GREATEST: Steve “ESPO” Powers

The street art legend sits down with Kid Mero to talk JAY-Z, graffiti and see-through sneakers. 

WRITER: Kid Mero Photographer: MATTHEW KUBORN

The likes of JAY-Z, Flavor Flav and Gil Scott-Heron have all crossed paths with street-turned-fine-artist Steve “ESPO” Powers. Among countless other iconoclasts, each was interviewed for On the Go, a hip-hop and graffiti periodical founded by Powers and Ari Saal Forman in 1989. Though the magazine’s content featured legendary hip-hop artists and graffiti writers, it also served as a platform for Powers to showcase his own burgeoning work. 

Born and raised in Philadelphia, after graduating from the University of Arts, Powers moved to New York City to continue writing graffiti. His alias, ESPO (an acronym for “Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”) soon became a major name not only in the graffiti scene, but in contemporary art circles more broadly. ESPO’s pieces have long blurred the lines between these two worlds, earning him features in The New York Times and The New Yorker, and exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Deitch Projects and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2000, Powers dedicated his efforts to becoming a full-time studio artist, opening ESPO’s Art World, an art studio and gallery founded by Powers. 

Here, writer and TV personality Kid Mero sits down with the Brooklyn-based artist to talk graffiti, hip-hop and the back-and-forth process with Nike to create a performance-art shoe.

Let's start at the beginning. You founded On the Go Magazine in 1989 and were interacting with hip-hop legends. What was that time like?

I was 21 years old, which is officially too old to be writing graffiti—or at least it was for a long time. The prime years of graffiti were 12 to 17 [years old]. By the time you were ready to join the Army or the workforce, you would stop writing graffiti. Now, you start at 18 and you end at 60. In 1989, there was a little bit of shame attached to it for me. I don't think anybody else looked at it that way, but publishing a zine kept me connected.

In Philadelphia, some of our best graffiti is in black and white, so it felt natural to do a black-and-white zine. In the first few issues, I got an N.W.A tape when it was just a dubbed copy of Straight Outta Compton. It was only four songs, but I flipped out. I had never heard anything like it, so I decided I was gonna write a review. I put on my rap-journalist cap and I said it was an irresponsible masterpiece. 

That's a perfect description. [Laughs]

If you look at the whole scope of everything that happened, it really was a perfect description of the album. We just started with what was around us, which was black spray paint on walls and the music that excited us. I'd take jobs at copy shops and I would print my zines there. I would leave copies of the zine in the tray, getting fired repeatedly.

You’d work six or eight hours and then you'd work four more hours for yourself. Just me and my friend Ari Forman, who came on board as a designer. The first person I actually talked to was Gil Scott-Heron. He was super magnanimous, really patient with me. Gil gave me a solid five minutes; right then and there I realized I could talk and I could be helpful to artists.

That was my thing with interviewing rappers. There was already enough crazy, devilish journalism going on that I just wanted to be helpful. It was fun asking rappers about crazy things that they had said, but it was done in a spirit of love.

Are you ever like, “I was there, I did that,” or do you just live in the moment?

I'm in the moment right now, but it was a really perfect time for us to be doing what we were doing because hip-hop was in a transition period and it wasn’t yet the era of big business. It was still finding its way from being a local, neighborhood phenomenon to the number-one culture of the world.

Every album went gold but nobody was rich.

The pie was getting divided by a lot of people. The first person I saw that was making huge money was Master P, and we had a funny moment of the zine where we were lacking material. I wrote under six or seven different names in the magazine. I had this one character named Mr. Props who just loved everything and I got a copy of Ice Cream Man by Master P, and I was like, “This is the greatest tape. This is the greatest song ever made without a doubt. Shits on the Beatles; shits on everybody.”

The people at No Limit Records were so thankful that they sent me tons of material and they ended up advertising in the magazine. I was being as sarcastic as I could, but at the same time it was super helpful for them. It was at a time where efforts were appreciated.

