There’s something strange about the sign shop at 72 4th Avenue. The calendar in the window has every day marked “Today;” the address is painted on both the sign and front door as “Forth Avenue;” and, come to think of it, it’s hard to tell if it’s called ESPO’s Creative Outlet or ICY Signs. These playful details are tip-offs that the spot is something more than a simple sign shop — though it offers that service, and well. It is the brainchild of artist, sign painter, and former graffiti writer Stephen Powers, and it functions as studio, store, ad hoc art gallery, and all-around necessary destination.
Stephen hails from Philadelphia, but moved to New York in 1994 when he wanted to bring his hip-hop and graffiti magazine On The Go (now out of print) to “the media capital of the universe.” These days he lives in the West Village, doing the reverse commute to 4th Avenue. The shop opened its doors rather quietly on December 1, 2012, before which Stephen and his team of artists worked out of a staging area-turned-sign shop on Livingston Street.
It is a workspace for sure, but it also offers prints and various bits of merchandise (mugs, books, collectibles) for browsing and buying. There are certainly those who seek out the shop with a mission — fans who have followed Stephen since the ’90s, when he was doing graffiti as ESPO — but many clients and shoppers are drawn in from the street out of simple curiosity.
“It’s really gratifying if they’ve never heard of me, have no concept of what’s going on,” says Stephen. “They walk in and catch a vibe, and maybe they buy something. Even if they’re just glad we’re here, that’s more than enough.”
It’s likely that the people who don’t recognize Stephen’s name or face (or distinctive hair) will still be familiar with his recent work. In 2011, he painted “Love Letter to Brooklyn,” featuring massive bits of phrase — “I was nurtured here,” “Is you for me?,” and “Born busy like a Brooklyn bound B,” for example — along the walls of an old Macy’s parking garage in Fulton Mall. At a hero shop on the corner of Livingston Street and Boerum Place, the ICY team created a subway-style map featuring stops named “Wait,” “We’ll see,” “Nope,” and “Lonely.” This isn’t to mention the nearly-incognito signs they’ve painted for businesses throughout the borough, especially in Coney Island.
There’s a real heart in his work, an earnest sentimentality often missing from the daily visual cues of the city. It’s a theme that is especially apparent in the shop, with colorful prints featuring phrases like, “If you were here I’d be home now,” or, “I’m waiting up for you.” This incorporation of romance is less of a conscious decision and more of a creative impetus.
“Well the thing is, first of all, love is the only subject worth really talking or painting about,” he says without hesitation. “So you know, for me, looking at art and thinking about how can I be useful in art, it’s probably — well, love, and the give and take of loving, is a really interesting subject. I have not run out of material. The more I think about it, the more work I get out. And there’s something that’s always been there in graffiti. The first part of graffiti, ever, was ‘Mary loves Steve,’ ‘Steve loves Mary.’ That’s the way it’s been, hundreds of years before, you know, Cornbread thought to write his name to impress some girl. It’s just the oldest form of it, and it makes the most sense. To declare the most intimate feelings in the most public place is true heroic audacity, and what girl and what boy wouldn’t love that?”
Still, Stephen has managed to take this universality and pare it down, often making it specific to the neighborhood in which he’s working. The guiding theme linking his larger-scale works with the more humble signage seems to be — apart from the simple and traditional artistry — a dedication to community. In “Love Letter,” which he first did in Philadelphia in 2009, Stephen painted the walls with quotes taken directly from the mouths of residents. In his sign-making, he offers his talents to business owners and their visions. It’s about getting a sense for what the community wants and delivering.
“That was what we started in Philadelphia and it’s been ongoing,” he says. “We just discovered the power of people taking ownership. We take ourselves, our egos, out of the equation. We try to be a conduit for people, and let them have it … To be in service of a community — it’s way more effective than anything else I’ve ever done. So I’m sticking with it.”
After Hurricane Sandy, he offered to paint free signs for businesses whose signs were lost or damaged, though, unfortunately, he says, “really nobody took me up on it.” That’s starting to change. Just over a month ago, BMT Stop Dry Cleaners (on 4th Ave near Union St) reached out for their services, and at the time of our meeting the team had just finished up the new sign. Also, they’ve started making protest banners for VOCAL-NY, a local activist and outreach organization concerned with drug policy, community health, and incarceration.
