Stephen Powers, the legendary graffiti writer and artist, spent a year painting 50 murals on the walls of West Philadelphia. He solicited notes from the inhabitants and hired local muralists to help him paint the murals.
The effort, produced in conjunction with City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and sponsored by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, was documented in a book. And now it is a movie. But it’s not a documentary.
About Stephen Powers
- New York City & Philadelphia based artist
- Wrote under the name "ESPO"
- Well known during the late 1990s for his conceptual pieces
- In 2000 Powers gave up graffiti to become a full-time studio artist
In “A Love Letter for You,” Powers, who wrote the movie, and director Joey Garfield blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by combining video footage of Powers (and his assistants) painting the murals with a plot scripted by Powers, involving a young graffiti writer who’s just out of prison and trying to figure out his life. The character is based on a graffiti writer Powers knows.
“He’s a dear friend of mine and most of the story is true in one form or fashion.” Powers said during a brief Q&A session after a screening of the film in Manhattan last week. “He’s been gone for three years now, he may be gone another four so we wanted to create something that would be working for him out here while he was locked up.”
The film, which has yet to land distribution, clocks in at around 60 minutes. Garfield worked with a small crew and amateur actors, including a security guard who was cast at the last minute. “He said, ‘I’m supposed to be watching you guys because of the trains and make sure everything’s okay,’” Garfield recalled. “I said, ‘You’re in it!’”
The post-screening Q&A also had a very relaxed vibe. The audience was mostly made up of family and friends. And Powers was in a playful mood.
Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time, a nonprofit that funds public art, asked why Powers chose to add the fictitious plotline instead of making a straightforward documentary.
The reason I decided to write a film is because I had never written a film before
“The reason I decided to write a film is because I had never written a film before,” he said, succinctly. “So, why not take these opportunities to practice and try new things. Sorry about that. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Garfield noted the original screenplay that Powers handed him was 400 pages long. “We trimmed it and trimmed it and trimmed it,” he said. Eventually, some of the dialogue was reworked on set in West Philadelphia, which serves as more than a backdrop.
In the movie, Powers comments on the decay of the area’s buildings. There were a few reasons behind the mural project – including as an homage to Cornbread, the city’s earliest graffiti king, who started writing graffiti as a way to get a girl’s attention – and one was to bring attention to a neighborhood that hasn’t had any.
“It’s brought people back to West Philly,” Powers explained in a serious moment during the Q&A. “It’s made it a destination and it’s fun to do that. We’ve done Coney Island, thanks to the great people at Creative Time. We like to put art back into communities and do things in communities and get people to go back to go to these communities.”
We’d like to do something in Brooklyn
When asked what’s the next community, Powers said, “Brooklyn. We’d like to do something in Brooklyn. It’s nearby, short commute.”
“What about Queens?” someone shouted.
“I’ve got a lot of love for Queens,” Powers replied quickly. “We need love between the boroughs. We got to go all-city. That’s the ticket.”
How long did he expect the murals to stay up?
“They’re fading really quickly now. They are weathering in the natural elements. They look better now. They’re pushed back, they’re not yelling so much. Getting down to a whisper, a gentle conversation.”
Garfield chimed in, “I call Steve the Bill Murray of graffiti.”
“So apt,” Powers said. “Bill writes better graffiti than I do.”
Follow Richard S. Chang on Twitter: @r_s_c