For Conrad Benner, Philadelphia cultivates graffiti artists who create powerful displays of art on the walls of the city. But no one was talking about. In 2011, he started a blog to document it.
Five years later, the blog has been featured in Time Magazine and named one of Philadelphia’s “Best Blogs for Travellers” by The Guardian. Appropriately named Streets Dept., the blog is celebrating its fifth birthday with an exhibition at Paradigm Gallery and Studio. The show, “#StreetsDeptTurns5,” opened Friday.
“[Streets Dept] was basically me answering the call of, ‘Why is there not a media outlet in the city that’s covering this thing that’s clearly exciting and crazy?’” Benner said. “I’ve loved street art my whole life, I’ve been a lifelong Philadelphian and it’s essentially me celebrating, documenting and archiving street art in Philadelphia over the years.”
The blog has grown during the last five years to include a variety of types of street artists, including muralists, sticker artists and yarnbombers—graffiti completed with knitting and yarn instead of paint—like Ishknits, an artist who has worked with Streets Dept. since its beginning in 2011.
Benner described the showcase as “essentially the greatest hits of Streets Dept.” The exhibit features ten artists Benner has worked with over the past five years, including Ishknits, who focuses in yarnbombing.
“There’s a lot of content out there and sometimes it’s unnecessarily critical, which makes the street art world very exclusionary,” Ishknits said. “And the fine art world is already very exclusionary and a lot of people feel like they don’t fit in and I actually get really upset when people start critiquing street art and making people feel like they don’t fit in.”
“If people don’t feel included in street art, then where … are they going to make art if they don’t feel included in fine art and street art?” she added. “But I feel that [Benner] has an extremely positive impact on the street art community in making people feel like they can be a part of it … he is very supportive and very positive.”
Ishknits first got into contact with Benner after she saw his work posted on the blog and asked him to photograph her 2011 installation on SEPTA’s Market-Frankford line: wrapping multicolored patchwork of yarn around seating on the train cars.
“[Streets Dept.] is probably the best thing to happen to me as a street artist,” Ishknits said. “Being able to develop a relationship with somebody who’s able to capture the work, it’s very transient, especially since yarn bombing can just be cut down … but he’s able to capture the work so perfectly.”
“He was able to get his pictures onto some internationally known blogs for street art,” she added. “So it actually sprung us both into the international street art realm.”
Benner worked with Paradigm Gallery for the exhibition, hoping to bring together the street art community.
“I don’t normally curate shows like this, I’m more of a digital presence,” Benner said. “So it’s exciting … to have a place where we can all come together, people who read my blog, the artists, people interested in buying the art where it would be hard to do so otherwise.”
The gallery’s setting also offers a new environment for pieces to be displayed. Rather than working on abandoned buildings and bike racks, the artists have a chance to display their work on the gallery walls.
“It’s a hard thing to come to terms with,” Ishknits said. “I generally work with the environment, and when I go into a space with walls, it’s not very intuitive for me. I’m usually working with structures and sculptures so, it’s a really different framework for me to work with.”
“It definitely changes the work, it makes it different,” she added. “I don’t make street art for the gallery. I make art for the gallery.”
In the future, Streets Dept. may expand its coverage to include street art in other countries and another exhibit for its 10th anniversary, which Benner hopes will be held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I love Philly,” Benner said. ”I’m just looking at ways that I can lend my voice.”
Emily Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.