“The Gritty City”: The Art Enriching Philadelphia’s Streets

The City of Brotherly, Street Art, Love.

Philadelphia street art. UNSPLASH Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez
Philadelphia street art. Image by @joseantoniogall from Unsplash

Unofficially dubbed the “Birthplace of Graffiti,” much of Philadelphia’s social movements are influenced by its public art forum. With many unique works of art beautifying the city’s streets, street art thrives in Philly for one reason: artistic expressionism. The people’s love of art fuels the vibrant and historically-refined culture of its street art community. I interviewed Eric Dale – tour guide, photographer, writer, graphic designer, and street art enthusiast – to find out more about what makes Philadelphia’s street art so great.

JST: How long have you been a part of the street art community?

Eric: I’ve only been giving tours on Airbnb for a year. But I’ve been assisting and participating in street art tours for maybe two years. I first started taking notice of and photographing street art heavily at the beginning of 2017. So, for about four years.

JST: What was your introduction into the street art community, and was it your move to Philadelphia that expedited your interests?

Eric: It was definitely my move to Philly. I grew up in Virginia, essentially the suburbs of D.C.; it was just residential neighborhoods, so there was no art community on the street to speak of. When I moved to Philly, seeing all the art around really struck me and captured my attention because it was something I’ve never experienced. I was really drawn to stickers, in particular. Not really sure why, probably because of their prevalence.

I like to say that Philly is known for its murals. If you like murals, great. But, if you appreciate sticker art, there’s art on literally every corner. Stickers kind of turn the city into a whole scavenger hunt.

El Toro, Bob Will Reign, and Morg, with a tag by AntEater
El Toro, Bob Will Reign, and Morg, with a tag by AntEater. PHOTO Eric Dale

JST: It’s interesting that you mentioned stickers; they seem to be a very underrated form of public art.  

Eric: I think so too. Philly reps stickers hard because the sticker art scene originated here with Bob Will Reign and El Toro. These artists, independently of each other, started creating stickers around the same time. They’re both still active, but neither lives in Philly anymore. They come back here ever so often and put up stickers whenever they’re around. Philadelphia has very much kept up the tradition that they started; hand-drawn, hand-cut stickers. This style is very character-driven and tends to be pretty colorful; that’s why I noticed it because they’re so distinctive!

I’ve been to other cities before, and their sticker scenes are much more mass-produced. They’re usually done on vinyl or just drawn tags. Stickers and graffiti definitely have a lot of overlap, but stickers themselves are a whole different culture. There’s definitely a sub-set culture of sticker art where it’s all about repetition, iteration, and experimentation.

JST: Do you primarily give tours through Airbnb?

Eric: The street art tours that I run are through Airbnb Experiences, but people are also welcome to contact me directly for tours. Which I would welcome because the way Airbnb does experiences means that if just one person signs up, I have to do the experience. So that’s why the tickets are $40. I wish I could charge $10 or $15, but I can’t give a single person a one-hour tour for that cheap of a price. But Airbnb does offer a discount if you book with a group.

JST: Through your website and other affiliations, I see that you are a photographer, interviewer, and blogger of many things, including: street art. But I haven’t seen anything about you participating in the creation of street art. What do you consider yourself? An artist through photography? Or more of a historian of Philadelphia street art? 

Eric: No, I don’t consider myself an artist. Ethnographically speaking, I don’t know if I’d even consider myself a participant observer; I consider myself an observer and a facilitator. I really like supporting the artists who are making street art. Interviewing them elevates their stories and work; I enjoy putting on shows to help them sell their work to people and connect with fans.

I don’t make street art myself; the only artist action I take related to street art is photographing it. That is one of my skills; I’m a professional photographer, among other things. So, I take good photos of street art, but I don’t consider that art so much as documentation in the historical aspect that you’re talking about.

2Saulty4u, Aviz, Bines, Blur, CAEM, Delicious Trash, Dmize, Frol, Masck, McVillainy, stikman, Tool, Two One, The Duck, and others
2Saulty4u, Aviz, Bines, Blur, CAEM, Delicious Trash, Dmize, Frol, Masck, McVillainy, stikman, Tool, Two One, The Duck, and others. PHOTO Eric Dale

JST: What is it about graffiti/public art that draws you so much to it? For you, what makes it worth chronicling?

Eric: Boy, I have a lot of answers to that! For one, I just personally enjoy it; it’s almost like a collection to me; whether it’s my favorite artists or a variety of artists. I sort of have a collectors brain; I collect coins, minerals, fossils. I just love collecting things! I was even a geology major in college. It’s like a hobby, collecting photos of street art.

