Putting Philadelphia’s Public Art Online

More Than Likes is a series about social media personalities who are trying to do positive things for their communities.

Conrad Benner’s phone camera was fixed on Nile Livingston, an artist who stood in front of a blank wall. Mx. Livingston would soon paint a massive mural, and the “canvas” would be the side of an apartment building overlooking a parking lot in the Gayborhood area of Philadelphia. But Mx. Livingston was having a hard time finding the right words for a promotional TikTok.

“We can do a thousand takes,” Mr. Benner said, warmth in his voice. He had chosen both the location and the artist.

Mr. Benner, 38, runs Streets Dept, a photo blog and social media presence dedicated to spotlighting street artists. In addition to interviewing artists on video and photographing their work, Mr. Benner selects artists for Mural Arts Philadelphia, which says it is the nation’s largest public art program. In a city known for the richness of both its cultural institutions and its public art scene, Mr. Benner wants to “serve the artists in all ways.”

“He’s a bridge in the public art community,” Mx. Livingston said. “He stops and slows down and observes the things around him, and he really cares about the city of Philadelphia.”

Before meeting up with Mx. Livingston, Mr. Benner’s camera was locked on another artist, Alexei Mansour, whom Mr. Brenner had selected to paint a mural in real time as part of a street festival. It was almost 90 degrees, and huge speakers drowned out Mr. Mansour, a self-described “mumbler” not keen on public speaking. There were people everywhere and Mr. Mansour, too, struggled, his face turning bright red. (“I blacked out,” Mr. Mansour said later of the moment.)

Mr. Benner took control: He instructed Mr. Mansour to wave his hands in front of his face to cool himself down. He switched locations, first trying to record Mr. Mansour in an adjacent building (also too loud) before settling on a corner away from the commotion.

“One, two, three,” Mr. Benner said patiently, and Mr. Mansour began to describe his work.

Mr. Mansour, whose work focuses on queer identity, and his team worked on a mural of the Greek god Dionysus, whom some consider an early nonbinary figure.

Mr. Benner, who grew up in the Fishtown neighborhood and typically wears a flat-brimmed cap and a mustache, eschews attention when documenting art, directing people’s eyes toward the artists he supports.

“My interest was always at pointing the camera outwards,” Mr. Benner said. “I find deep joy and interest in learning about the world around me through public art and the artists who make it.”

Mr. Benner first published Streets Dept in 2011. A novice to the street art world — Mr. Benner is not a trained artist, and he had long planned to go into architecture — his early posts took on what he called a “fanboy blog” tone.

The blog went mainstream in June 2011 when Time magazine reprinted a post about an artist who had “yarn-bombed” a city train, wrapping seats in multicolored knit fibers. The attention landed Mr. Benner a full-time marketing job, which he quit in 2015 after he surpassed 100,000 Instagram followers (he now has more than 150,000 followers and another 34,600 on TikTok) and devoted all of his focus to Streets Dept. He later started a subscription service through Patreon, a membership platform for content creators.

In 2020, Mr. Benner began selecting artists and locations for Mural Arts, which he said now provides the bulk of Street Dept’s funding, after nearly a decade of independent curatorial work, which he still does on the side.

At the heart of all that work is a love for a city that he believes is particularly suited to a thriving street arts community.

“Most of the street artists who work right now are putting up on either abandoned buildings or construction materials,” Mr. Benner said. “Almost every neighborhood in Philly has an abandoned building that’s a former warehouse, or abandoned homes.”

“There was this idea that, OK, industry and maybe some people left this city, so now it’s our playground,” he said of street artists (the city’s population declined from about two million in the 1960s to about 1.5 million in 2021). “If you leave a building abandoned, it’s going to get filled with art.”

Hours after filming with Mx. Livingston and Mr. Mansour, Mr. Benner popped by a free wall space for artists on a busy street corner, where a man was painting a woman’s face. Mr. Benner had seen the artist’s work for months but had never met him. He was Shaun Durbin, an up-and-coming local artist who had tried to get Mr. Benner’s attention earlier at the live painting. He agreed to let Mr. Benner feature his work.

Mr. Benner pulled out his camera. “This is so kismet,” he said. His favorite part of his work is meeting new artists and sharing their work with the masses. “Why else are we in this world if not to just look around and be excited by what’s around us?”


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