Stephen Powers Puts the Writing on the Wall

Photo by Anthony Rhoades

When the muralist and painter Stephen Powers was 15, his father left the family. The following year, in a fit of restlessness, Powers took to spraying “ESPO” on the rooftops in his West Philadelphia neighborhood. He liked the shape of the letters, though he had not yet decided what they meant. It was 1984, and his brother Larry, ten years older than him and now the man of the house, had one rule and it came down like a decree from the pope: Powers could get into any kind of trouble he wanted to out on the street, “But if you’re sloppy enough that the trouble comes home,” Powers remembers Larry telling him, “Then you’re not doing it right, and I’m going to kick your ass.”

Powers went along with Larry’s rule until he accidentally discovered a loophole. One night, he painted a roof along the commute of Larry’s girlfriend (a woman he later married). Over dinner at a steak and burger joint a few days later, she said she recognized Steve’s ESPO tag, written in big, colorful letters. She told him that she really liked it and wanted to know all about it. Powers was shocked. “It was in violation of the cardinal rule about stuff not coming home,” he says. But he also sensed that his brother, seeing his girlfriend’s excitement, had to briefly suspend his prohibition. “I didn’t bring trouble home,” Powers remembers, “I brought triumph home.” Even now, years since he gave up his life as a rooftop vandal to paint on walls with permission and a mechanical lift, Powers considers that night the moment that wed him to work where everyday passersby could see him.

Of course, like any artist of ambition, Powers also delights in the elevation of status offered by more rarefied spaces like museums and galleries. “When I finally run into Matisse at the afterlife bar,” he told me, “I want to have something to show him.” Magazines from the alt-culture monthly Juxtapoz to more traditional publications like Artforum have praised his indoor work on tin and aluminum. And, despite slim academic credentials — he dropped out of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 1992 after a few semesters — he won a Fulbright grant to paint murals with troubled Irish youth in 2007 based on the strength of his studio pieces, including paintings in the Venice and Liverpool biennials. The following year, the influential curator Jeffrey Deitch, who helped Powers transition from graffiti to art at the turn of the century, told the New York Times, “Steve is someone who has reshuffled the deck.”

On an evening in late March, Powers, who lives in the West Village but spends much of his time at his sign shop on the edge of Park Slope, sat in the Strand Book Store before a sold-out crowd huddled among the old volumes of the rare book room. Those in the back could only see a pair of legs poking out from behind a large white column. Powers has a dedicated niche of fans for his studio work and public art projects, and many of them carried The Art of Getting Over in their hands, a 1999 book Powers wrote on graffiti that his acolytes consider a kind of bible. “If I was really playing the game as hard as I could,” he told them, “I’d only be doing gallery-based work.” Nevertheless, Powers lamented that galleries lack the populist approbation he has always desired, and he admits painting legally diminished some of the raw thrill of working outside.

While his smaller pieces can now sell for as much as $20,000, Powers says he has not cast off the feeling that he should put up his markings where ordinary people can see them as they shuffle from work to home and back again — even if that work pays little or nothing. During his talk at the Strand, he noted that he had painted murals onto the walls and columns of the bookstore for free. He added that in cities with smaller budgets for the arts, when he can’t get grants for his projects, he does the work anyway. For Powers, every mural on a busy thoroughfare holds the possibility of opening an unexpected avenue of approval, like the one he found in his brother’s girlfriend more than two decades ago.

At the ICY Signs shop on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, Powers paints a piece he hopes to show in a gallery.

Now in his 40s, Powers’s art and demeanor, much like the culture of middle-class youth in Brooklyn today, has welded the jagged irony of the 1990s slackers he grew up with to the quaint but shrewd entrepreneurialism of an artisan butcher. Newly developed Brooklyn neighborhoods, especially in formerly industrial areas like Greenpoint and the Tech Triangle (the Navy Yard, Downtown Brooklyn, and DUMBO), are filling up with the type of companies that, like Powers, promote a slow-moving DIY ethos and the virtues of popular support. Etsy, the online store for handmade crafts where even the smallest business can push its wares, has its corporate headquarters in DUMBO, and the crowdfunding website Kickstarter recently moved into a pencil factory in Greenpoint. Powers and his hand-painted-sign shop and artistic outlet, ICY Signs, on Fourth Avenue, fit right into this landscape. When he makes his public murals, he often incorporates the literal words of locals he’s spoken to, like a filmmaker on Kickstarter offering supporters a walk-on role.

