“STOP’s the best,” says artist Steve Powers without a moment’s hesitation. I’ve just asked him to name his favorite street sign.
(Of course STOP’s the best. Maybe a close second is the snaky one for “Curves ahead,” but there aren’t many of those in Manhattan. STOP’s definitely best.)
Powers, a Brooklyn-based artist who in a former life went by ESPO, famous for painting that moniker in giant letters on riot gates, has now designed street signs of his own, 30 to be exact, with the blessing of the city’s Department of Transportation. It’s a far cry from being booked by police for graffiti-writing, something he may or may not have encountered as a youth in Philadelphia and, later, New York.
Instead of cautioning people to stop or merge, these signs are “an emotional wayfinding system used to complement the traditional directional signs that guide and caution us at every turn,” says the communications department for the D.O.T., which paid Powers for the signs. (We’ve got a call in to find out how much, and we’ll update this story when the D.O.T. gets back.)
It’s all part of Summer Streets, a city program that shuts down seven miles of Lafayette Street into Park Avenue from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on three consecutive Saturdays: August 1, 8, and 15. On those days, the streets fill with all sorts of amusements: a water slide, a zip line, a “soccer zone,” and lots and lots of Vita Coco coconut water.
The messages on Powers’s signs are sort of the sarcastic teen at the family-focused party that is Summer Streets: They’re peppered with wry phrasing, images of rushing or hungover commuters (a tidy link to that Vita Coco sponsorship), and thought-provoking icons.
In one, the word “LATE” appears over a pair of running legs. Another features a trash bag with legs and the message “It’s drag yourself to work day.” A third points you to confusers, abusers, users, and producers. All utterly relatable sentiments.
“I’m not one of these lame street artists that puts a wrestler head on the wall and asks you what it means,” Powers says. “When I draw it might make you cringe, but it’s going to make you feel something, unless you’re incapable of feeling and you can relate to only a dead wrestler on a wall.”
All of this makes Powers and his decidedly sardonic, sometimes antiestablishment work seem an unlikely partner for city government, especially since he was the target of NYPD investigations back in 1999 (see “Rudy’s Most Wanted,” a Voice piece by Richard Goldstein that’s very critical of Powers; he opens our conversation by mentioning it: “I keep the link alive on my website. I never want to see it taken down, because I live to disprove everything in that article”).
“There was an initial confusion about the work I do,” Powers says later. “But time has shown I am a very civic-minded person, that I work very effectively to communicate the conversations that I have with the city.”
Powers moved to the commercial art world around 2000 (he now owns ICY Signs at 72 Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn) and in 2013 notably painted the 5,000-square-foot Macy’s parking garage at Livingston and Hoyt in Brooklyn, with the blessing of the city.
This week, Powers went out with city workers to hang the signs (“I put my peepers on every one,” he says. “I advised, I consulted, I asked them to put them higher”).
Is he worried they’ll get stolen in the month they’re up? Nah:
“If the art is stolen I level up,” he says. “I hit a brand-new level of excellence. Only the best signs get stolen.”
Powers’s signs can be seen hanging on lampposts at four of the Summer Streets rest stops — steal them if you want at these locations:
• Midtown at 25th Street and Park Avenue
• Astor Place at Astor Place and Lafayette Street
• Soho at Spring Street and Lafayette Street
• The majority are at Foley Square at Duane Street and Centre Street
While Powers is working in collaboration with the D.O.T. on this project, he’s got one more proposal for them:
“My ideal sign is a green stop sign,” he says. “Very rare. I’m trying to get the D.O.T. to make it for me. They’re reluctant. I might have to make it myself.”