We are texting every day and everywhere these days. Ben Eine appears to be doing it across the entirety of South Philadelphia.
The prolific London artist who is known for his distinctive lettering style sits right at the border of graffiti and street art with a nod to both. Now he is also firmly a muralist after knocking out nearly forty letters in his circus font on metallic pull-down shutters for neighbors and businesses here.
"Honestly, we started with me finding Ben about seven shutters to paint," says RJ Rushmore of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, "and he just went from there and wound up getting permission for literally dozens more." The program has a way of uniting artists with community in a holistic way.
"It's a great experience getting positive feedback from the people who live in the neighborhoods I paint," says the former graffiti writer who might not have asked for permission when he began a couple of decades ago. "When I did graffiti no one enjoyed what I painted aside from a few writer friends. Nowadays it's the total opposite. What I paint is pretty happy. It's hard not to like it."
The idea to ask Eine to come to the city began when Rushmore and local muralist Shira Walinsky were looking for good ways for the mural program to engage with the neighborhood of settlers from Bhutan, Burma, and Nepal. Many of these folks are refugees and meet at a community arts and resource center here named Southeast-by-Southeast.
While street art has been accused alternately of being a tool for vandalism and for gentrification, this mural program had a street artist in mind to bring the neighborhood something positive, slowly transforming the feelings of connectedness and even pride.
"We both love seeing shutters painted, and we thought that more painted shutters would be a positive contribution to South 7th Street. As for bringing Ben specifically, we both love his work, and we wanted to see some of it in Philly," says Rushmore, "We also hoped that having an internationally recognized artist paint near Southeast-by-Southeast would bring wider attention to the community center and the neighborhood's under-served refugee population."
What the organizers and the artist may not have anticipated was the enthusiastic support that came from the community once they saw how Eine's pleasantly poppish letters perked up the place -- nor how many excited neighbors would begin requesting them.
"I think it was 39 shutters," says a newly exhausted Eine with some satisfaction. "That's the most I've painted over the course of four days. Random shutters scattered around a city are cool -- but when you paint every shutter on a block you totally change the dynamic of that area."
"Ben hadn't planned to paint 39 shutters, but once he got to about 15, it became about painting an entire alphabet, and then he just kept going," RJ tells us. "It was a marathon. Luckily, the interest from building owners just snowballed. People would come by while he was painting, love what they saw, and offer up their own shutters down the street or around the corner. Ben's work sold itself."
Did he find the uneven and rolling surface of the metal grating especially difficult to paint? "It really depends on what I'm painting. Big walls are great for big words. The shutters are perfect for one letter. They are super quick to paint. It almost feels like graffiti," he says, perhaps thinking of his earlier years of "hitting" and running, can in hand.
They say the project gathered steam after the first people said yes to Ben's work. Savannah and Julio are a husband and wife team who co-own and run a bodega right in the heart of the neighborhood and they requested that Ben paint their initials on their two shutters.
Rushmore points to their openness and generosity as contributing to the positive buzz. "Once Ben arrived, Julio and Savannah loaned us a stepladder." Other neighbors got excited and RJ said their excitement fueled him as he kept knocking on more doors.
"There were even a few locations that had initially turned me down, but changed their minds once they met Ben and saw exactly what he was doing. I didn't hear a single negative reaction from anyone living or working nearby."
Eine says he feels good that he is leaving behind something that the neighborhood can relate to and feel proud of and he appreciates the restorative nature of programs like Philadelphia Mural Arts.
"It's important to involve the community in these art projects," he says, "These are the people who live there. I get on a plane, fly somewhere else, and most of the time I never see my painting again. I always consider who is going to walk past my painting everyday and how it's going to change their day."
To learn more about The City Of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and to Volunteer click HERE