Stephen Powers: Thoroughly Modern Cave Painter
Stephen Powers wants the murals he creates to be democratic reflections of the communities they represent.
Stephen Powers is a celebrated artist and muralist, also known by the name ESPO (“Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”).
Born in 1968 in Philadelphia, Powers attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia and the University of the Arts before relocating to New York City in the mid-1990s. He became known for his guerrilla street art, painting abandoned shop fronts throughout the city and creating large faux-advertisements. After being arrested in 1999 for protesting Mayor Rudy Guilliani’s attempt to shut down an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum, Powers gave up graffiti to focus on studio art, sign painting, and commercial illustration. His art has been exhibited at museums and galleries around the world, including Dublin’s City Arts Centre, Brooklyn Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
As a muralist, he is best known for his Love Letter series in Philadelphia (2009), Syracuse (2010), Brooklyn (2011), and Baltimore (2014). He wrote the 1999 book The Art of Getting Over about graffiti artists and their work, the short story collection First & Fifteenth (2005), and the art book Studio Gangster (2007).
Stephen Powers went to jail in 1999 following a police investigation of him for vandalism. But this brush with the law changed nothing and everything for a man who sees himself as part of a tradition that stretches back millennia.
Stephen Powers: I think of myself as a modern day cave painter, like that makes the most sense to me. It always has, like, graffiti was just trying to figure out like what I could do to transcribe the day-to-day operations and put them in front of people and hopefully communicate what it means to be alive.
And this modern day cave painter, today, sees himself as something more prosaic yet somehow also more poetic.
Powers: I think a middle-age, middle-class sign writer covers it. But, what I love about sign writing is sign writing is so…it’s so blue collar, but it’s also so completely creative. And, you know, generally every sign writer I’ve ever met is an artist.
Born in 1968, Stephen Powers discovered the possibilities of the walls of his Philadelphia home by age three. They became his canvas and his crayons his tools. He indulged his caveman tendencies wall by wall. As a teenager in the early 80s, he turned to street art. He joined his contemporaries, tagging their signature styles on walls of abandoned buildings, on the rooftops, seen from the city’s elevated train. And it was his salvation.
Powers: What I write and what I draw is me drawing from life, from the everyday trials and tribulations, trying to make sense of it. It’s almost as if I’m creating like a life raft every time.
The fifth of six children, Powers is candid about his flawed family and the issues that daily drove him out of the house. His parents, early pioneers in computer programming, met at the University of Pennsylvania. They agreed upon and soon achieved Aristotle’s prescription for the ideal family: two boys and two girls. But when Stephen and his sister came along, the fifth and sixth, his father, a gifted inventor, felt betrayed. And so when Powers was 15, his dad abandoned the family.
Powers: And that was perfect for me ’cause I now had a clear road ahead of me to do the things that I wanted to do, which was predominantly writing graffiti and figuring out like what that was and how I can make something of myself with that, if I could.
Left alone to raise the kids, his mother grew increasingly bitter with their threadbare existence. His baby sister got some love, but he felt like a leftover. At 16, he grew tired of self-pity and took to the street. He invented his own graffiti tag ESPO, incorporating his initials. It sounded vaguely official and soon started showing up around Philly. When someone would challenge him on the street, he would tend to working for ESPO—Exterior Surface Painting Outreach—and it worked, for a while.
Powers: I was raised on TV in the 70s, in the 80s and you know, my mind’s…my mind was probably already soft to begin with. But, you know, rapid fire editing and MTV and, you know, logos and soundbites and, you know, short attention spans, like I cater to all that ’cause that’s where I grew up.
That brush with the law for criminal mischief came after a 1999 police search of his Brooklyn studio that seized art materials, photographs, computer hard drives, and pages from a forthcoming book, The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium. Powers and his attorney believed the arrest had been politically motivated, that he had been targeted for protesting then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s attempt to censor a Brooklyn Museum exhibition. For Powers, his only crime then and thereafter was pursuing his calling. Like generations before he sees graffiti as free expression. Splashing paint on walls with words and pictures has meaning.
Powers had moved to New York in 1994. That same year he visited a friend and fellow artist at his studio in San Francisco. This spurred Powers to open his own gallery and studio. ESPO’s Art World at the corner of 4th and Bergen in Brooklyn is Powers’ creative headquarters. One prominent sign on the outside of the building declares, “Perfection is Standard, Mistakes Cost Extra.” It was from here in 2003 that Powers unleashed his sign writing prowess on Coney Island. With fellow artists he developed traveling sign shop ICY Signs, creating colorful hand-painted signage and advertisements for local businesses. This established a new Coney Island style of painting which in 2015 the Brooklyn Museum of Art paid homage to with the exhibition “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull).” Powers calls the museum the nicest cave he’s ever painted.
