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A Love Letter for Philadelphia

By: Julie Gerstein | March 17, 2010

Steve Powers’ imprint is all over Philadelphia—20 blocks of the city, in fact. That’s where Powers, along with a team of 25 artists, conceived and developed his latest public art project, A Love Letter for You, spanning more than 50 city rooftops.

5221-25 Market Street

Powers, who grew up in Philly but now lives in New York, says he’s been thinking about doing the project for more than ten years, ever since he gave up street graffiti writing (under the name ESPO) for a more formal painting and lettering practice.

6100 Market Street

He conceived of the Love Letter project in the spirit of Cornbread, an early graffiti hero. Cornbread, he explains, wrote tags in order to attract the affections of his boyhood crush, a classmate named Cynthia. “He wrote all over the neighborhood. He wrote on every bus. He wrote over her locker,” explains Powers, and it’s a creative expression he stands by today. “Just spray painting ‘I love Mary’ connects with more people than a beautifully articulated ‘wild style’ train.”

5027 Market Street

The Love Letter project, he says, aims to “strip out the negativity and ego” associated with graffiti and “replace it with emotional content. All that graffiti is a longing just to be heard. Looking back, that was a simple thing to do … to connect it to love.”

5601 Market Street

The project’s messages of love are as diverse and beautifully complex as the lettering style in which they’re conveyed. Conceived by both Powers and his team, and submitted by city residents, the rooftops bear slogans like “forever begins when you say yes,” “if you were here I’d be home by now,” and, in one particularly Philly-esque sentiment, “prepay is on, let’s talk till my minutes are gone.” The murals’ messages are sweet, funny, sentimental and heartbreaking, all at once—their phrases serving as the city’s emotional exoskeleton. Where they could, Powers and his team incorporated existing signage and reworked traditional signs.

5101 Market Street

This isn’t Powers’ first sign painting project. In 2003 he and project partner Nason Smith took on Coney Island armed with a team of artists, rehabbing and reworking the boardwalk’s faded and stripped signs. And much like the Coney Island project, the Love Letter murals will stick around for a while, but eventually they’ll fade over time. “It’s important that this project fades,” says Powers. “This is fine art, and it fades and goes away.” It’s all part of the charm. “Maybe the next time you see a piece of graffiti that aggravates you,” he continues,“you’ll let it go.”