Stephen Powers, a former graffiti writer turned sign artist, grew up in Philadelphia where he spent much of his time making a name for himself under the tag name ESPO. Powers moved to New York City in 1994 and stopped writing graffiti five years later.
In 2003, he opened ICY Signs, a traveling sign shop that started in Coney Island, where he worked for free for local businesses. To celebrate Powers’ sign art, the Brooklyn Museum is dedicating a section in its Coney Island exhibition to his work.
We sat down with Powers recently to discuss Coney Island and his sign art.
Why did you stop doing graffiti?
I was 32 years old and I felt that the time was right. I was either going to be some kind of fossil that just kept doing the same thing over and over again or I would find something else to do, and it was time to make the jump.
Why does Coney Island resonate with so many people?
Coney Island is a place that everybody has a vested interest. Everybody knows the place, everybody has a memory about it. I took [business mogul Samuel Irving “Si” Newhouse Jr.] and his wife Victoria down to Coney Island and Si Newhouse was telling us his stories of Coney Island from 40 years ago. Kings and queens and bums and carnies, we all have valuable insights and it belongs to all of us.
What was it like to make sign art at Coney Island?
I didn’t get paid for anything in Coney Island. That was the tricky part of the equation, because when I said “I’ll paint your sign for free, I just want to do it,” they’d say, “OK this guy is really on drugs” and they were scared that I would take more than we’d bargained for so they’d say no. They were really suspicious of me. They understood a low price but they didn’t understand free.
Why did you offer to work for free?
Because I wanted the freedom to do what I wanted and when people give you money, a lot of times the more money they offered the less control I had and I would negotiate back down to say, “you don’t have to pay me as much just give me more freedom.”
You once said your signs can be overwhelming because there’s so much text and a lot of images. Do you like watching people decipher your work?
Absolutely. What’s interesting is that as an artist I’ve been making this work and surrounded by it for 10 years, so there’s a part of me that thinks this is so obvious. It all makes perfect sense to me and I forget how thoroughly dense it is and how impenetrable it can be, and how rewarding it is for people when they cross over.