The Writing’s on the Wall: Found Poetry in Street Art

The following guest post is by Amber Paranick, a librarian in the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room.

I got the idea for this post by quite literally stumbling on it. I was running to catch my bus and tripped and almost fell. I looked down at my feet and much to my admiration was the first line of a poem penned by Lord Byron (handwritten in sidewalk chalk, no less): “She walks in beauty, like the night. . . .”

Not long after, I discovered this image/text on the side of a two-story building in Philadelphia:

Philadelphia mural art

Image Credit: Amber Paranick, 2014.

The above is arguably a “found poem,” and is especially successful in its use of rhyme. These instances led me to think: what other pieces of poetic text scribbled on sidewalks– in the form of legal (or illegal for that matter) graffiti, or painted in the form of a mural– am I missing by not paying attention to my surroundings?

I did a little research (as a reference librarian, it’s in my nature) and found out that the mural I saw was created by former graffiti artist Stephen Powers, aka ESPO (“Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”), with the city of Philadelphia’s permission (in a partnership with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program). It was funded by a $260,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. The Mural Arts Program, a government and nonprofit hybrid, was started as an anti-graffiti initiative in 1984 by Jane Golden and has since commissioned more than 3,000 murals and other works of public art in the city.

The 50+ visual murals that make up Powers’ “Love Letter” project are a series of love notes that highlight the good sides of relationships–

hug me like i hug the block

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

and sometimes the bad sides–

I got the butter, I got the bread, I got the milk, I got the blame

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

while serving as an open love letter to the city and, specifically, the Overbrook neighborhood in west Philadelphia where Powers spent his childhood. In addition to rhyme, these texts use poetic devices such as rhythm (even formal meter), repetition, and parallelism to great effect.

Some of the murals’ themes are obvious, like the phrase “Picture Me, Picture Us, Picture This,” on the side of a camera shop–

Picture You, Picture Me, Picture This--US

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

and “This Love is Real So Dinner is On Me” on the side of a restaurant:

This love is so real dinner is on me

Image Credit: LindsayT… on Flickr.

Others have meanings that aren’t quite so transparent–they play with metaphor, and create multiple or possibly conflicting meanings. For instance, in one mural, the word RIGHT is spelled out in letters made of up paper dollar bills. Does he mean: Right on the money? The price is right? Money makes everything right?

To see these rooftop murals and street level signs in and around the Market Street corridor in West Philadelphia, take a ride on the Philadelphia’s Market-Frankford elevated train and keep your eyes open from 46th Street through 63rd Street. You’ll view an array of these murals both on your way into, and out of, the city.

Next time you’re en route: Look up! Or look down! Poetry may be right there in front of you. You just have to look for it, or, in my case, stumble on it.

One Comment

  1. C L Couch
    November 19, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    I once took photos of children’s art done in colored chalk on the sidewalk. Then I felt I was cheating, for it was in the nature of chalk art on the sidewalk that it be transitory (lasting until the next rain). This is different. This art, painted on buildings and hugging the block (to paraphrase one of the poems above), is meant to last. They are long-lasting messages to the original receivers and now to the rest of us. Thanks so much for sharing what was found.

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