Designboom sat down with former graffiti artist and now fine-artist Steve ESPO Powers. In 1999 when he stopped writing graffiti and bar tending Powers set his sights on becoming a full-time artist, and he succeeded massively. Here he tells Designboom more about the themes explored in his work and his myriad influences.
DB: Please could you tell us briefly about your background and how you ended up working in your current capacity?
SP: I am the fifth of six children that grew up in an chaotic environment with 24 cats and a gun under my fathers pillow. I was desperate to escape and art was the pick I used on the lock. I attended university of the arts on broad street in philadelphia. it was there I acquired the discipline to complete a task, a skill that had eluded me for 20 years. I immediately dropped out and applied my new found ethic to painting water-ice stands and soft pretzel carts. from there it's been one foot in front of the other until I got here.
DB: Which have been your most significant and satisfying projects to date?
SP: In 2009 I went back home to west philadelphia and painted a love letter to the neighborhood across 50 walls along the elevated train line. the love was received and returned to me and that is really the peak experience so far.
DB: When did wordplay and words as images become a central theme in your work ?
SP: That was there from the start. when I painted graffiti I was focused on one word. Now as an artist I'm focused on all of them.
DB: You work at many different scales - do you have a personal preference?
SP: When I make paintings I feel like I'm in communion with all of art history. I talk to the artists that have been talking to me all my life.
DB: Do you prefer to work indoors or outdoors?
SP: The weather is always perfect indoors, but when I paint outside I'm hoping for an interaction with a passerby that we'll put up on the wall. when it happens, a fleeting moment becomes eternal.
DB: Did something or someone in particular influence the sentiments expressed in your work and your aesthetic?
SP: I'm in awe of the power and the reach of music. to compete with the majesty of music, I make paintings that are visual blues. I distill my everyday experience into paintings I call daily 'metaltations'. they are painted very fast, fresh from the epiphanies that inspired them. the larger paintings draw from those metaltations and go to a deeper understanding of the transactions we make everyday to live our lives.
DB: What are the main differences between street art and graffiti for you?
SP: Graffiti is 30,000 years old, more or less, and it continues to relate a simple, eloquent message, 'I was here' street art is peeling faded wallpaper advertising a product that's on sale at urban outfitters.
DB: How do you think the popularity of online design resources has influenced design and art being produced today?
SP: Instagram has been really interesting for me. in the 3 months that I've been posting daily metaltations, I've learned what will move the needle with the internet. so as an artist I resist the temptation to give the people what they want, and I try to push different work to challenge them and myself
DB: Besides your professional work - what do you have a passion for and why?
SP: I love to lurk on the corner. paying attention as the city goes about its business always yields interesting data.
DB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
SP: When I was 15, my father, shortly before he ran off to start a new life, told me 'I don't give a fuck what you do but you better have a plan'.
DB: What is the worst piece of advice you have ever been given?
SP: My mother told me twenty years ago that I was crazy to think the city would ever let me paint walls. she hangs her head now and tells her students 'don't listen to me, my son didn't and he turned out fine'.