We could go and meet Chuck D or Flavor Flav or Large Professor. The last issue of On the Go, which has yet to release, had JAY-Z [on the cover] over a pot filled with silver-painted tapes and records. We were really big on JAY from the minute we heard him. He was super responsive and was willing to pose for a photo with a smile on his face.

How do you straddle that line between art and business? What was it like working with a massive company like Nike on your Air Force 2 collab?

It was really great working with Nike. Once they decided that they were going to work with me, success for them was for me to have a shoe that I was happy with. Nike even then [in 2004] was a gigantic company, but they were so committed to just making that shoe. I told them I wanted to make a see-through plastic shoe and you felt everybody in the room get tense about it. They said, “We're a performance-shoe company. We make performance shoes. It has to work on a performance level,” and I said, “It's gonna perform as art.”

Once I gave them that license and explained the “performance” loophole, they went all the way forward with it. At first, they didn't want to make it completely see-through. They told me at one point that they couldn't make a plastic shoe. And I said, “Well, Jellies can make it, why can't Nike?” And then they said, “alright, fine.”

The shoe release was great and it set us up for a lot of other things to happen in the future. The plastic see-through on a shoe has gotten a lot of mileage. [The Air Force 2] was a wild ride.

Do you still have a pair?

I have a few pairs. I knew at the time they weren't going to age well [being made of clear plastic]. It’s been interesting that the important thing is the art, not the shoe. It's the ideas behind it. Nike doesn't have a clean pair of them in the archive. If they want one, they have to make a freshy. The beautiful thing about it is that ideas last, ideas are permanent; products, not so much.

The Philly graffiti scene is so singular. You’re also a legend in New York City. How did you travel between those two scenes?

When I first painted in Philadelphia, I saw subway art and I wanted to make my version of that. The older Philly writers would roast me all the time saying, “You're not doing it for real. You're doing this hybrid New York thing. It doesn't work down here.” It really shamed me into getting good at Philadelphia graffiti. 

For the first few years, it was all just knockoffs. I got shamed into developing proper Philadelphia hands and operating in a Philadelphia way. At a certain point, I was able to toggle back and forth and do a competent New York style and a competent Philadelphia style. In Philly, there are people who have been writing graffiti since 1975. I know a guy who works for the city that's still writing. That's the core of the Philadelphia thing: it's for fame, but it's also for love. 

Artists from Philly, they're hitting the tall hands and it's poetry in motion, like ballet. It's so graceful. Even the toys [novice writers] are good. Everything is so fluid.

It really is; when you walk away from the tag, the tag stands as who you are. It’s just your name, a line and a punchline.

There was a guy when I was probably 16 years old named JK who wrote a punchline that said, “I'm like an itch you can't scratch.” That's just the greatest thing. He summed up an entire worldview and a personality. Old and new. Punchlines are a major part of what I do, all of my art is trying to boil it down to the smallest amount of words possible. It took me forever to have the perfect punchline, “I'm so dope, the dragon chases me.” [laughs]

Your piece on the West Side Highway [...] I saw that so many times as a little Bronx graffiti rat. I'm gonna speak for the entire graffiti community: We would drive by the gates and be like, “How did he pull that off?”

On the Go had our offices on 37th Street, so it wasn't a far walk for me to bring a ladder and some paint. It took four days, but for most of it, I was just painting silver paint on a gate. At some point I had two of the letters done and the last gate opened up. It's five gates. The fifth gate opens up and this BMW pulls out and the guy driving's got an unlit cigar in his mouth and he's looking at me like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I was like, “I'm a one-man community outreach called ESPO, exterior surface painting.” He says, “Can you paint ‘NO PARKING’ here on this gate?” And I was like, “I only have black paint, but I'll do my best.” He left and at that point, all the weight was off of me. The rest of it was easy. The first four gates say “ESPO” and for the fifth gate, I made an exclamation point. He then proceeded to add his own “NO PARKING HERE” sign.