In 2004, before Peter Eleey became curator and associate director of MoMA PS1, Eleey worked for the public art organization Creative Time, where he helped Powers assemble a group of artists to paint signs for business owners on Coney Island. In an essay about Powers’s post-graffiti public work, Eleey calls Powers “a traveling salesman for the social media age.” Powers doesn’t really disagree with Eleey’s metaphor. At the Strand event, he told the audience, “As an artist, all I’m doing is marketing products. Instead of shoes or sneakers, I’m going to market things like pain, struggle, humor, sarcasm — create a set of emotional products, create a set of things you can’t buy in stores, but that artists sell every day of their lives.”

Recently, Powers has taken to painting — or selling, to use his abstract sense of the word — what he calls “love letters” on walls and rooftops in Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa. He collected photographs of these letters and stories of his trials and errors in public art for the book A Love Letter to the City, published around Valentine's Day of this year with Eleey’s essay as the preface. Much of Powers’s work, especially his love letters, takes inspiration from advertisements, using the pull of familiar brands and signage to draw his audience toward his art. In São Paolo, Powers mimicked the designs of Brazilian junk food wrappers and subbed in the monikers of the locals he met for brand names. “Stripping out the commercial and stripping in the emotional,” he likes to say, describing his particular type of commerce.

Powers has splashed whole conversations and phrases he’s gathered across overpasses in Syracuse, on the roofs he once vandalized in West Philly, and along the concrete expanses of the Macy’s parking garage in Downtown Brooklyn. He told me that while he tries to keep his artistic “accent” out of his murals, his public work is distinctly his in every city he visits. When he turns his audience and their words into something like an enormous advertisement, into a brand they can buy back from him with their admiration and approval, it makes his personal expressions easier to sell. Like the new class of young entrepreneurs arriving in Brooklyn every year, Powers depends on being well-liked. “If it’s done with care and it’s done with as much charity and verity as possible, then maybe, if I’m lucky, and if I do it right, if I’m smart and I’m good and I’m talented, they will take ownership of it,” he told me, “The people who live on the block will say ‘Oh, it looks like it belongs here. And I feel like it belongs here and I’m glad it’s here.’”

On a recent afternoon, Powers came by his shop to talk with me about his work and the history of contemporary public art. Wearing mustard-yellow pants and a black Lacoste shirt pulled over a sky-blue polo, he walked by a table and looked disapprovingly over some tiles that he had sent out to be fired by a local potter. “I think we got to go somewhere else,” he said to his assistant. “Tell that guy to kick bricks.” Powers is adept at using candor and humor to build trust with whomever he’s engaging and his art operates in a similar way. But alongside the geniality one senses the calculated resolve of any businessman. Toward back of the shop, Powers had hung a canvas in a glass frame that read “EVERYTHING IS SHIT,” and underneath it, in smaller cursive, “Except you Love.”

Powers believes that public art changed in the culture wars of the 1980s, as he and many public arts institutions came of age. In an essay for a 2005 book put out by the New York City’s public art program, Percent for Art, the critic Eleanor Heartney writes that in the ’80s, there was a “sea change in the thinking about how art should relate to the lives of ordinary people” and that “artists and art institutions were increasingly dedicated to public outreach and organization.”

In the introduction to his book Art and the Public Sphere, art historian W. J. T. Mitchell writes that before the 1980s, public artists mainly contended with bureaucrats from institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts and the now-defunct Federal Art Project for resources from unreliable public coffers. Through grant applications and meetings with city and federal officials, part of their work as public artists involved encouraging the wheels of government to help roll out their beautiful intentions. But beginning in the ’80s, Mitchell argues, art, especially public pieces and art supported by public funds, became the subject of intense social scrutiny. Many of the works that historians now regard as essential to any book on the history of twentieth-century art were relentlessly attacked.

The public and politicians debated whether tax-paying Americans should support sculptures that most people found opaque. Many Republicans demanded to know why they should fund pieces like Maya Lin’s bleak Vietnam Veterans' Memorial or Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of himself with a bullwhip in his anus, part of a show that went up with the help of $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Reagan administration began questioning the idea that the federal government should give money to the arts at all. Artists interested in winning the approval of the citizenry had to operate more like marketing executives, pitching an acceptable vision of their work — and themselves — directly to the masses to circumvent a political process that had turned against them.

