Conrad Benner blogs about art in Philly's public spaces

Get Up , a San Francisco-based DJ and street artist who grew up in Philly, put up a poster of Benjamin Franklin.
Get Up , a San Francisco-based DJ and street artist who grew up in Philly, put up a poster of Benjamin Franklin. (CONRAD BENNER)
Posted: December 07, 2011

A DRAWING of a naked woman scrawled with the catcall "Damn Girl You Thick," Beyoncé song lyrics spray-painted on a wall, a small sticker with the scribbled message "osama is a muslim."

The funny, the political, the colorful, the arresting: These are the images that catch Conrad Benner's eye as he walks around Philadelphia, camera in hand.

Benner, 26, posts pictures of street art to his blog StreetsDept.com, which averages about 1,000 page-views a day, and sends on-the-fly pictures out on his Twitter account, @streetsdept, to his 2,636 (as of yesterday) followers. In October, Benner went legit with a gallery show at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art.

"Conrad is an aggregator of street art," said veteran Philly street artist Joe Boruchow. "He's the Huffington Post of Philly street art."

Benner is not simply a documentarian. Artists often invite him along as they work so he can photograph their process. And he does his own brand of art - glitter-bombing - by covering regular street objects with glitter.

Street art is loosely defined and generally encapsulates any art shown in a public space. But it's not limited to tagging, which often showcases the artist's name and little else.

Street art as defined by Benner could be graphics, such as the work of famed British street artist Banksy or the stark black-and- white paper cutouts of Boruchow. Or street art can manifest itself in more substantial ways, like the large origami crane Benner recently photographed hanging near Christ Church in Old City, or through the work of Ishknits, a Philly-based, self-described "yarnbomber" who creates yarn-based sculptures, like the pink sweater the Rocky statue sported last spring.

"If you have an idea and you are empowered enough to do it and you post it all over the city, maybe a few will get taken down," said Benner about the artists he follows. "But you build this respect and you build this audience. You just create the art. You don't have to think 'Will this gallery owner like it?' You just do what you want to do."

Benner, born and raised in Fishtown, now makes his living as a social-media manager at a local ad agency that discovered him through his blog work at city blogs like Philebrity and Philthy. (In the interest of full disclosure, Benner freelances for Phrequency, a sister site of Philly.com.)

After he bought a camera, he carried it around with him at all times. In January he began posting his pictures to StreetsDept. com so he could take full control of his work, much like the street artists who eschew gallery validation.

"Anything that makes me stop, I'll end up photographing it," said Benner during a walk through Philly on Sunday. "We're all just these robots doing our own little thing: going to work, going to the grocery store. But if something can stop you and break you from that, I think it's really powerful."

After breaking his leg in three places in a bike accident three years ago, Benner became a committed pedestrian. So he usually discovers art by walking around. Sometimes he'll put out a call on his Twitter feed asking his followers if they've seen anything new lately. Artists themselves often email him, tipping him to where their new work is.

On Sunday he went to look at the design collective Nom Now's wheat-pasted poster at 5th and Bainbridge. The black-and-white poster reads, "You can change tomorrow: realize, create, beautify."

He stopped to look at a sticker that read "osama is a muslim," pasted on a newspaper honor box near South Street. Along with the text are deliberate squiggles. "This clearly took her five minutes to do," Benner said. "It looks s-----, but I stopped, so there's something to it."

He didn't know the artist. "I'm going to post this and see whose it is," he said as he snapped a photo. If an artist doesn't contact him, he'll crowd-source his identity through his website.

Philly's street-art scene is difficult to categorize for both Benner and the artists he covers. "It's been evolving a lot recently and becoming more complex, dealing with current issues," said Lies, an artist who stencils his single moniker in the puffy font of the Phillies.

Benner agreed, noting the influence of Occupy Philly that he's seen recently.

Philadelphia's scene differs from larger cities' like New York or London because it doesn't rely on big names like Banksy. "We're a do-it-yourself city. We don't rely on these bigger cats who are going to come in and show us how to do street art," Benner said, with some pride.

And street art has been ingrained in Philly's fabric, by the Mural Arts Project, whose work has legitimized street art.

Benner said many of local street artists design only on abandoned buildings, and Philadelphia has an abundance of those. "We live in a city where, maybe with the exception of Rittenhouse Square and Society Hill, every single neighborhood that is really vibrant and alive has really nice restaurants next to a building that's boarded up," Benner said, so it's easy to find a canvas. "They're not vandalizing anything. They're taking things that no one is using and making them interesting."

Of course, this is a point of contention. Philadelphia Deputy Managing Director Tom Conway, who heads the city's Anti-Graffiti Network, said: "It all depends on where they're placing street art and what the community thinks. It depends on complaints on different sections of the city. "

He noted that some sections of the city, such as Chestnut Hill and the Northeast, are less welcoming to street art than others. "If it's disruptive or distasteful, then we would take action to remove it, but if the community is not complaining, then that's a different story. If we get complaints, we have to do something."

Documenting street art is tricky, since it's so ephemeral. "It's so temporary. When I put a piece up, there's a good chance it'll get taken down the next morning," said Get Up, a San Francisco-based DJ and street artist who grew up in Philly and who recently pasted posters of Ben Franklin and William Penn holding boom-boxes.

But Benner gives the work a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, home on the Internet.

Because of its evanescence, street art is often about context and the experience of viewing it. Benner, who has never taken a photography class, tries to capture the experience by not just shooting close-ups. "Every once in awhile I'll [photograph] someone looking at it and interacting with it, and that makes my day," he said.

Many of the artists who work with Benner don't see his documentation as antithetical to the genre. "He's a real asset to the community because people will sit on their Internet for hours and hours and hours, but they won't sit on the street and think, 'Where was the artist going with this?' " said Mike Smith of Nom Now.

Ishknits, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology and no formal art training, said: "People do street art because they want people to see it. There's a whole reasoning behind doing [art] on the street and being independent, but there's a childlike desire to be noticed."

The posts where Benner follows artists tend to get the most page-views, especially in a genre in which artists prefer to hide behind monikers (many of the artists interviewed preferred not to share their real names). "It's so raw," Benner said about the posts. "You don't know who's doing it; you don't see their face normally."

It's Benner's enthusiasm that keeps invitations from artists rolling in. "He was really eager, too, and so am I," Ishknits said. "I think that's why people really like him and respect him."

That eagerness is how Benner describes the jolt that seeing street art gives him. "It's really refreshing," Benner said. "I've lived in the city my whole life, and you can still get caught off guard."

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