Conrad Benner: Speaking Out for Street Art

Conrad Benner

It’s PRIDE month, and there are so many things to do. I recently got an email from the wonderful folks at Cashman and Associates inviting me to attend a panel discussion at the W Hotel called, “Queer Me Out.” The panel was hosted by Anne Ishii, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative, and people discussed the idea of creating queer spaces in Philadelphia. One of the speakers was someone who knows quite a bit about public spaces, Conrad Benner, who has been writing about public art and space since starting his blog, “Streets Dept” in 2011. 

Named one of the 76 most influential people in Philly by Philadelphia magazine in 2020, Benner describes himself as a “blogger / photographer / all around very curious fellow.” I spoke to him because I was curious about the incredible installation he’s curated for the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is being held outdoors once again this year at FDR park June 11 to 19. The theme, ‘In Full Bloom’ will feature 40 major exhibitors of diverse backgrounds and experiences. I was excited to find that there are an assortment of new dining options including a happy hour, floral-inspired cocktails, and dining provided by award winning chefs. For you party people, there’s also a floral dance club called “The Bloom Room,” featuring sound wave elements, and a live DJ. I spoke to Conrad about the exhibit he’s coordinating and the importance of public art. 

Describe the environment that you grew up in.

I grew up in Fishtown, lived in the same small house my whole life. My dad was from Fishtown, his dad was from Fishtown, my mom was from Port Richmond. It was just me and my brother, who’s 12 years older than me, so he was out of the house by the time I was six. Not a ton of us, but we were super tight-knit.  

Where do you think you got your artistic side from?

That’s a good question. I think a lot about it. Neither of my parents had any kind of artistic background. My dad was a fire alarm installer, though he was a carpenter in his younger years until he got kicked out of the Union for doing a job on the side. He would find an old Phillies helmet and create a lamp out of it and sell it at a flea market, he did that kind of stuff up until he died. My mom worked in a bank but was creative in that she was always reading books and coming up with games that we would play together. So no formal artists in the family, but I guess we’re all creative in different ways when you think about it through that lens. 

I never saw a connection between myself and the arts. I went to Central High, and my education was very academically focused, and then I got kicked out at the end of my junior year because they thought I was being lazy.  It turned out I had a semi chronic form of mono. Just like some people get Long Covid, I had long mono with symptoms that lasted for two years. So I was homeschooled my senior year. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and I was living in Center City with a Craigslist roommate that I met up with at 7th and Bainbridge, that I discovered the arts. I was working at Whole Foods and had developed a friend group that was into the arts, and we’d explore the city together. We started going to First Friday in Old City, and that’s when I first realized how much I enjoyed it. Of course later, I realized that I’d always been around art, you know? Street art, graffiti, and murals had been a part of my landscape forever, I just didn’t recognize it. But meeting artists and being around the scene helped me realize that there might be space for me too. 

What medium did you use to be a part of things?

It was always journalism. When I was 21, a girl I went to elementary school with, Kelly White, was an intern at Philebrity, which was the biggest blog in the city back then. She wrote a weekly article, [laughing] I think it was called, “Talking Shit.” The Internet was different back then. It was a weekly Roundup of cultural stuff in Philly. She asked me to co-write it with her because she saw me out all the time going to openings and events. I cowrote that with her for a full summer, and it really opened a career path for me where I was invited to write freelance for other publications including Frequency, which was part of I did a street fashion series, I photographed interior design, whatever the editors assigned me to. 

When I turned 24 I broke my leg. I was biking down 6th Street and got hit by a van. I was in the hospital for a week, and they put a rod in my leg. I had to move back home and live with my parents for the summer. At the time, I’d been working for Capogiro Gelato making seven dollars an hour, and I was panic stricken about what I was going to do with my life. I had no savings and was really worried about money. After the accident I went into a crazy depression and when I came out of it, I moved back into the apartment and enrolled in community college thinking that might put me on some kind of path. I knew I wanted to do something creative, but freelancing for $70 an article wasn’t cutting it. Two things happened. I started dating a guy named Kurt and I decided to do my own thing and started Streets Department in 2011. Kurt noticed that I was using a flip phone to take pictures and he bought me my first camera. It was a $100 point and shoot but it allowed me to launch the blog. After years of being interested in the world and the things around me, I decided to write about it and explore it more. As much as I liked the gallery work and First Friday, it felt like that beat was already covered, but few journalists were interested in this incredible world of street art burgeoning in Philadelphia. So that’s how the blog got started.