For some artists, it’s their early work that maybe they aren’t photographing or don’t have high-quality pictures of. If I, or others in the photography community, don’t capture, it will just be lost. They might grow to be world-renowned artists, and their early work is totally obliterated because they started out on the street, and no one documented it. I like to think of it as a form of record-keeping and archiving.

When I started, there were probably two or three Philadelphia photographers known for photographing and documenting street artists, they were beginning to slow down or stop. So, I’m sort of filling a hole that was previously occupied by other photographers who aren’t as active anymore. While this wasn’t the reason why I started photographing and posting art to Instagram, it’s part of the reason why I continue to do so.

For many artists, street art is about joy, sharing, and making the community a prettier and happier place. By me photographing and posting it, it helps contribute to that cause; and that’s certainly a cause I can get behind!

JST: You offer a lot of creative consulting through your personal business. How has that helped you grow your tour/ get connections within the community?

Eric: Well, it’s really a virtuous cycle where meeting anyone who is also in a creative business leads to new connections, new clients. I have designed a website for an artist that I’ve interviewed. I met one of my clients through a tour that my friend was giving. The community-building aspects of it are most important to me as a small business owner. Knowing the people near me and their needs is how I can connect with them and best serve them.

Hysterical Men
Hysterical Men. PHOTO Eric Dale

JST: I see that you’re also affiliated with another street art publication, streetsdept.com. Do you just write for them, or do you also officiate tours with them?

Eric: Yes, I contribute to Streets Department, that website hosts my street art interview series, but I contribute stories and photos to it as well. The guy that runs it is named Conrad Benner, he also gives tours. Conrad hasn’t given a tour lately because of COVID, but he gave monthly tours during the good weather seasons for the past two years! He does them in different neighborhoods in Philly, and sometimes I’ll tag along. We’ll be walking, and he’ll point to something and go, “Eric, do you have anything to say about that?” and most of the time I do, hahaha!

JST: Do you know the artists that you feature? How do you typically curate your tour?

Eric: For the tours, I try to focus on density. I give the tours in a neighborhood where there is generally a lot of art. There are many stops on the tour where the art is permanent/semi-permanent, so I know there’s consistent work. But pretty much every tour I give, there’s always something that makes me go, “Oh! That wasn’t here last time!” It could be an interesting new sticker or a wheatpasting. That’s always the fun part about giving tours; that’s what street art is all about. It’s ephemeral. You have to see it before it’s gone; that adds a lot of excitement surrounding street art.

On the last tour I gave, we actually ran into a muralist installing a mural! I had never met him, but I knew who he was and the work he was putting up. So, I just went up to him and asked, “Are you THE Adam Crawford?” he said yes! I told him I was doing a tour and asked if he would give us a few words about the piece he was working on. After, I promised my tour that he wasn’t planted there on purpose, hahaha! So, whoever’s work ends up on the route I talk about. Some of them I’ve met, some of them I haven’t. But most of the people I’ve met were because I interviewed them. I’ve done 22 interviews now, they’re all Philly-based artists. My series is called “Philly Street Art Interviews.” But other than that, I’ll usually meet artists through events.

View from Philadelphia Rail Park; part of Mural Arts Philadelphia Philadelphia Mural Art. Flickr Catherine D Kerr
View from Philadelphia Rail Park; part of Mural Arts Philadelphia Philadelphia Mural Art. Image by @Catherine D. Kerr from Flickr

JST: Mural work seems to be the most popular/ draw in tourism. But in researching Philadelphia’s street art, it appears that the style is a lot more eccentric than just simple mural-based work. What do you think is fueling that unorthodox style? Does it influence other modes of public art creation? 

Eric: That’s something I’ve asked artists in my own interviews! Philly’s mascot is literally named “Gritty,” and I think it fits; Philadelphia is a gritty city. There are “weird” people here doing their “weird” things, which gives the city a lot of its character. I think that there’s also less of a culture of competition. I’ve heard of other artists that do some work in New York. They’ll often say that New York is much more about “this is my spot,” “this is my work,” “this is me me me,” and less of sharing space or collaborating with other artists. I can’t confirm this first-hand, but I’ve been told that Philly is a more collaborative and friendly environment.

I think it’s also a lot easier for artists to get started here for a couple of reasons. The first being the general attitude I mentioned. But secondly, Philly is a pretty cheap city to live in, which means more types of people can create around here. They don’t have to spend their whole paycheck on supplies. Philadelphia also isn’t as dense, population-wise, as NYC is. Maybe there’s less chance of being caught? There are definitely institutions in Philly that support public art in general or street art more specifically. Our Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is world-renowned and has made us into the mural capital of the world! Small organizations like Paradigm Art Gallery have supported many street artists through the years by giving them an actual gallery show-space to put their work up. There are a lot more organizations that have come and gone through the years. We have Tattooed Mom, a bar that is the most supportive of street artists from all around the world, not just Philly! 

