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Stephen Powers (artist)

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Powers at work in 2010
Mural on the graffiti wall of VAIN Gallery in Seattle, Washington

Stephen J. Powers (born May 25, 1968) is a New York City artist who at one time wrote graffiti in Philadelphia and New York under the name ESPO ("Exterior Surface Painting Outreach").[1] ESPO is also an auditory acronym for Steve POwers.


An ESPO tag
Stephen Powers painted the walls of ALICE gallery for his solo show 'Visual Blues'
Stephen Powers painted the walls of ALICE gallery for his solo show 'Visual Blues'
Mural painting by Stephen Powers in Charleroi, 2014

Powers is from Philadelphia's Overbrook neighborhood; he graduated from Robert E. Lamberton High School in 1987 and took classes at The Art Institute of Philadelphia and the University of the Arts.[2] In 1994, he moved to New York with fellow writer and designer Ari Forman, in order to expand the reach of On the Go magazine.[3]


He was most well known during the late 1990s for his conceptual pieces as well as his role as the editor and publisher of On the Go Magazine.[4] ESPO's work often blurred the lines between illegal and legal. For example, pieces like "Greetings from ESPOLand" utilized the style of the Asbury Park Billboards and appeared to be a legitimate billboard. On January 4, 1997 ESPO began his most ambitious non-commissioned art.[1] He painted on storefront grates in Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, TriBeCa and the South Bronx, covering the entire grate with white or silver paint and then using black to make each grate into a letter in his name.[3] Powers painted in daylight, wearing street clothes; he told the New York Times in 1999 that when passersby asked what he was doing he would tell them, "I'm with Exterior Surface Painting Outreach, and I'm cleaning up this gate"; the official-sounding name, and clever acronym was enough to ward most people off.[3] Powers targeted shops that appeared to be out of business and grates that were already heavily vandalized. He described his graffiti as a public service,[3] and by 1999 said that he had painted around 70 grates.[3] He [...] has the kind of old school tenure in a reviled and illegal art form, and a brilliant legacy of innovation within a medium that makes him both an impeccable spokesman for, and paradigm of, graffiti art [5]


In December 1999 Powers was arrested at his home for graffiti vandalism after he had participated in a protest conceived by multimedia artist Joey Skaggs. The protest was against New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attempt to shut down the controversial art show "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum. Powers contends that the arrest was politically motivated.[6] A New York Times editorial criticized the Giuliani administration for its secrecy in the case, but dismissed Powers as "a noodge and self-promoter, one of those deliberately annoying characters whom most of us could do without."[7] The Village Voice sympathized with ESPO’s plight saying “it's truly scary to think that if you invite people to throw artificial dung at a portrait of the mayor—especially one that resembles the infamous Madonna, packing them in at the Brooklyn Museum — the police will raid your apartment. And if they spot a set of brass knuckles hanging on the kitchen wall, they will bust you for possessing a weapon.” However, the author was also critical of Power’s graffiti status, describing him as an egotistical, careerist "celebrity offender"; the author writes, "in the graffiti world...many consider Powers a media-fed simulation of the Real Thing."[8] Powers was charged with six counts of criminal mischief and he eventually accepted a plea bargain and performed five days of community service.[9]


In 2000 Powers gave up graffiti to become a full-time studio artist. His work has been shown at the prestigious Venice and Liverpool Biennials, as well as numerous shows at New York City's Deitch Gallery. In 2003, Powers designed the artwork for Tommy Guerrero's third studio album Soul Food Taqueria. In 2005 he curated "The Dreamland Artists Club", a project in which professional artists helped Coney Island merchants by repainting their signs. Powers first solo museum exhibition was in the fall of 2007, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts which showed much of the work he had been working on at his Coney Island sign shop.[9] The show attracted attention in New York and Philadelphia and in the beginning of December ESPO appeared on the cover of the art magazine Juxtapoz, where they wrote that, “In 10 years time, Stephen 'ESPO' Powers’ name will reside next to Crumb, Robert Williams, Basquiat, McGee and Warhol as those who truly changed the way art is defined and displayed. As 2007 comes to a close, we couldn’t think of a better artist to honor.”[1]

After viewers put a dollar in a reader the figure dressed as an interrogator poured water over the face of the captive, at which point the supine figure would thrash violently.

In 2008 he returned to Coney Island to create the Waterboarding Thrill Ride, a waterboarding themed installation meant to draw attention to America's policy on torture.[9]

Powers was a Fulbright scholar in 2007.[10] He used the grant to create murals in Dublin and Belfast's Shankhill area, with the assistance of local teenagers.[11] His work in Belfast was inspired by the area's political murals; Powers told the New York Times that he was "taking the form of the murals, which are insanely powerful for all the wrong reasons, and trying to retain some of the power and use it in a really good way.”[9]

Power’s most recent project is a mural project in Philadelphia about the complexities and rewards of relationships, titled A Love Letter for You. ESPO and his crew painted more than 50 murals along the elevated train along Market Street in West Philly. The project, sponsored by a $260,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, and produced by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, has generated positive reviews from both The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.[12][13]

Powers is also the author of a book on graffiti's history, The Art of Getting Over, published by St. Martin's Press in 1999, as well as the graphic novel, First and Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories, Villard Press, 2005.[14] ESPO’s exploits as a graffiti writer in the late 90s and his transition into a studio artist are documented in the 2009 book Graffiti Lives, by Baruch College assistant professor Gregory Snyder.[15]

