Building respect for Philly's growing street art scene

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Conrad Benner moves in to photograph Los Angeles street artist WRDSMTH as he places a message on the street behind Tattooed Mom on South Street. Benner has showcased Philadelphia’s street-art scene though his blog and Instagram feed. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

The L.A.-based street artist WRDSMTH wanted to come to Philly. To do some installations - to put up some work.

So he called Conrad Benner. Of course he did. Who else would he call?

For four years, Benner has tirelessly showcased Philly's robust street art scene though his enormously popular blog and Instagram feed, Streets Dept.

He grew up in Fishtown enamored of graffiti and street art - from the Philly tradition dating to graffiti pioneer Cornbread through the Mural Arts programs and the new pieces he saw popping up all around him on an endless canvas of abandoned homes and factories.

It drew him in. The ephemerality of a work of art found on the side of a building in a changing - and rapidly disappearing - city. He wanted to hold it all up. Capture it.

"I looked around at the Philly media and I realized it was rarely talked about, even though we had this really vibrant scene," he said. "There was no source for that sort of information - and that sort of celebration - here in Philly, so I thought, 'OK, I'll create that.' "

A talented photographer, he began to document what he found - so others could have the same experience he did.

His excitement was palpable. He talked about a sticker on a newspaper box or a stencil in an alleyway like others would talk about a piece in a museum.

And as he grew into the scene, the scene grew around him.

Artists like Joe Boruchow, whose masterfully intricate paper cutouts are truly pieces of fine art found on South Philly mailboxes. And the South Philly-based street artist Yis "Nosego" Goodwin, whose work has appeared on walls and in galleries from New York to England.

And the Philly yarn-bomber Jessie Hammons, known as "Ishknits," who first gained prominence in 2011 when, wanting to create a piece of art that would travel the city and could be seen by anyone, she decorated an El car with bright yarn. She went on to knit a "Go See the Art" shirt onto the Rocky statue and a bikini onto the Frank Rizzo statue. Benner was there to photograph it all.

He has more than 128,000 followers on Instagram. He has helped bring national respect to a Philadelphia art scene that deserves it.

"It's important that people recognize that this is a huge part of our city," Benner told me. "It's a thing that brings people here. And if we use it to our advantage, we could push the city forward."

That's an idea the Philadelphia Museum of Art seems to have rightly recognized: that street art is shaping the future of contemporary art and that the Philly scene rocks.

Last month, the museum invited Benner to host a panel on "Evolution of Street Art." Benner invited Boruchow, Hammons, the parodist Kid Hazo, and other Philly street artists to discuss the evolution through their experiences. Hundreds attended. The event was standing room only.

"I think the fact that we're having this talk tonight in one of the most important museums in the world is a sign of that huge evolution," Benner told the crowd.

Sara Moyn, a program producer at the museum, said she didn't know what to expect when she booked the event as part of a series to highlight local artists.

She described the night as "overwhelmingly positive," thanks to the artists' "level of artistry and talent" and the depth of their work.

"The audience was so engaged in the talk," she said. "They knew who the panel was. They follow their work. They are big fans."

WRDSMTH has been a fan of the Philly scene since he first visited last year. It's more welcoming and embracing than other cities, he said Tuesday. He was preparing one of his stencils for the wooden construction barrier on a building on Fifth Street, near Passyunk and Bainbridge. He's learned about the art and artists here from Benner's blog.

"It brings so much to the art world," he said of Benner's social media efforts.

For his part, Benner says the positivity of WRDSMTH's art - a stenciled typewriter with a motivational message wheat-pasted above it - is a welcome juxtaposition to the constant negative messaging we are so often confronted with in the public space.

As midmorning traffic went past, WRDSMTH went to work spray-painting his typewriter and his message: "Face it, you are lovely. And that has nothing to do with your beautiful face."

Given the construction, the image would probably last only a few days. But Benner readied his camera to ensure that it would last much longer.


mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759@MikeNewall