JST: I see through AirBnB that you tend to keep your tour in one centralized location. Do you ever find yourself wanting to go towards other areas of the city?  

Eric: I give the tour close to where I live, because of convenience. I’m always around that location, so I can more easily stay on top of what is going on. If I moved, then I would probably start giving them in that location. I just don’t have the wherewithal right now to create another tour somewhere else, list it on Airbnb, and then manage both tours simultaneously. It’ll be a little too much right now. But anytime I’m in another neighborhood, I always have an eye out for new work, new artists – even the same work from old artists that I just never seen before.

Sometimes that makes me a bit of a nightmare to walk around the city with. I’m always craning my neck looking at everything! Every sign, all the sides of buildings, every pole, just always looking around and observing everything I see. Sometimes that makes it hard to get from point A to point B because I’m always tuned into my surroundings when it comes to art, hahaha!

An old @joeboruchow wheatpaste. INSTAGRAM @ericinphilly
An old @joeboruchow wheatpaste. INSTAGRAM @ericinphilly

JST: Also, does the historical part of Philly have its share of public art or is that area kept to its historical accuracy?

Eric: There are very few places in Philly where there is nothing; no stickers, no tags, no wheatpaste, no installations, no murals. But it’s all relative; if you’re talking about Independence Mall, then yes, there won’t be much street art around that area. But graffiti tends to require a little more privacy, a little more space, and so graffiti is always gonna be off the beaten path. Especially more than other forms of art because graffiti is so widely regarded as bad or illegal and punishable. I know artists who were putting up wheatpastings, and police officers came up to ask what they were doing and then left them alone. That’s why some artists choose the medium of wheatpastings; it’s not as illegal-looking during installation. The medium itself comes with a lot of privilege. But that’s definitely something that’s changed over the past 20-30 years. Street art has become a lot more widely accepted and appreciated, not criminalized as much as it used to be.

JST: Do you think taggers / typical graffiti writers are less respected within the street art community?

Eric: First of all, it’s important to make the distinction between street artists and graffiti writers. There’s overlap, but for the most part, these are two separate worlds; two distinct categories. Most writers wouldn’t take too kindly to being lumped in with “street artists.” Amongst the general public, I don’t think writers get as much respect as street artists do. But in terms of respect within the broader art community, I think that street artists and writers are roughly on equal footing. As a whole, I believe that most artists working in most mediums respect other artists working in other mediums

The biggest area where there are some clashes is when graffiti writers tend to be very protective of their craft. In turn, they are very protective of tradition. Anyone, whether they’re a writer or another artist, who isn’t seen as protecting those traditions and maybe trying to create art for the wrong reason / in a disrespectful way, will get torn apart pretty quickly. I know an artist had to apologize for a “rookie” mistake to community members.

But for the most part, writers in Philadelphia understand that in the public’s and in the law enforcement perspective of street art, they’re sort of on the bottom of the totem pole. It’s been so rare that I see a mural with graffiti on it. They understand that murals are on the top of the totem pole, that if you mess with them, you’re gonna get in trouble.

Funny enough, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program started in the 80s-90s as an “anti-graffiti” program! The Mural Arts was basically founded to reclaim the space usually taken up by graffiti so that there wouldn’t be as much of it in one space.

Philadelphia street art
Philadelphia street art. Image by @fredymartinez from Unsplash

JST: In your time working in the street art community, how has it evolved, and what has changed? Especially with the chaos-bomb of 2020, has art mirrored Philly’s social movements?  

Eric: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the degree to which the city is painting over stuff. The correct term for that is “buff.” Buffing is basically painting over, scraping, or generally removing street art. A lot of artists here tell me that the buff is getting harder. Instead of painting over a tag, the city takes down the whole sign and replaces it with a new one. It’s nice for newer artists in terms of space, but for older artists, it’s a signal that someone is watching that spot, that you’re more likely to get buffed if you’re on a random sign because you stick out like a sore thumb.

Another change is what people are reacting to. Street art can be very therapeutic for artists. Many of them use it to comment about what’s going on with their lives, the world. When significant social shifts are going on or, you know, tyrants in power, people react very strongly to that. I can name several artists who started making street art because they couldn’t stand not screaming at the top of their lungs about injustice. I think that street art has reacted to the level of political nonsense that has been happening in this country. But again, I don’t think it’s some sort of long-term shift. It’s just that street art is a reactionary, ephemeral, time-sensitive thing. So, when things are happening, the art is going to reflect it.