In 2010, Powers painted four rail bridges above West and Fayette Streets, between downtown and the near west side Syracuse as a part of A Love Letter to Syracuse. “Before he ever put a brush to metal, he spent a lot of time listening to neighborhood residents as they described the way they see their hometown. Powers describes bridges as links, not only between pieces of land but also to past and future generations, and he wanted to show respect for Syracuse as it used to be.”[16] One of the bridges reads: “Spring Comes. Sumer Waits. Fall Leaves. Winter Longs.” The Subsequent bridge on Fayette Street: “I paid the light bill just to see your face” was inspired by the rusty, faded outline of an old light bulb, painted on the bridge long ago.[17] “A Love Letter to Syracuse” is a tribute, Powers wrote. It “is meant to be from Syracuse to Syracuse. We found, as we were painting it, it is also to industry, to the trains that pass over the bridges, to the act of painting hot steel in the summer, to collaboration, to polite drivers and especially to improvisation.” [17]

In 2011 Powers undertook his most ambitious project to date, A Love Letter to Brooklyn, consisting of painting a square city block in the middle of Downtown Brooklyn. The project was 11 months in the making and took roughly two weeks to execute covering the expansive seven story structure. "The piece was largely inspired by conversations he and his team of a dozen painters had with people passing by the parking garage. Powers also interviewed long-time Brooklyn resident David Villorente for the piece, who grew up in housing projects nine blocks away. It turned out this particular Macy's had a special resonance for Villorente. I found that when I worked in Coney Island in 2003 and '04 and '05 that really the strength was to go to the center of the community and broadcast out to the periphery as opposed to being at the periphery and trying to go towards the center," he said. "Once I understood what the city was thinking and feeling, then I could translate that and paint it on a wall."[18]

In 2012, Powers designed the artwork for JJ DOOM's album Key to the Kuffs.[citation needed] In 2013, Powers designed the album artwork for Kurt Vile's Walking on a Pretty Daze.[citation needed]

In 2014, Powers began painting a series of permanent and temporary large-scale murals at various locations in East Baltimore and Southwest Baltimore as a part of A Love Letter to Baltimore.[19]

On April 3, 2015, a mural by Powers was unveiled at The Carlton South Beach in Miami for the O, Miami Poetry Festival.[20]

Also in the summer of 2015, Powers worked with the Department of Transportation on thirty signs that were exhibited at four of the Summer Streets rest stops in New York City.[21] The signs display classic Powers work such as a pillow that reads “Home At Last,” a lighthouse that says ‘You,’ with its light shining on ‘Me,’ and a street pigeon wearing a chain and tag that reads, "Holler Back."

In November 2015, Powers was invited to create an exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition ran from November 20, 2015 to August 21, 2016. The installation was titled "Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull)".[22]


  • A Love Letter to the City (2014), Princeton Architectural Press, ISBN 978-1-616-89208-1


  1. ^ a b c Gregory J. Snyder, Graffiti Lives: Going Beyond the Tag in New York's Urban Underground, NYU Press, 2009
  2. ^ Hill, Miriam (2004-08-25). "Armed with paint, Overbook native returns local color to Coney Island; Phila. native works his colorful magic on Coney Island". The Philadelphia Inquirer. pp. D01.
  3. ^ a b c d e Siegal, Nina (1999-08-22). "From the Subways to the Streets". The New York Times. p. 3. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  4. ^ Gregory J. Snyder, "Graffiti Media and the Perpetuation of an Illegal Subculture", Journal of Crime Media and Culture vol. 2, April, 2006
  5. ^ Carlo, McCormick. "THE ICY SIGNS OF THE TIMES". Juxtapoz. Juxtapoz.
  6. ^ Siegal, Nina (1999-12-04). "Giuliani Protester Is Arrested in Vandalism Inquiry". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  7. ^ Purnick, Joyce (1999-12-06). "Curious Case Shows Pitfalls Of Secrecy". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  8. ^ Comments (0) By Richard Goldstein Tuesday, Dec 14 1999 (1999-12-14). "Rudy's Most Wanted". Retrieved 2010-03-22.
  9. ^ a b c d Kaminer, Ariel (5 August 2008). "Coney Island Sideshow Has Guantánamo Waterboarding as Its Theme". Retrieved 5 May 2017 – via
  10. ^ Toal, Drew (2005-10-30). "Club chair". Time Out New York. p. 1. Retrieved 2007-08-01.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ Koppel, Niko (29 May 2008). "Graffiti Artist Still Painting on Walls but No Longer an Outlaw". Retrieved 5 May 2017 – via
  12. ^ " - aloveletterforyou Resources and Information" (PDF). Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  13. ^ " - aloveletterforyou Resources and Information" (PDF). Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  14. ^ Siegal, Nina (2000-10-10). "Exhibit Becomes Opportunity for Arrest". The New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  15. ^ "Books - NYU Press". Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  16. ^ Kirst's, Sean. "'Summer waits': In Syracuse".
  17. ^ a b "'Summer waits': In Syracuse, Steve Powers, 'love letters,' and our iconic bridges". Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  18. ^ Fentress Swanson, Abbie. "ESPO Paints 'Love Letter to Brooklyn' on Vintage Macy's Garage".
  19. ^ "How to Paint a 'Love Letter' to a City". Retrieved 5 May 2017.
  20. ^ mgannon (16 February 2016). "O, Miami Spotlight: Stephen Powers Poetry Mural". O, Miami Spotlight: Stephen Powers Poetry Mural. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  21. ^
  22. ^ "Brooklyn Museum: Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull)". Retrieved 5 May 2017.

External links