These sentiments almost seem like commercial slogans, but they don’t have a corporate sponsor. Powers believes that his work helps the community, that he is advertising for a product and that product is love. Perhaps that’s why the police in Philadelphia simply offered ESPO and his crew a “Good luck, yo” while they painted a wall during a snowstorm.
Prior to becoming a full time artist, Powers worked as editor and publisher for his own magazine, On the Go, where among other successes he antagonized the rap group Onyx and located the reclusive and weird Old Dirty Bastard. In 1999 he helped create an unflattering portrait of Mayor Guliani for a political protest, and was described as a “noodge and self-promoter” by The New York Times for his efforts. Less than ten years later, Powers would paint graffiti on a Fulbright scholarship in Ireland, be approached to paint murals around the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn and would be celebrated as a working artist by the same newspaper that mocked him in 1999. If you live in a major city, you’ve probably walked by his work more than once, or maybe you’ve seen his lettering on album artwork.*
A Love Letter to the City, Powers’s new book, documents the rise of an artist who treats graffiti as a career; getting to know people in the field, defending his ideas, finding ways to stand out from his peers, and refining his technique. Starting out with the story of ESPO’s graffiti in Philadelphia, it talks about his move to New York, convincing business owners in Coney Island to use his hand-painted signs instead of cheap vinyl lettering. He gets paid—barely, in the Coney Island tradition. But more importantly, he gets his name out as a working sign painter.
Like any good designer, Powers gets to know his clients, in this case, communities. He describes being on friendly terms with other graffiti artists whose work he’s painted over, he talks with people who don’t always like his message. “Hug me like I hug the block” he writes on a brick wall in Philadelphia, and he’s challenged by a passerby: “You can’t say that—that’s what drug dealers say.” Powers asks them: “Why can’t drug dealers be loved?”
His response is the kind that every designer and artist should be ready with: it’s bold, it challenges the client, it has a different perspective. At one point in the book Powers describes how “Graffiti is putting a name on something that doesn’t belong to you. But when you put the names of the community on something, then it belongs to everybody.” It’s refreshing to skip the “Is it art?” graffiti debate and focus more on content and tone. Powers’s artwork tells the story of a class struggle just as well as Banksy, he just has a different take on how that struggle looks.
His mural in Johannesburg is an awe-inspiring “MaMa” written over and over in different colors on a six-story building, each “M” being a story in height. While it’s a homage to the idea of “Mama Africa”, it also works as a tribute to mothers. Seeing the building before, without the mural, you can’t believe it’s the same city.
But there are times when the photography in A Love Letter to the City cannot do the work justice. The Brooklyn Macy’s garage is a good example of this. Because the mural covers all sides of a very large structure, it’s hard to properly document it. But reading the story of how hard it was to create that mural, seeing the loose sketches, and being able to read the complete poem is a gift.
One of the most stunning qualities about that mural is its controlled color palette; black and white, in an area where there are neon lights, animated LED signs, and not a lot of graphic design. Powers says it represents, ‘. . . night and day; film noir; and of course, the newspaper. They not only hold gravitas, they are the color palette of speed and illegal deeds. Five months after we painted the garage, black and white were chosen as the colors of the Brooklyn Nets”.
Compare Powers’s statement with Brett Yormark, Brooklyn Nets CEO’s, rather vague reasoning for the Nets color scheme: “Our black and white colors speak to Brooklyn’s strong traditions and grittiness and convey an uncompromising confidence (source: www.nba.com).” The mural and the Brooklyn Nets’s Barclay stadium are less than a mile apart, and share a sans-serif type treatment. The likeness is a little uncanny.
A Love Letter to the City is a design monograph, one that is told in a conversational ramble without pretense. There are thumbnail sketches of massive murals, collaborators, paid and unpaid, projects, also paid and unpaid, and clients who don’t always know what they want until they get it. This all may seem familiar to graphic designers; just on a grander scale.
*Powers’s lettering can be found on the David Byrne and St. Vincent collaboration Love this Giant, JJ Doom’s Key the to Kuffs, and Kurt Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze.