Love Letter

Last weekend I rode the blue-line from the Girard stop to 63rd and back again. For $2 I was witness to one of the most awesome works of art I have ever seen. From 45th to 63rd street you travel by 50 freshly-painted murals by Stephen Powers, each mural is allegedly based on ideas of love. Some are better viewed while heading west, some are better viewed heading east. If all this review accomplishes is to make ten people ride the Market-Frankford into the sunset I will consider it successful.

Put your computer down and go take a train-ride. Mr. ESPO’s artwork may last forever and ever but if you’re anything like me you may have lived in Philadelphia your whole life and never yet had a reason to take the train west to the end of the line.

The multiple layers of this piece working on so many levels

  • The Mural Arts Program (MAP) began in 1984 as a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, an effort to eradicate the graffiti crisis plaguing the city.
  • MAP is the nation’s largest public arts initiatives of its kind. The Mural Arts Program’s mission is to engage in art education and community public art collaborations, and to increase public access to art. Mural Arts is an outreach program.
  • When Mr. Powers did graff he wrote ESPO (“Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”)
  • Graffiti is often displayed close to a means of transportation; elevated train cars have been used both as a means of displaying graffiti (before the widespread use of un-paintable cars), and a means to get the public to see graffiti.
  • Signs or advertisements are often displayed close to a means of transportation. Businesses position themselves close to train-stops. The subway, buses and other means of public transportation are viewed as good places to advertise.
  • The work of Stephen Powers has often blurred the lines between legal and illegal. he has often taken inspiration from sign painting.
  • Powers stated in 2000 that he had given up graffiti. Working with MAP is a highly legal way to paint a wall.
  • It is easy to confuse the work in Love Letter with advertisements or graffiti. Especially as the buildings that stretch alongside the el from 45th to 63rd aren’t pretty, they easily look like abandoned wrecks that no one has bothered to buff.

I don’t really heart public art

The only published responses to the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia are overwhelmingly positive. This puts me in an awkward position. I like and admire the concept behind the Mural Arts Program, but in order to give proper praise to Stephen Power’s recent work with MAP I need to first prove that the artistic community at large does not find most of what MAP produces aesthetically pleasing.

It is hard to prove this. I do not have a study to hand you, but can only relate first person accounts of people becoming angry upon the appearance of a particular mural, rolling their eyes when MAP is mentioned, or telling you about how a young muralist told me that their mural “won’t be like the rest of them.” If you have a hard time believing that some people do not like the art that the Mural Arts Program produces–to the extent that it actually makes them feel physically ill and angry–you are just going to have to take my word for it.

For the most part the murals that bring about such strong dislike are the moralizing ones; the murals that show a happy community working together, smiling faces looking toward societal achievement under an appropriately up-beat or inspiring quote. These murals remind artists of the WPA and Socialist Realism, they look as if the government has had a hand in what the artist has been told to paint. The individual author/artist has been removed from the work and the artist has become a tool to produce what the public supposedly wishes to see.

Works like Love Letter serve to prove that an artist should be allowed more freedom in a public project. If an artist has proved himself–as Mr. Stephen Powers, Mr. ESPO–has, then you, me, the government, us (the public) should relax and let he/she show us what they can do. There is no over-bearing message in Love Letter, it might be a discussion about love but if it is it hasn’t removed the lust or “evil” from the topic.

Many of the works, such as the phrase “had a nice dream about you” painted out in melting rocket pops, are practically dripping sex. Still others seem to point out some of the trials of romance in an economically blighted urban setting–phrases like “I got daycare and carfare money honey, for you, for now on”  and “prepay is on, let’s talk, till my minutes are gone”, could be lyrics in a hip-hop or R n B ballade. Some of the “letters” are just highly amusing visual jokes–like a giant post it note painted tomp l’oeil on the side of a building that reads “remember sometimes it hurts”.

Perhaps the most interesting murals are the ones in which Stephen Powers comes very close to reenacting his graffiti roots. Some of works in Love Letter are painted on top of murals that were created by MAP at an earlier date and almost seem to be mocking them–or maybe just trying to show those older murals how it should be done.

The murals in Love Letter appear to be painted for our pleasure and enjoyment. They brighten up a depressed neighborhood while helping to point out the beauty in some of the old signs along the el. If you sit in the front car it is easy to imagine that you are on an art-roller coaster of some sort. I couldn’t be prouder to have such an amazing ride in Philadelphia, high-fives all round.

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  1. hacim
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Thanks Annette, great review. Always look forward to these, keep ‘em coming! Big Ups Steve, Big D’s MA.

  2. Posted October 25, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    great review beth! I’m totally going to plan this trip for next week. Your explanation for why many people do not like MAP is spot on and needs to be publicly expressed more often. The Powers work is a much needed departure from the committee based “beautification” that they seem to churn out.

  3. Posted October 25, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    and by Beth, i meant Annette! sorry!

  4. Posted October 26, 2009 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    Many of us are highly conflicted about Mural Arts program. On the one hand they employ about 400 artists (good) on the other hand much of what is painted on the walls of Philadelphia is quasi-religious uplift (not good). One of the best murals ever was Sarah McEneaney’s, on 12th St. in Chinatown north, a work that doesn’t exist anymore because the building was torn down. McEneaney, like Powers, was able to paint what she wanted — and she put up an image of her studio and her pets. The mural was a real painting and a real piece of art–like Powers’ mural.

    That Powers’ mural exists is a great move forward for Mural Arts. It must be said that though, that this mural was not financed in the typical MAP fashion–and that has made a difference. There’s more than $100,000 of PEI money in the project. If MAP can continue to have budgets like that for its murals we’ll all be singing its praises. But for that to happen, a sponsor or underwriter needs to come on board with the big bucks.

  5. Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Hey David–

    Beth designed the site and deserves some props anyways!

    Hey Roberta-

    Thanks for mentioning PEI, for some reason when I was writing the review I just didn’t know where to put that piece of information.

  6. Zoe Strauss
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Love Letter is amazing.

  7. Posted November 3, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Re: Roberta’s comments on MAP, I am still hoping for a Sol Lewitt -style muralist to hit the streets. That would make my day, though may not lessen the protests.

  8. Posted November 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Annette, I will be sure to do this. I also have never taken the train that way….

  9. Posted January 3, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    can i still do this?!

One Trackback

  1. By Philadelphia City Paper on October 27, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    [...] Review a Month road the blue-line from Girard to 63rd and back just to get a glimpse of Love Letter, the clever and sometimes naughty Mural Arts Project piece. [...]

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