What was the first notable piece that you did?

Back then blogs were relatively new, not a lot of newspapers and other outlets knew how to get into the digital space. One of my early decisions was only to document things that I actually saw or photographed myself. There were a few street art blogs out there, but they often covered art from around the world using photos taken by someone else and just critiqued it. 

At the time, I was still working at Capogiro and going to school while trying to recover from the leg injury. I would take long, meandering walks to school or work and photograph what I saw along the way. I didn’t have time to write stories to go with it so I would just post the pictures, but very quickly I had a number of street artists say, “I love what you’re doing, why don’t you shoot me installing a piece?” It allowed me to get some amazing pictures of like, Joe Boruchow putting up a wheat paste, or Ishknits yarn bombing on the El, and those photos started to blow up my blog. 

Very quickly the pictures started getting picked up by some bigger and even national media outlets. Wooster picked it up, and once they did, a lot of others like Juxtaposed magazine would print the work too. TIME magazine even ran the piece I did about Ishknits! 

I went from starting the blog to having a credit in TIME magazine in 4 months. It was mind-blowing. I started in January, and in May I was offered a job in marketing with Quaker City Mercantile. It was the job I was going to school to study for, so I took it and worked there for 4 years while still doing the blog. I would take 2 hour lunch breaks and sit at Capogiro and write the blog (sorry Steve Grass!). By October of that year, I was invited to curate my first exhibition at Philadelphia Moca, and I got 11 artists to come out. Then I curated my first mural with Yis Goodwin. That whole year was just a whirlwind. 

How did you get involved in activism?

In 2014 I had 1,000 instagram followers. That was a good number back then, and having lived in Philadelphia and done a lot of commuting, I hated the night owl buses, so I started a petition to have the trains run 24/7. The story got picked up by all the media outlets, and in 2014, SEPTA said yes and started running late trains and it was wildly successful; ridership went up 170%, and they kept it going until the pandemic. It taught me the value of being civically engaged and the difference one person can make, especially on the local level where change is much more possible to enact. 

I was at an informative age when Obama was elected, and it’s nice to have a good president, but your councilperson, your city controller, your state reps and senators are the ones who have the biggest effect on your day to day lives. I’ve worked on many, many voter outreach campaigns; it won’t solve everything, but people are going to be in these positions of power, so at the least, we should try to get people in who are going to act more in your favor than the opponent. 

I’ve had the honor of working with many different organizations across the city, from Mural Arts, to Visit Philly and of course the Flower Show, and I have been able to convince them to let artists create using their money and spaces. 

I worked with Covenant House doing a project about homeless youth called, Am I Cut Out. The fact is that youth homelessness is solvable; it’s just a money issue, a resource issue. We did 517 life size human cutouts to show the number of homeless kids turned away from shelters. Numbers have so much more impact when you can demonstrate them and those figures taking up all of the space around city hall was very powerful. 

The “Am I Cut Out” art installation at City Hall.

You mentioned the Flower Show; let’s talk about that. 

Yes, in 2019 I was invited to curate artists to do some wall murals in the new Fashion District. I had 10 artists do 10 murals and I really loved it. Especially since one of my first jobs was working at the mall, then the Gallery at Old Navy until I was fired. So it was fun coming full circle there with such a cool project.

Last year the Flower Show asked me to curate some artists to do murals, which we did on a back wall at the Flower Show. Apparently it was a big hit on Instagram, so this year they asked me to do a spot right by the front gates, and not only did they give me a wall to do, they also offered us green space to do something sculptural. I’ve been working with two incredible artists, Cindy Lozito, who is doing a 24 x 8 large mural, and Nicole Nikolich, an artist I’ve worked with before, who will be doing 10 huge wooden flower installations that will be yarn bombed in the green space. We just installed them and they’re massively impressive. They gave me all the feels! 

