It all goes back to that day in 2009 when a car slammed into his bicycle at the corner of Sixth and Spring Garden Streets.
That’s how Fishtown’s Conrad Benner found his vocation as a photographer and as the premiere chronicler of Philadelphia’s street-art scene.
Benner, who turned 32 this month, is the founder of “Streets Dept,” a blog devoted to his photographs of the city’s street-art scene. The success of the blog, which went up in early 2011, has earned Benner an invitation to curate a major new exhibit of contemporary Philadelphia artists.
Sponsored by Visit Philadelphia, “Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition,” collects works by 13 artists — some of the better-known ones are Nick Cassaway, Zoë Cohen, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Carlos Lopez Rosa, Ishknits, and Joe Boruchow — that go on display Wednesday at 13 public spaces and businesses across Old City, including Franklin Square, Elfreth’s Alley, Headhouse Square, and Spruce Street Harbor Park.
The free exhibit, running through July 4, was organized as a way to promote Old City’s tourist spots, including Philly’s newest museum, the Museum of the American Revolution. Arturo Varela, spokesman for Visit Philadelphia, said Benner was tapped for the job because of the growing influence of his blog.
Benner asked each artist to submit a work about how the American Revolution resonated now. “I wanted them to look at the idea of revolution from the broadest perspective, from the American Revolution to the civil rights revolution,” he said, “and to ask how its ideals are or aren’t represented today.”
The artworks address a wide range of themes. Cassaway’s window installation shows the interplay among the three branches of government, and Cohen’s watercolor portraits highlight brave women. Most artists question and critique the status quo. Ortiz, a photographer, shoots portraits of the city’s undocumented residents; Rosa’s installation looks at the effect of American foreign policy on Latin America.
Ishknits, a yarnbomber who gained notoriety in 2012 when she knitted a pink bikini around the torso of Frank Rizzo’s statue, uses fabric in her new work to draw attention to the effects of drug addiction. Boruchow, the most overtly political of the artists, addresses the era of Donald Trump’s presidency in wheat-paste posters.
Becoming Philly’s street-art “collector”
When the bike wreck left Benner immobile for weeks, he was forced to take a close look at his life. He didn’t like what he saw. “I was 24 years old, and I worked in a gelato shop. I had no college degree, and I was living paycheck to paycheck,” he said recently during an interview at his studio, on the border between Port Richmond and Kensington. “I guess you can call it a quarter-life crisis.”
As his leg healed, and he hid out on his parents’ couch, “I went through a kind of depression,” he said. “I dance around the word because I know how serious depression can be.”
His cure? Studying for his art history and political science classes at Community College of Philadelphia — and taking long walks. “I had to stop biking because of the leg, and so I began to walk and take public transit everywhere.”
He explored different walking routes around the college (at 17th and Spring Garden Streets), his job at the gelato shop (at 13th and Sansom Streets), and his parents’ house in Fishtown, where he later got his own place. (“My entire family lives within three blocks of each other,” he said.)
An avid photographer, Benner began shooting the graffiti on his route, the wheat pastes, the stickers, the ad hoc installations, the paintings and drawings. “Now that I think of it, I was naturally drawn to shoot streetscapes and street art,” said Benner. “I had been collecting books about graffiti and street art ever since I was a kid.”
Then, when he realized no one in town was reporting on the street-art scene, he decided to post his work online, founding “Streets Dept” in January 2011.
And, no, the site has no connection with the Philadelphia Streets Department, so please stop emailing Benner about your late trash pickups.
“I guess I liked that the blog name was a bit confusing, because then it’d be more memorable,” said Benner. “But, yeah, I still get a lot of tweets from people about fixing their sidewalks and filling in potholes.”
From documentarian to curator
Benner’s career took off quickly. “Soon after the blog went up, I began getting emails from artists thanking me for paying attention. And they’d invite me to see their work and to attend their installations.”
The blog impressed folks at the ad firm Quaker City Mercantile, which offered Benner a job managing social media strategy for one of its clients. Benner has since left the agency to work full time on “Streets Dept.”
Ask Benner why he loves Philly street art and his face lights up, he gets flushed, he gets excited.
First, there’s the history.
“Philadelphia was the birthplace of the modern graffiti movement. There were taggers in places like the Bronx, but we had Cornbread, who began tagging in the mid-1960s,” said Benner. Born Darryl McCray, Cornbread attracted international media attention when he broke into the Philadelphia Zoo in 1971 and painted “Cornbread Lives” on the side of an elephant.
The form evolved over the decades as artists moved from merely spray-painting their names to creating more complex work. Benner calls it “the biggest and most significant art movement we’ve had in generations.”
Its power, Benner said, lies in its accessibility. “The thing I love about street art is that it reaches out to you, to everybody, unlike the PMA [Philadelphia Museum of Art] – and God, I love the PMA. But the PMAs of the world exist behind highways and on top of hills and behind closed doors. They represent money and privilege.”
Street art “just speaks to you,” he says. “It’s on your way to work or on your way to school, and it runs into you.”
Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition
Opens Wednesday. Through July 4 at 13 locations in Old City. The full list of exhibit sites is at Visitphilly.com/revolutionaryart.