“It’s an interesting thing,” he says. “It wasn’t really in our objective to get into the political or activist side, but when called we will serve.”
His signs tend to embody a certain nostalgia, not just in aesthetics (“We’re not looking for some old-timey look, but we pursue something that looks like its always been there,” he says) but in the fact that they work in restoring signage for some of the strongholds of the community. I tell him it seems to be an especially apt time to to be doing this kind of work, with so much of the dialogue in post-gentrification Brooklyn focused on new versus old, preservation versus progress. (Consider, specifically, the recent loss of beloved signs like Citroen, Eagle Clothes, or even the old Wines/Liquor neon once at 5th Avenue and Carroll Street.) Is he motivated by this sense of change? Somewhat.
“It’s also just continuing the dialogue,” he says. “I’m from Philadelphia and for me, I’ve only been here 19 years. So my take on it is, when I arrived it was changing. It’s always been a place that is changing. New York’s been changing for 400 years.”
He recounts a story of doing signage for a business in SoHo years back.
“I was painting signage on a roll-down gate right at Prince and Sullivan,” he says. “This was a one-hour photo spot, which, you know, how many of those are left around? A lady came up to me and she gave me the hardest time, because I was painting really the biggest lettering I could fit on the gate, brush painting it, so it was really aggressive-looking, and that was the point — to get as much attention on the business as possible. And this lady was really upset with me, saying, ‘This neighborhood isn’t like that. This is actually a really nice neighborhood, and you shouldn’t be painting this.’ And we had this conversation where it was like, ‘Well, you’ve only been here 50 years. The neighborhood is way different than it was before that, and the neighborhood’s going to be really different 50 years from now.’ But we want it to be home, and we don’t want home to change.”
So while he does embrace the inevitability of change, he’s also quick to acknowledge that there is a sentimentality attached to the remnants of Brooklyn’s past, and he praises the old-fashioned handmade sign. He cites examples at Luis TV Repair (“That’s great,” he says, “all hand-painted, aluminum, awesome”) and Mega Glass (“A landmark of excellence”) as some favorites. When I break the news that Mega Glass will be leaving the neighborhood, he is noticeably upset.
“I gave Mega all the business I can,” he says. “One rare thing that people don’t know is you can’t really paint on the new glass. You’ve got to do all this chemical stuff to remove the coatings they put on it. It’s no fun. But Mega is an old glass repository, so we will miss them, terribly.”
He continues with some imploring advice: “I would advise them please, take everything in that place, all the signage, anything, and preserve any piece of hand-written, hand-drawn work,” he says. “Even the sign on the door.”
And while we’re on the topic of businesses in Park Slope, working in the neighborhood has made him acquainted with more than just the local signs. His favorite cup of coffee?
“Blue Sky Bakery. Hungry Ghost. Gorilla, if I really need a good bolt. If I’m a corpse, Gorilla will do it,” he says, laughing. “For a late afternoon coffee, Canteen is a good choice. We’re very spoiled for coffee in the neighborhood.”
“City Sub is beyond — City Sub first, to be fair,” he says. “Seniority rules.”
So what’s coming up for Stephen Powers and ICY Signs? As far as larger-scale projects go, he says, “There are a few municipalities that I’m talking to,” though he can’t elaborate until he’s checked off a few more items on the list towards accomplishing each project.
He and some of the artists on his team will also be showing work at the Joshua Liner Gallery, where their exhibition “Perfection is Standard, Mistakes Cost Extra” will be running from October 24 through November 16. (Details on opening reception below.) And, of course, there’s the continued work within the 4th Avenue studio, open daily for visitors and shoppers.
“The stuff I’m working on now is really satisfying,” he says. “I’m chopping up old signs, old things I’ve painted. Reducing, reusing, recycling, and going somewhere else. Going somewhere new. That’s the main thing.”
ESPO’s Creative Outlet is located at 72 4th Avenue at Bergen Street. Catch the opening reception for “Perfection is Standard, Mistakes Cost Extra” on Thursday, October 24, from 6-8pm at the Joshua Liner Gallery, 540 W 28th Street.
Photos credit Brendan Newell/Park Slope Stoop