JST: In terms of “buffing,” I’m assuming that mural work does not get buffed as much as other mediums of public art. Is that the case in Philly?

Eric: Well, typically, mural work is commissioned work. Therefore, they’re legal and more desired; they usually don’t get buffed. I kind of feel like there’s no such thing as an “illegal mural.” If you are doing an illegal mural, you at least have the wall owner’s permission, be it the private business, city, or both. Graffiti gets buffed the most, and probably wheatpastes get buffed the least.

M Peach Him tiles by Bucket
M Peach Him tiles by Bucket. PHOTO Eric Dale

JST: You must have seen at least the tail-end of the last election and how art was versus this past election. Is there a similarity between the styles influenced by these past elections? I know “VOTE” murals are growing increasingly popular during election years.

Eric: Comparing the two, I think it’s weird to differentiate. Last election, the expectations of the outcome were the same as this time, but the actual results were different. So, the first time around, I don’t remember a lot of action beforehand. It was much more of a “holy sh*t what went wrong” reaction after the fact that eventually erupted into the streets. There was a powerful reaction to the mismatch of expectation versus reality.

This time around, we all said, ‘Okay, we’re pretty sure we know who’s going to win,’ and we were right. Still, I don’t know if enough time has passed to certainly say the community’s reaction now that it’s over. But leading up to the election, the art was pretty focused and blunt because people are sick of this, and he [Trump] needed to go. Similarly, there was a whole bunch of stuff happening during the impeachment. But I think this time around, it was tempered by the pandemic, causing people to not go out as much and aren’t putting up new work as much as they would have been. I haven’t been going out that much to see new work, so I’m interested to see the reaction of this election once the dust settles. 

JST: COVID-19 has definitely thrown a wrench in virtually everyone’s lives. With people not going out as much, how has COVID affected the artists? Is the police presence still as strong as before, or is there more privacy now?

Eric: Honestly, I really don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to interview someone in six months! We used to do the interviews at Tattooed Mom, but now that can’t happen. It’s been a bizarre time.

But what I do know is that within the past few months, graffiti increased. With no one on the streets, and especially with all of the Black Lives Matter protests, tons of new wall spaces made up of boards and continuously closed shutters became new canvases for a graffiti writer to utilize. I’ve talked to a few people who tell me to check out Center City because it looks just like it did in the 80s! A lot of that has been buffed out now, but there was definitely an uptick initially.

English Sparrows by Evan Lovett of VURT
English Sparrows by Evan Lovett of VURT. PHOTO Eric Dale

JST: Where would you like it to see the trajectory of Philly’s street art, and what improvements would you like to see? 

Eric: I hope that the city and the people who call the city to report street art become more accepting of and bigger fans of street art and graffiti. Things continually being painted over and scraped off are a real drag. It changes where people go to paint; most artists won’t go to Center City to put up work anymore because they always say, “if I put up a piece here, what’s the point if it’s only going to last a week.” They’re not going to waste their time on something with zero longevity. So, it’s kind of driving artists out of Center City and more towards the less populated, more residential areas, and there lies the two-part reason why stuff gets buffed. The city views it as illegal, ugly, and bad, but they’re not the ones patrolling the streets searching for it; it’s the people who live there that patrol and report the art they see. I would love for both of them to relax a little bit and see the value and benefit of street art. To the individual artists that create it as a means of therapy/personal expression and to the benefit and enjoyment it provides to the people who see it, it could launch careers.

I know at least half a dozen muralists in Philly who started out as graffiti writers and now do full-time, professional, large-scale commission pieces! People are always amazed when I tell them that. There’s one-stop on my tour of a mural depicting two English sparrows. I always tell people that the artist who created this started out as a graffiti writer but now has his own mural company. That piece took six hours; people never realize why some muralists are so quick. It’s because when they started out, they had to learn to paint their tag incredibly fast to not get caught! It’s a handy skill to have, which means he could do more work in less time.

JST: Where can our readers find you and your work?

Eric: I like variety, so it’s hard for me to answer that question because I do various things. Anyone who wants to see Philly street art through my eyes should check out my street art focused Instagram account, @ericinphilly. If you are interested in graphic design and photography, then go to my website, ericdalecreative.com. Visiting Philly and want to do a tour to have an experience, you can book me through Airbnb. I also just announced my new Philly Street Art Hunt, you can find more details through @phillystreetarthunt on Instagram.

Daniella Fishman

Contributor

Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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