Social concerns started to remake the purpose of art, and artists, rather than seeking to broach some arcane truth, made work designed to appeal to larger swaths of people. “I feel the world is now in such bad shape that the interior liberty of the artists is a pretty trivial area,” the public sculptor Scott Burton explained to the New York Times in 1986. “Communal and social values are now more important.” He went on, “The important thing is to make art that is intelligible to a non-art audience.”

The three framed pictures above, with allusions to both advertising and sign painting, are typical of Powers’s work. Below are cans of enamel paint, which Powers uses on tin surfaces.

Three decades later, with Powers and many other artists often relying on social media to promote their work, the specter of mass appeal looms larger than ever. More and more artists are playing with the easy global reach that the Internet offers and making art that stimulates the simple sensibilities of everyday netizens. In March, multimedia artist Jordan Wolfson installed a scantily clad animatronic woman at the David Zwirner gallery in Manhattan and attached her circuitry to the wall through a mirror. Only one or two gallerygoers were allowed to watch her at a time. The work has no doubt been seen more on social media than in person. The street artist Banksy has spent his career making work seemingly designed to go viral, from the images of scenic views he painted on the border wall that separates Israel from the West Bank in 2005 to the YouTube video he posted last year of terrorists shooting Dumbo the elephant out of the sky.

Powers’s idea of his role in this artistic landscape is pragmatic and self-aware. “I remember that public art was this thing where, the artist is right and the public has to deal with it,” he says. “And then the public got organized and said we are going to deal with it. By making you remove it.”

For Powers, as for Mitchell, and public art institutions like Creative Time and the city’s Percent for Art fund, the bellwether moment came with the demands to get rid of Richard Serra’s 1981 sculpture “Tilted Arc” from a federally owned plaza near City Hall. The General Services Administration had commissioned Serra, after a lengthy review process, to install the sculpture, a 70-ton wall of rusted steel. But people who wanted to hold public events or cut quickly across the space hated the piece, which they saw as irksome and overly highbrow. “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing,” Serra said at the time, “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.” The wall came down eight years later.

The controversy touched the art world on every level, especially for those working outside of private museums and galleries. Ego-driven work was on the run. Powers now looks back on the controversy with faint admiration for both sides. “I understand the phase we’re in now, where the public is saying ‘We’re right, and we’ll decide,’” Powers told me, “When I’m making art, I’m bringing the public into the conversation from the start. As an artist, I don’t even care anymore. What I’m interested in is talking to the public and then getting a pulse and then visually representing that pulse.”

Michael Cetera, an amiable Brooklyn architect in his late 60s, has spent more than four decades advising the New York City government on public art, and his memories tell a story of a city in the midst of continual financial and aesthetic renewal. As a young draftsman, Cetera worked with tunnel designers who had been screwing the bolts of city infrastructure into place since the ’30s and ’40s, when the federal government hired artists all over the country to paint scenes and build sculptures to adorn public buildings in otherwise dismal areas. The old-timers instilled in him an appreciation for pieces from the golden era of public art, like the sculpted scenes of men twisting beams and lowering pipes that decorate the Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant in Astoria. “It faces Berrian Boulevard, a dead-end street used by nobody but people who are dumping illegal construction waste and prostitutes. It smells like hell, because it’s a sewage treatment plant. And on the wall is this ode to sewage treatment,” he says.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I met him at a clam bar in Sheepshead Bay, where he sat munching on fried calamari. He wanted to show me something on the waterfront, so we crossed the street and walked up to a chunky lamppost that rose a few feet over our heads. The city had commissioned an artist to design the post, in the wake of “Tilted Arc,” during a turn toward “utilitarian art” in the ’80s and ’90s. The “Tilted Arc” fiasco had sped on other public art controversies, like the battle in 1991 that surrounded John Ahearn’s bronzes of black youth from the Bronx. (Many called the sculptures racist, though Ahearn cast them with molds made from living people.) Chafed officials seemed to prefer pieces that could hide in plain sight. In the late ’90s, the Percent for Art program selected Milo Mottola’s design of a carousel with animals based on the drawings of local children for installation on Riverside Drive. Art that the public could use made for an easier pitch in the halls of city government. But there’s a catch, Cetera said as we walked away from the lamp post, “It’s almost like you would never notice there was art here. That’s what I’ve been telling everybody. How do you do something with the public’s money that the public isn’t invested in?”

