In my case, since I was writing Espo, I came up the acronym…Exterior Surface Painting Outreach. I think the “outreach” was really the most insidious part of it because it’s such a loose definition. “Outreach” can mean a guy handing out sandwiches on the street. Outreach always connotes an industry transaction. So I was, for a time, operating under a one-man banner, a one-man organization called Exterior Surface Painting Outreach, and we were committed to making New York a different place. If people stopped me and asked me what I was doing, I told them that was the organization I was with, but the reality is I only think I told two or three people in the course of the 70 gates that I painted. Very few people even cared.
Courtesy of ESPO
There was a really epic one you did on 12th avenue on the West Side. How did you pull that off? How long did it take?
I started probably on a Tuesday—I think it was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; three of those days I was painting silver on these 16-foot tall gates. We had the On The Go office around the corner on 39th street, so I was really just taking my ladders and my paint back and forth. The last day that I worked, this guy helped me with the last stretch of it. There were actually five gates, so the last gate I thought I’d make it an exclamation point. When we were painting that gate, it actually opened up…That was the first time I had seen any sign of life at that building. The gate opened up and a car pulled out—like a 7 series BMW. A nice new car. The guy rolls down his window, he has cigar in his mouth. He says, “What are you doing?” And that’s one of the few times where I’ve said, “I’m an organization. We are painting these gates…” He said, “Yeah, whatever. Can you just make it say “no parking here?” I was like “I don’t know if I can, I don’t have any white paint. If we can, we will.” He was like, “Alright. Whatever.” He got into traffic, the gate went down and that was it. It was an empty building. When it was all said and done, he—or somebody that worked with him—spray painted “no parking” on that gate.
Some time after, artistically, you would transition into this sort of old school, traditional sign painting thing.
The thing with sign painting is, graffiti is enamel and metal. With people painting trains, I saw the similarity between graffiti and advertising. Certainly, with branding, with logos, and the idea of selling a product. In fact, the first signs that I painted were just fake Espo “brand” signs in the streets.
The connection between enamel and steel is a pretty great metaphor. The other big part of what it is that you do is…words and phrases.
Yeah, well the joke I say is “with graffiti, I just focused on one word, with art, I focused on the rest of them.” I’m trying to distill my life into these lines. When sign painting stopped being an effective trade for people—when you stopped being able to make a living as a sign painter—it was the perfect time to pick it up and make art out of it. I wasn’t the first guy to do it, and I won’t be the last guy to do it.
How would you describe what happens here at Icy signs?
What happens here is mostly…we are kind of a fake sign shop that functions as a studio. I’m interested in some aspects of sign painting, I like painting signs, but I am not interested in painting signs for people based on their own ideas about it. I am interested in, if somebody calls us and says “we want you to do what you do,” and they give us the freedom to do what we think is best…That’s not how sign painters work; every other sign shop, they get a design, they do the design. End of story. We are our own clients. We do our own thing and we expect and demand that the people that work with us understand that and let us do what we think is best.
The words and phrases you use help to bridge your work to everyday people on a whole other level.
One of the things I say is, if I paint my name on a wall you’re gonna be mad, but if I paint your name on a wall you’re gonna be happy. As a future signpost for people painting walls, if you want stuff to last and you want things that you paint to accrue power, then paint things that people can take ownership of and feel good about. Nowadays, I’m in an interesting, yet difficult position, where people want me to do what I do [on walls] for brands. People want me to do that for commercial purposes, and I have to turn it down…painfully. Bigger and bigger opportunities are coming my way but there is so much strength and power that I’ve gotten from that kind of work—that I continue to get. So…I leave the financial remuneration alone.
What about your fine art work?
For the fine arts stuff? Come see me. Because the fine art stuff is more of a traditional, personal transaction. The public stuff is based on me going to people and saying “let’s have a conversation, let me translate that conversation into visual communication.” It’s unfair for me to say, like, “Brought to you by Pepsi.” Or like “Thanks. Now I’m gonna do a dance in front of this wall with a Pepsi jacket on.” No disrespect to Pepsi, they are a fine product, but…
How important is the fine art you produce inside of the orbit that is your public work?
It’s everything to me. I’m only distracted by the things that I have to do outside of it. But if it’s up to me, that’s all I want to do. I’m certainly on the chase every day to make work, and to show work. I’m doing work that’s really fulfilling to me and I think speaks to people. I’ve got a microphone and I’ve got an audience so I’m very grateful and I’m just gonna keep doing it. Right now, I’ve cutting all my ties to galleries domestically.
Why is that?
I think it’s a more interesting story to be on my own. I know a lot of artists who are struggling with galleries of all sizes. That’s a depressing story. Me suffering on my own, making a little bit of money on my own…now that’s a heroic story. I’d rather be the hero than the zero. Unless a gallery is compelled and believes, unless museums are compelled and believe that I’m gonna bring a certain level of juice and reward to their program, I’ll be right here. I bring a lot of juice and reward to my own program. I don’t wanna be on a roster of fourteen people. I’d rather be by myself and generate my own heat for my wood-burning stove, in the corner, and not worry about it.
I can go out and do public work and be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people from time to time. The rest of the time, I get into a typical artist-mode where I am by myself and I am creating work in a solitary place. Then I have this middle-ground here, where I have this open shop, and you can come see me anytime and if I’m here we will have a conversation about it. I like being alone and being solitary, and being, if you will…irrelevant. That’s the job of an artist.
Being irrelevant?! How so?
It is easy to be successful, to be the star of your own show and to be selling work. But the reality is, for most artists, for most of the time, that’s not happening. It’s going to be quiet. The phone’s not going to be ringing, you’re going to be forced to entertain yourself, forced to generate your own situation. That’s the job. The job is not the big opening. The job is the seven months you spent on your own before the opening, being irrelevant, just making the work.
Matthew Kuborn/ Courtesy of ESPO