PHILADELPHIA- Temple alumna Cindy Ngo and Conrad Benner, editor of the Philadelphia art-discovery blog StreetsDept.com, said at a campus forum Thursday they were struck by how many local street artists, and particularly non-white artists, remain anonymous.
“When it comes to street art and graffiti, we don’t see these faces,” Ngo said. “They have to stay undercover because it’s illegal. But those who then do go public, it’s usually a non-person of color. And from there, they usually don’t get in trouble. It’s a very big debate where some do show their face and some don’t.”
Wanting to take these concerns to the public, Ngo and Benner decided to host a forum titled “Philly Public Arts,” a three-day series exploring the intersection of street art, culture and access to the arts in Philadelphia’s public spaces beginning on Sept. 20.
The forum, held at Temple University’s Library, is part of the library’s “Beyond the Page” series, a public programming yearlong series where scholars, writers, artists and experts in a wide range of fields lead discussions and address topics relevant to the university and its surrounding community. This year’s theme is access and opportunity, specifically how to overcome and move forward from the multiple barriers (cultural, financial, physical, etc.) that often limit opportunities for many.
On StreetsDept.com, Benner has found that many of the artists who come forward to be published on the site are white, something that is beyond his control. At the first installment of the forum, “The Art on Our Streets,” the four featured artists were people of color.
“It’s not his fault the people he does post are non-people of color,” Ngo said. “He does have people of color’s work and most of them are here tonight, but we don’t see a lot of them, or they don’t want to be seen because they know they would get in trouble.”
Benner said because many artists are technically breaking the law (perhaps by trespassing, or vandalizing) they often use an alias, for instance on Instagram. But what interests Benner the most about public art is the democratic aspect behind it all.
“If a street artist does something in a neighborhood and the neighborhood doesn’t like it, they can call ‘311’ or they can tear it down themselves,” Benner said. “So sometimes you see a lot of stuff go up and it comes right down for that reason. But then some things go up and they stay up for years.”
One of the artists on the panel, Keir Johnston of Amber Public Art, furthered this discussion and spoke to the importance of the often-times silenced or hidden cultural influence in various community spaces.
“All communities in the city should have a stake in art,” Johnston said. “Being a minority gives you a strength and perspective that only you can speak about.”
Visual artist and additional panel member Michelle Angela Ortiz said she began to know and learn art once she started noticing artistic themes in her culture. Being in public spaces, she said, especially family gatherings, and noticing how jewelry was painted or how their religious altars were designed enabled her to explore her own artistic abilities in public spaces.
While much of public art is considered to be illegal, Ortiz explained the ethical process behind obtaining permission to enter certain public spaces. For example, one large piece of her work was to be displayed on a street where she needed to get permission from the mayor and the street commissioner, she said.
Despite the difficult conversation surrounding the legality of these art forms, the artists and facilitators of the forum hoped to communicate the ways in which art is all around us and how it influences our lives in these public spaces.
“In my adult life, I’ve connected more with street art and graffiti,” Benner said. “It reaches out to you, it’s much more accessible in a lot of ways, not only within the content, but sometimes the color, the scale, or where we’re using the public space.”
The installation continues on Sept. 24 with two back-to-back artist panels centered around art as activism and the challenges artists face in education and family support and concludes on Oct. 3 with “Building the #TempleFreeWall’ workshop.
Participants will be able to join Philly street artist Blur and poet/organizer Luis Marrero where they’ll learn tips on writing, creating and wheat pasting their own art. At the end of the workshop all of the work will be displayed on Temple’s free wall, solidifying the theme of connecting with the community.
“Arts are invaluable,” Benner said. “Art can help you connect with people and potentially help to inspire and encourage empathy, which I think is what this country needs right now; empathy.”