Cetera also sits on Brooklyn’s Community Board 9 in Crown Heights, where he grew up. “Public art is the bottom of the list of what people are concerned about,” he told me. “They have other things on their plate. Their children’s schooling, hospitals, jobs, police protection, fire, sanitation pickups, potholes in the roads, the lights are out. When you come to a meeting and say, ‘public art’ — catch them on the wrong day, and they’ll throw pies at you.”

Powers at the sign shop. The sign behind him lists the surnames of people who work in the shop.

City officials, curators, and critics adopt economic language to discuss the difficulties surrounding public art, as does Powers. They often talk about convincing people to take “ownership” over the pieces they place on walls and in courtyards around the city. In A Love Letter to the City, Powers recounts the exhausting town hall meetings he reluctantly held to “sell” West Philadelphians on his love-letter project. “Regardless of where you live, we are all here because of love,” he told the crowd of Philadelphians, who had asked him why he hadn’t come to fix the cracks in the sidewalk, “The love I put on these walls will speak to your sons and daughters in a way that no one else is speaking to them, and even if they have no love in their own lives, they will know love exists.” This little bit of patter laid the groundwork, but the real sale lay ahead of him, on the street.

Jane Golden, the head of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia (previously a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network), collaborated with Powers on the project and pushed him into the meetings. The community experience took priority over the quality of the art. After a little goading, Golden says, Powers worked overtime to draw the community in. She tells me that Powers handed out roses in a local park, went door-to-door to talk to people, and kept negotiating with them even after he had begun to make his murals. Powers listened to anyone peddling an opinion. “People would say, ‘Well, I don’t like that.’ Or, ‘That’s corny.’ And he would say, ‘Well, what are you thinking?,’ ‘What do you want?’” she recalls. While painting a wall on Market Street, a main artery in West Philly, Powers got as far as the word “Remember” before a woman shouted him down from his diesel-powered lift to express her distaste for his design. Her own idea for the mural didn’t pass muster either, so he turned and asked a child wandering by to come up with something better. “Remember, sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn’t,” the 12-year-old quickly suggested, and the sentence went up on the wall in black lettering on a painting of a enormous yellow Post-it note.

The middle child in a Catholic family of six children, Powers was raised by a mother who taught math and religion at a nearby private school and a father who worked as an electrical engineer. As a young adolescent, Powers set his sights on cartooning. But, by his late teens, he felt life as a cartoonist would be poor and miserable and instead decided to follow the path of graffiti-inflected artists like Keith Haring. A graffiti mentor of his in Philly known as Suroc encouraged Powers to read postmodern theory and taught him to appreciate European artists like Marcel Duchamp and John Heartfield. Becoming, as Powers later puts it, “a high-art vandal,” he conducted color studies and riffed off found materials, like candy-wrapper logos, to improve his tags.

No matter what his lofty motives might have been, his sisters always criticized Powers for his graffiti; his brother Larry, a union organizer, frequently scolded him. In high school, Powers and his friends walked bus routes and tagged walls and rooftops to get as much attention as possible, often competing with other writers for the best locations. “Occasionally, you could find a spot that people on the train and the highway and passing bridges could see,” Powers explained, “That’s it. That has the potential of reaching everybody.” But even the highest roof couldn’t satisfy him. He and his friends knew that the sun would wash away their graffiti or that the Anti-Graffiti Network would soon “buff” it over with brown paint. Wanting to preserve their work in print, Powers and his friends decided to start a graffiti zine, On the Go. Launched in 1989, the zine offered a movable surface that could last in a way even a rooftop near the busiest bus route never could. It also served to solidify their group.

Outside ICY Signs.

But Powers still wanted to go higher. He had begun to use On the Go as a platform to push the positive side of graffiti culture and he wanted to spread the word, so, in 1994, he decamped to New York to establish a beachhead for a full-fledged magazine. The city held the promise of a larger audience, as well as more naysayers to confront and, hopefully, win over. He spent the next several years growing On the Go, encouraging an exchange of styles and methods between writers in cities hundreds of miles apart.

In the 2008 documentary Beautiful Losers, Powers strolls through Manhattan and explains the move from West Philly: “This is a really great mountaintop to yell your message from.” In New York, he told me, the crowd scenes in the television shows and movies that he watched as a kid swamped his imagination. “I’d be on Seventh Avenue in the ’90s and I’d think, ‘Hopefully there’s a camera recording and I’m in the shot right now.’” In his graffiti, as in his public art, Powers seems to long for a sense of presence and attention. Every time a graffiti writer throws their tag up on a wall, it tells a story, Powers explains in his introduction to The Art of Getting Over: “It’s a short story: ‘I was here.’”

