A View from the Top

Courtesy Conrad Benner
Courtesy Conrad Benner

It all started with a broken leg and a DSLR camera.

Conrad Benner, a photographer and blogger, started Streets Dept, a blog that documents Philadelphia’s street art and urban exploration, in 2011 shortly after he was hit by a van while biking home from work on 6th and Spring Garden streets.

“I was on my parents’ couch for three months, couldn’t walk,” he said. “And I was just sort of terrified of biking ever since then, and I didn’t really like SEPTA, so I would just kind of walk everywhere — like, 30 minutes to work, 30 minutes back to work, and that was around the time I bought my camera, so I would just take my camera with me wherever I went and photographed street art, photographed the skyline, photographed cool things.”

Fast forward two years, and that same blog has been voted Philadelphia’s top Instagram to follow by Philadelphia Weekly and featured as one of the city’s best blogs by the Guardian earlier this month.

On average, Benner’s blog gets about 500 to 1,000 hits per day. One of the most viewed pieces is “15 Spots To Instagram From In Philly.” The blog’s Instagram, “@streetsdept”, has a little more than 6,000 followers.

A Fishtown native, Benner said he’s always admired the city’s art culture, and as he got older, he started to notice that the tags, graffiti and art pasted on light posts, sidewalks and walls weren’t being documented. After perusing through memory cards full of Philly’s street art, he decided he would be the one to share it.

“I thought, ‘OK, I basically have the ammo to get this started. Why don’t I just start it?’” he said. “So I started it with modest expectations, and it grew very quickly, I think because it didn’t exist yet. There are street art blogs in New York, Chicago, but not one here.”

Prior to his claim to fame, Benner blogged for the “Talkin’ S—” category on Philebrity. From there, he became an editor of Philthy Mag, where he blogged about everything from Obama’s 2008 election to the opening of The Barbary. Now, aside from running Streets Dept, Benner works a day job at an advertising agency.

Benner said he likes to keep his blogging and career separate from each other.

“If I were a full-time photographer, I’d either work for a magazine and not do a lot of my own stuff, or I would freelance, where I would have to hope and pray that I get a job this month or that I get to do stuff that I like,” Benner said. “Everything I do on the side with my photography is completely just what I want to do. I don’t have to worry about it as a source of income.”

Though almost all the photos are taken by Benner, there are contributions from other photographers. In addition, street artists invite him to tag along on their work before it gets painted over, or taken down, especially in rush jobs.

“Pretty much any of the artists that reach out to me, I end up developing a relationship with,” he said. “Just because, I don’t know, I’m lucky enough to, I guess. They’re really cool people, and they’re doing really great work.”

About three months after he started the blog, Ishknits, an artist who attaches installations made of yarn in parts of the city, contacted Benner to document her as she yarn bombed the Market-Frankford Line.

“I got really excited,” Benner said. “I ran home, edited the photos and put them up the next day. Within a few weeks, a photo was printed in Time magazine.”

Jimmy O’Donnell, a 20-year-old photographer, started following Streets Dept on Instagram and reached out to see if Benner would want to do some urban exploring. Together, they took pictures of the abandoned Tastykake factory.

“[Benner’s] a crazy dude — he’s always doing stuff,” O’Donnell said. “I think it’s great, and he’s really good at what he does, and he’s really humble about it. I like the cross between the urban exploring and the street art — [photos] actual people can relate to.”

And people are relating to the pictures. Philadelphia’s street art culture is on the rise, and a surprisingly low amount of people are reporting graffiti for cleanup.

Thomas Conway, the deputy managing director for the city, oversees Philly’s graffiti abatement team and its anti-graffiti network.

Conway said, on average, there are only about 10,000 calls reported annually. However, the team, which surveys areas year-round, clean up about 120,000 properties per year by power washing the graffiti or painting over it.

“I think it’s just being destructive,” Conway said. “It’s basically vandalism and basically criminal mischief.”

However, Conway said there’s a distinct difference between graffiti and street art, which is reported at an even lower rate.

Benner’s work isn’t limited to a computer screen, however. On occasion, he’ll have his photos up at galleries throughout the city, featuring pictures of art done by the same artists he’s developed close connections with through the blog.

He said he carefully chooses what goes up in the galleries or on his blog and tries to push his political views when possible.

In mid-August, Benner published photos from the “Fund Our Schools” light installation, a subject that’s close to his heart. He said he also admires the anti-catcalling and anti-harassment spray painted installations found throughout the city.

“I’m essentially the curator of a gallery,” Benner said. “I’m finding things that I like and putting it on my blog, so I love the really colorful characters that Nose Go creates that are just beautiful and take so much time, and effort and thought, but then I really love the ‘Don’t Call Me ‘Hey Sweetie’’ on the ground. Because, I mean, that’s what street art is — it’s a place to bring up politics and call stuff out.”

Patricia Madej can be reached at patricia.madej@temple.edu.

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