Blog gives Philadelphia artists 5 years of street-level love

    From its really very personal inception to this moment, Streets Dept. has taught me as much about myself as it has our city’s incredible artists. And it all started, funny enough, with a broken leg.

    This week marks the fifth anniversary of StreetsDept.com, a photo blog I created to document and celebrate Philly’s vibrant street art scene. From its really very personal inception to this moment, the blog has taught me as much about myself as it has our city’s incredible artists. And it all started, funny enough, with a broken leg.

    In the spring of 2009, while I was biking to my job at a gelato shop in Center City, a minivan running a red light at 6th and Spring Garden hit me. I landed in the hospital for five days, and on my parent’s couch for three months. In an instant, at age 24, I was in over $156,000 of debt with no health insurance and no college education.

    I thought I was so smart to have avoided a monstrous student debt, but I ended up even more in the red. It was devastating. But little could I imagine that within the next two years I would found a highly regarded art blog, publish a photograph in Time magazine, and have a career in advertising.

    What was StreetsDept.com’s most viewed post of 2015? Click the link in my bio to see my Top 13 Posts of 2015!

    A video posted by Conrad Benner (@streetsdept) on Dec 29, 2015 at 4:00pm PST

     

    A blessing in disguise?

    The accident, and the seemingly time-halting recovery that followed, inspired a revelation: What the hell am I doing with my life?

    I was nearly halfway through my twenties living paycheck to paycheck. I had no real goals to speak of. I was, as you might say, going with the flow. But that flow had come to an abrupt stop on my parents’ couch. There, I laid and thought — a lot — intermittently staring at the television, feeling sorry for myself, and planning an escape. When my leg healed enough, that plan took shape. I started going to Philadelphia Community College part time with the goal of having a college education by age 30, something in journalism, or maybe video.

    My first year at CCP was deeply uplifting, the inverse of those months on the couch. Each lecture left me electrified. And that was great, because between coursework and rent-paying work, I had little time for anything else.

    To save money — and because of a newfound fear of biking — I walked almost everywhere I went. Walking offered me a much more up-close-and-personal relationship with Philly’s streets. I started to notice more: a sticker I liked here and there, then a wheatpaste, then a mural. While I had been collecting books and reading blogs on street art and graffiti since I was in middle school, those sources rarely explored Philly, at least not as I was.

    Joe-Boruchow 1200x675Art by Joe Boruchow (Conrad Benner/Streets Dept.)

    My interest in photography grew rapidly in that year. My boyfriend gave me a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas, and I went wild! I took it everywhere, documenting everything I saw. I started writing articles about what I found (street art, street fashion, a new restaurant opening up) and selling them to local news outlets, primarily Phrequency (now Philly.com’s Things to do Philly) and Naked Philly. In the spring, I used my tax refund to buy an even better camera, a Canon DSLR, and I was hooked! By that fall, I knew I wanted to start my own blog.

    Street art

    I carefully considering the local media landscape, and with two big insights, I felt like I discovered gold! First, there was next to no coverage, and certainly no ongoing coverage, of Philly’s huge street art scene, which I was walking through every single day. Second, most local media were not telling stories effectively with digital photography. It was a huge hole I was happy to fill.

    The blog took about five weeks to build. I secured the domain name. A friend helped me create a logo in exchange for a six-pack of beer. And I created an intentionally simple website using some free Word Press tools.

    Little-known fact: The runner-up name was Block Trotter.

    I settled on the name Streets Dept., hoping that Philly’s roving Streets Department trucks might spark a small subconscious reminder of my blog to anyone who had visited it at least once before.

    Then it was down to real business. I had only one chance to make a good impression. I walked even more than normal in the weeks leading to my launch so I could gather as much context as possible to kick off with a bang and maintain some posting consistency.

    Then, I went live!

    Social media spark

    When I say that starting Streets Dept. completely changed the course and focus of my life, I’m not exaggerating. The blog was quickly appreciated by local street artists — thankfully. Soon artists started telling me where to find their new installations. Some started inviting me out to photograph them putting up their work. As ephemeral as street art is, many artists saw the value in someone like me documenting their work.

    Nosego 1200x675Art in progress by Nosego (Conrad Benner/Streets Dept.)

    In fact, the biggest shift I’ve seen in street art since I started has been the increasing use of highly visual social media platforms, such as Instagram. Many artists are using them to great advantage, getting unfettered and nearly instant feedback on their installations — and learning what works and what doesn’t.

    Old Broads is a prime example of this. She started out primarily as a sticker artist. However, after experimenting with a larger wheatpaste, and receiving much more interest on Instagram for it, she began to invest her time and energy into more, and larger, pastes. She is today, without a doubt, one of the most talked-about artists.

    Morning Buzz #oldbroads #phillystreetart #wheatpaste #wrinklesinalltherightplaces

    A photo posted by @old_broads on Nov 22, 2015 at 5:25am PST

    Kid Hazo is another artist who is immensely aware of his audience’s taste, as a result of smartly gauging the success of his pieces’ “virality.” Some have even begun to call this type of work “viral art,” made with the social media audience in mind. I think it’s a brilliant and quite necessary evolution of the art form. Street art has always been about making a name, advertising yourself and your work, and street artists need to go where the people are.

    Streets Dept. goes viral

    One day early on, an up-and-coming artist named Ishknits invited me to photograph her yarnbombing seats on the Market-Frankford Line El. Yarnbombing, a relatively new artform at the time, had really never been executed like this. The typical yarnbomb was a small patch of knitting around a lamppost. This was much more ambitious, installed in the middle of the day, and with countless witnesses. And it went viral.

    Ishknits-1 600x800Yarnbomb in progress by Ishknits (Conrad Benner/Streets Dept.)

    Suddenly some of the biggest websites in the world were linking to my barely three-month-old blog — Juxtapoz, Laughing Squid, Time magazine. Etsy even tweeted about it! The exposure gave me credibility. The credibility led to more artists reaching out. More artists reaching out led to a much more interesting, fuller context for the blog. And that more interesting content led me out of my gelato shop job.

    Within six months of starting the blog I had a new 9-to-5 job in advertising. Quaker City Mercantile, a Philly-based branding agency, had noticed my efforts and invited me to interview for a position. For the next four years I worked with national and international brands, namely Hendrick’s Gin, on social media strategies. All the while, I walked as much as I could, every lunch hour, scouting for new street art and growing Streets Dept.

    I left school to focus on my new career. After all, this was exactly the direction I’d wanted to go after college anyway. After a long insurance battle and my near automatic enrollment into Medicare, my medical debt was reduced to a payable amount.

    The blog, to my surprise, has been quite successful. The year it launched, I won an award for “geek culture journalism” at the very first Philadelphia Geek Awards. In 2014, I was named Philly’s “Best Art Curator” by Philadelphia Magazine. And last year, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Newall said it has “helped bring national respect to a Philadelphia art scene that deserves it.”

    Over the past five years I’ve documented countless artists who have helped not only to make my blog an interesting place to visit, but the streets of Philadelphia an entirely more inspiring place to walk. And I am so in debt to those artists.

    Join the author in celebrating 10 Philadelphia street artists — and the fifth anniversary of Streets Dept. — with #StreetsDeptTurns5, on Friday at Paradigm Gallery, 746 S. 4th Street — snow or no snow!

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