Unlike many graffiti artists, Powers seems to have cared less and less for his anonymity as his career progressed. After all, it was being found out that first earned him a bit of approval from his brother. At a 1996 Christmas party for the hip-hop zine ego trip, Powers made a $20 bet to see if he could go to every borough and write graffiti in the middle of the day. He left his spray cans at home and began covering scrawled-over grates with a bucket of paint and a brush, often in full view of the cops.

Writing in Graffiti Lives, the subculture ethnographer Gregory Snyder describes how one winter day in 1998, the owners of a restaurant in Queens watched Powers painting the grates next door and came outside as if to chide him. Instead they asked, “When are you gonna paint our grates?” No one raised a stink. Powers’s work kept getting bigger.

Painting an even surface with blocky lettering instead of the thin loops and curves of a typical graffiti tag, Powers made his work look like a clean-up job, in the style of the buffers employed by the Anti-Graffiti Network. Graffiti, like public art, had come under fire in the mid-1980s, and Powers and public artists found a similar way to help their work survive: they made it appear useful. He started telling people that ESPO stood for Exterior Surface Painting Outreach and, suddenly, despite the antagonistic policies of the Giuliani administration, ESPO had a meaning. It seemed, at least for a time, that he had sold his point of view — and the medium of graffiti — to the people of New York.

In 1999, Powers published The Art of Getting Over, which focuses on graffiti writers he admired, with pictures of their work and his. In the book, Powers is unapologetic about his work and politics, and he gently pokes fun at graffiti cops. After the book came out, he recalls, an NYPD van disguised as a Mr. Softee truck started to appear outside his apartment building. Later, during a radio interview, he encouraged people to throw fake elephant dung at a painting of the mayor in Washington Square Park to protest Giuliani’s lawsuit over the controversial Brooklyn Museum show Sensation. After the interview aired, police gathered bags of evidence from Powers’s house, including a pair of brass knuckles they identified as an illegal weapon, and arrested him. Powers faced a daunting four-year prison sentence, but the business owners whose grates he had painted wouldn’t press charges and he was let off with light community service. It took several years of fighting in court until the case closed.

Feeling besieged and exhausted and ready to grow up, Powers gave up graffiti. Despite Suroc’s insistence, he ultimately decided that the “ramp from the low-art back road of graffiti” to “the high-art highway” ultimately “never connected.” In the face of competition from larger magazines, On the Go folded. By 2000, Powers had entered his 30s and his profile as a public artist was starting to rise.

When Powers takes on locals as his muses, it seems to benefit his work. Many of his gallery pieces, untethered from community concerns, are cacophonous and disorderly; reminiscent of his early days spraying graffiti in Philadelphia, they look like several minds all competing for space, vandalizing each other. Most of the love-letter murals, on the other hand, project clear emotions in familiar shapes.

Powers’s style physically echoes the way people scribble the minutiae of their everyday lives online. His crowd-sourced murals place minor utterances on a platform anyone can see. Of course, society has enjoyed participatory art long before anyone plugged in a dial-up modems or set up a Twitter account. But as Anne Pasternak, the president and artistic director of Creative Time, explains, art audiences now more than ever want to have a hand in the making and evaluation of their art. “The intellectual hierarchy of cultural institutions is being challenged by audience expectations through social media,” she tells me.

Pasternak brought up the example of ArtPrize, an annual international art fair and competition that takes place in Grand Rapids, Michigan where visitors vote for their favorite art on a website. The winning artist gets a crowd-funded $200,000. Mainstream art critics describe much of the work produced for ArtPrize as low quality, but its popularity highlights the sense of intimacy and responsiveness a digitally engaged public demands of artists.

Powers knows his fans expect to see his work online and he regularly Instagrams his pieces. When one image landed on Instagram’s front page, a rooftop on a major digital artery, he quickly gained 40,000 followers. He held up his phone to show me his latest update, an image of arrows pointing to the word “YES” painted against a brick wall. He looked at his phone and smirked. “Nine hundred and ninety-eight likes,” he said, “Such a disappointment.”

To avoid toxic fumes from the enamel he uses to paint on metal, Powers wears a respirator mask.

