Stephen Powers and ICY Signs resuscitate the art of sign-painting—along with the morale of those in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.
In the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower in downtown Baltimore, a big, brusque guy runs a pop-up sign-painting studio with a few partners, known collectively as ICY Signs. You can call and call the phone number listed for the shop, but no one ever seems to pick up. "It's open when we're there. And we're not there," explains Stephen Powers, brusquely. It's probably easier to head out and try to find the work of ICY Signs and Powers—still known to some as ESPO, the tag Powers used to write graffiti for 15 years—on your own.
Over the past several months, Powers and his crew have worked in several East and Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods, on blocks that have seen decades of blight and neglect. There are abandoned houses, drug activity, violence. There are also people who love these communities, who've lived in these parts of the city for their entire lives.
Powers, a former Fulbright scholar and author of 2014's A Love Letter to the City—which chronicles citywide public-art projects he and his team did in eight cities worldwide over 11 years—was tapped by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts to bring his trademark retro-modern murals to Baltimore.
Powers is clear that his work is public art, not graffiti. "Graffiti is the illegal application of paint to a surface, so it's not that at all," he says. "It's public art in the way it should be—working with the public." The crew has done murals in 14 cities total since 2003, with officials generally approaching ICY with funding, public support, and political backing. All members are trained in the nearly lost art of sign painting and even belong to a trade guild.
Before picking up a paintbrush or roller, Powers and his associates held a year's worth of community meetings in Baltimore, asking residents what they loved and disliked about their city.
"I have to go to a city first and talk to people," Powers explains. "Then, I try to make those conversations into visual communication. I liken what we do to being a visual sound system. We engage and we learn, and ultimately we head out to a wall and figure out what fits—in every way. Then we paint it. Painting is the easy part."
At Eager Street and Milton Avenue in East Baltimore, an entire block of empty row houses were biding time, slated to be knocked down by the city to make way for a park. Powers spent days in the neighborhood talking to residents about the history of the street and why they chose to live there.
"The takeaway we got was that, as much as they love their neighborhood, they wished there was more unity," Powers says. That sentiment spurred two pieces, completed in just over three days: The wall at the end of the block now reads, in giant purple-and-white type, "I AM HERE BECAUSE IT IS HOME." The facades of the houses spell out "FOREVER TOGETHER." Taken together, the slogans encompass the endurance of the neighborhood—as well as a long wait for improvements."People were a little confused as to why we'd want to do that when it is going to get knocked down. But everything I've ever painted has been temporary, so it didn't matter to me that it wasn't going to last long," says Powers. "What was important to me was that we'd have this moment, and that would last forever."
Powers and his team have painted at least 10 sites in Baltimore so far. Funding has long since run out, and now the team is traveling from its home base in New York City to Baltimore whenever possible to keep doing work—on ICY's dime.
"The project is ongoing," says Powers. "[Baltimore] is just far enough away from us to make it hard to be there every day. But as long as we've got walls, we'll be there. We need to pick and choose where we work very carefully. Everything [needs] clearance and insurance. But really, we're looking for areas where we can have the most significant impact—we're looking to go where people want us to be."
He says he hopes that people will be inspired by the work and make their own love letters to their cities. Sounds pretty romantic for a big ol' paint-covered tradesman.
"Yeah, I'm a romantic! Duh!," he says. "I'm jealous of musicians, jealous of how music is a medium people integrate into their lives in a way they rarely do with art. I like to think of myself as a visual blues musician—I'm painting love songs. When you pick up a guitar, what else would you want to play?
"Everything is for love," he concludes. "It's the original motivation for everything. Exclamation point."