But a more pivotal collaboration in Powers’ life had happened earlier when he met his future wife Maryanne. Not only did he find a supportive spouse, but a more stable family than the one he had grown up in. Her parents and siblings welcomed him with open arms. He called his mother-in-law Dorothy Long, a master potter and entrepreneur, his art mom. And in his new father-in-law Al Long, he had found a man fully committed to his family. After Al died in 2019, Powers, now with a son of his own, formulated what he called the reciprocal deal between parents and children in a story titled, “Raise Me and I’ll Raise You,” part of the collection First and Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories, published in 2005. Stephen Powers’ experiences with his own father and with Al informed his own approach to raising his son. He resolved to be as invested as a father as his own dad had never been.
Powers: I feel like before—there was a time when everything I made was cynical and it was still funny but it was cynical, it was dark, like the darker the better. It couldn’t get dark enough from it. But I had a kid and, you know, in that second when you’re suddenly, you know, you’re a father and you’re suddenly like a part of a family. Your whole worldview just like changes. Literally, a life came into my life and everything from that point on became life affirming. I am a father to him and I thank my father for, you know, my father did, he did a few great things for me.
Though Stephen Powers’ father was an avid gun collector, he preached against their actual use, teaching his son how to unload but never how to load or to shoot. A confusing attitude towards firearms to be sure, but Powers was never confused and, in 2017, he illustrated a series of nine essays about gun violence for Vogue Magazine, bringing to life the words of the survivors of gun violence. Stephen Powers’ work has always leaned towards the pithy, the straight-forward. His larger than life murals marry words and pictures to profess love and pledge devotion. And the work he makes comes out of both the oldest and the newest forms of human communication.
Powers: I love those stories that are so short and they get passed around like dollars. You know, like the joke you told and, you know, they’re really small, easy ways of just transmitting humanity, you know, and very easy to remember, easy to pass along. The first bit of artwork that was drawn on a wall that we know of is 65,000 years old and it’s a ladder. In depicting a ladder, the person that drew that ladder depicted technology, they made a story, they depicted a way forward, you know, and it’s something that speaks to me all this time later, like I drew a ladder yesterday, like I draw ladders all the time. A ladder laid out on the ground turns into train tracks, you know. So, these are the things that convey us going to our next station, rising up a little bit. And it’s useful to know that no matter how terrible things are, no matter how stuck we seem to be, a ladder is a way forward, train tracks are a way out.
Although Powers works around the world, he’s often back in his hometown. He remembers being a kid riding the El, the elevated train in West Philadelphia, and the way his eyes were constantly drawn to the graffitied rooftops.
Powers: Just like me, it was like hundreds of teenagers that were finding themselves and being themselves. And it was like the most beautiful, powerful thing to me, and I contributed to it. You know, I painted a few rooftops myself and I felt like I just added to this tapestry that was gonna last for hundreds of years, you know. There’s no reason for it not to last.
But it didn’t last. In 2008, he noticed that Philadelphia’s Anti-Graffiti Network had painted over all the rooftops. This official act of destruction hatched one of his most well-known works, a mural series called “Love Letters”. A Love Letter For You is a series of 50 murals that runs along the 20 blocks stretch of that same Market Street El. They express love from a boy to a girl, and from a man to his city. This was his chance to make something that people might care about and hopefully enjoy for years. But almost before the paint was dry on his first work, an overzealous operative from the Anti-Graffiti Network had whitewashed it.
Powers: All the forces of good aligned behind me, this guy just painted right over it. And, you know, we caught up to him immediately and I asked him like, “What were you thinking?” And he goes, “I knew that was you.” Like, he remembered me from 15 years before or whatever. I was like, “Well, I’m doing it again.” And it was easier to do the second time.
13 other cities around the world have since invited Powers to create love letters. With input from local residents, he and his crew create poignant affirmations stitched together to reflect the hopes and dreams of each community. In Charleroi, a small Belgian industrial town south of Brussels, the key concept came from one person on the local team, who when asked what he might say to his grandchildren said, “Bisous, m’ chou.”
Powers: You know, “bisous” is kisses, “m’ chou” was like very specific to this region. They say it in different ways but in the particular way that they said it and we spelled it, it was like theirs.
Now in his early 50s, Stephen Powers still believes that graffiti has a place in urban culture. And he believes that if people find value in the work, it will survive. His philosophy: let the people be the judge.
Powers: And it was the first thing that I learned was, if you do something that people appreciate and they don’t complain about it, that’s, that’s a really sweet spot to be in like that’s, there’s power and beauty. I painted a Black Lives Matter mural in Union Square and it got defaced, you know, and the owner of the property who gave me the wall to paint, who’s been a great steward of the wall, she’s a really awesome theater impresario, she was really depressed by it, you know, she was like, “Ah, I just feel so bad that somebody would do that.” And I said, “It’s just paint. It’s four cans of paint. It’s a lovely afternoon.” She’s like, “Wow. I feel a lot better. I feel a lot better about that.” I was like, “Yeah, the next time, like, you know, somebody writes on the front of your theater, keep it in perspective. You know, it’s just paint.”