It’s funny; I wanted to do something queer as part of the exhibit because it’s Pride month, but we went more accessible because it’s right at the front of the show, but then the two artists chosen both happened to be queer anyway, so we’re representing in our own way. The first installation I ever photographed Nicole doing was a project where she took a series of flowers dying and coming to life that she yarn bombed. It was her way of talking about her experiences with mental health through her street art. I showed the photos to the Flower Show folks and they like the idea of the yarn flowers so I called Nicole and she said, “I don’t know how the fuck we’re going to do it but let’s do it!” Cindy Lozito was from a project I’d done with Visit Philly and I pitched her doing the mural. They liked her work too. She does really bold, beautiful graphics work that translate well to a mural. 

So tell me about you being a little queer boy at home with mono dreaming about kissing boys!

[Laughing] Yeah, well I grew up Irish Catholic, very involved in the church, I was an altar boy. But by the time I got to middle school I was in a public school and so we stopped going to church as much. I knew I was gay when I was 14. I had a girlfriend at the time. [Some time later] I was having a glass of wine with my mother and I asked her when she knew I was gay. She said, “Well, you had a girlfriend named Amy and you came home and you were like, ‘Ew, all she wants to do is kiss!’ and you were upset about it. I figured something was up.”

But when I figured it out at 14, like, “Oh, so that’s why I like looking at the underwear ads at K-Mart, I’m gay!” I wasn’t shy about it, I told all my friends, including my girlfriend. Obviously we broke up but she was really supportive, but the only people I didn’t tell were my parents! This was 2001, and I think the media kind of made you fearful, so I lived a double life, out to everyone except for my family. 

When I was 17 I picked a day that I would tell my mom. I waited until the day was almost over, we were watching reruns of “Friends,” and at just before midnight I told her and she said, “I know. I love you. Can I go to bed now, it’s late.” As she left the room I called out, “Don’t tell dad! I’ll tell him at a different time!” I didn’t end up doing it until I was 24 and his response was, “I’m really proud of you.” I’m guessing they both knew, which gave them time to process it. Working with Covenant House made me aware of how many LGBTQ kids get kicked out of their homes. I am very lucky, they’re both incredible. 

3 places you were tickled to see your photography?

Well, the Times of course, and then in 2012, the Encyclopedia Britannica bought one of my photos to go with their Yarn-bombing definition. And in 2014 I had a picture of a subway that Rihanna’s people bought to use in a music video for her song, “Man Down.” The Inquirer wrote a story about it! I worked with Leah Douglas to do a collage of my street art photos for the Philadelphia Airport that was beautifully executed by Leah and her team. To have 40,000 people each day see the work and the diversity of thought and creativity that we have in the city was really special.

What mural would you want to enter if you could?

Crazy question! You know what? I’ve never been out of the country and I’m dying to travel. So there’s a really simple mural that depicts the Italian countryside on the side of an Italian restaurant at Juniper and Spruce. That would be fun to jump in and explore a new country. 

If you had to gain 10lbs, what would you eat? 

Shrimp taco salads from Que Chula Es Puebla in Kensington. It was my go to spot when I lived over there. 

Why do you do what you do? 

The blog is a celebration of public art and public space. What we see in a public space can affect us in so many ways. Advertisers understand this well; that’s why they pay billions of dollars for billboards and advertising in public spaces. Art and messaging in a public space has an enormous effect on us. Murals, sculptures, parks, gardens and monuments can reflect us and our values, our hopes and dreams. It can inspire us to imagine and remind us of our past, it can make us think, it can make us smile, and those are all valuable things. 

There are so few things that are free in this world, but art in public spaces is devoid of capitalism. You don’t have to buy something or pay an entrance fee, and it’s a shared experience. Imagine that, being able to share something with the people who live in your city. It’s a beautiful thing. And I can’t talk about it, but I’m working on something for the LGBTQ community that will celebrate our history. Stay tuned!