I asked Powers how social media has affected the concerns of public artists. “If you do something creative enough that makes sense in the public realm and photographs well enough to go on the Internet, now you’ve got it all. The trick is to make art that works well in both contexts,” he said. He pointed to the French artist JR as a master of this method. JR finds people in economically depressed or politically repressive places, like the favelas of Brazil, and prints out enormous images of their faces to plaster in highly visible locations. He and his team then post these on a slick website. And, like Powers, JR believes his method is as important as his end result. He prefers that the people he photographs and their neighbors plaster his art on the walls where they live themselves.

In some sense, demands for participation, in politics as well as art, have been a part of the American imaginative landscape since the country was founded. Along with his work in the bureaucracy of municipal art, Cetera has also dipped into the early history of public art policy in America. He believes it began in 1776, a few days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when Washington’s soldiers marched from New York City Hall — a few blocks from where “Tilted Arc” would later rise and then fall — to Bowling Green park. There, in an act of participatory performance art, the soldiers pulled a statue of King George and his steed off its pedestal and melted the sculpture down for bullets.

After the war, when Washington became the president of a republic based on complicated notions of representation, the nobility of the common man, and a distrust of centralized power, the idea of erecting a statue of Washington on a horse to honor him did not sit easy with anyone. Neither did anything else proposed by elected officials.

On July 4, 1848, after decades of debate, Congress laid the cornerstone for a monument that involved a neoclassical temple with an elaborate colonnade and an obelisk rising out of the center. By the mid-1850s, the federal government managed to build half of the obelisk. The century nearly closed without a completed memorial, but in 1885, the Washington Monument opened its doors. As the historian Kirk Savage tells it, “an engineer working in virtual secrecy,” mindful of the debate but beneath its fray, scrapped the temple and outfitted the obelisk with a subterranean entrance and the latest technology, an elevator that took visitors from an obscured position in the ground to the top of the tallest structure in the world, giving you an expansive view of Capitol Hill. It was like an amusement park ride simulating the American dream.

Like the engineer of the Washington Monument, Powers has learned to keep his ear to the ground. A good salesman closes a deal, but he also makes sure his customer leaves happy. The purchase has to feel like it was the buyer’s decision.

When I first spoke with Powers over the phone, he explained the philosophy of his method: “Painting what I want to say, or what I’ve been thinking, I’ve done 25 years of that. But when I open up the microphone and try to be the soundboard for a person or groups of people, I get the most interesting results.”

But it’s often unclear whether this community-mindedness is an act — a populist tactic to get his name out there and gain approval — or a happy solution to this particular artistic moment. Sometimes his gestures toward community input seem like artistic satire. When he painted the Macy’s parking lot in Brooklyn, he only spoke to one person (albeit, a man who had lived on the block his entire life). In Syracuse, he sent out questionnaires on postcards and liberally reshaped the responses into content for his murals.

In spite of his protestations, his diverse methods demonstrate how his work is more than just a vessel for community expression. Pasternak thinks Powers lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between the single-mindedness of minimalist plop art and the communally conceived work of municipal art programs. “He’s meeting people, he’s listening very carefully to the community’s issues, but he’s not exactly designing the project with them. He still has a strong sense of what he wants to do from the get go,” Pasternak said.

Powers’s public work seems to bear this out. He sees the designs in the windows and billboards of the neighborhood, hears the conversations on the street, and distills what he gathers into an idealistic vision he thinks a community will like, but which he ultimately determines himself. As much as his work involves spreading paint on a wall, it is also made up of all the time he spends in person, on the street, debating and listening to his audience, hoping they’ll come to like him and what he paints, that they’ll see him and remember him.

For the cover of his most recent book, Powers selected a photograph of a rooftop in Philadelphia. He painted the whole scene to look like the magnets on a refrigerator door, as if to suggest anyone could climb up to the roof, change their ordering, and put together any phrase out of the materials that Powers had provided. To the left, he painted a mass of other jumbled letters he chose not to use. And while he took the phrase from a West Philly teenager, the letters are fixed in place, just where Powers wanted them to be. In the childlike coloring, typical of his work, there’s a simple message: “IF YOU WERE HERE ID BE HOME NOW.”

Neima Jahromi is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker. His writing has appeared in The Nation and on the website of the New Yorker. He lives in Bushwick.

Anthony Rhoades is a freelance photographer and the photo editor of /ONE/. He lives in Greenpoint.

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