Philadelphia’s foremost curator in street art right now is just a kid from Fishtown named Conrad Benner.
He doesn’t have an arts degree. In fact, Benner, 32, doesn’t even have a formal degree from any college or university. There is no paper from an accredited institution that defines his success and immense impact on Philadelphia’s equally massive street art scene.
What he does have is a really nice Nikon DSLR, a free WordPress website and a passion for art, Philadelphia and political action that has made this 32-year-old quite the maverick. Started in 2011, Benner’s blog, Streets Dept., went from being a site that showcased great muralism and graffiti into a virtual encyclopedia of the painters, pasters, knitters and taggers of Philadelphia’s street art ethos. Benner’s latest chapter has been masterful in fusing all that is provocative, informative and visually stunning in the protest art scene into a forum to speak out and educate on injustice.
“Conrad is a great combination of someone that is creative, curious and empathic,” said Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “He is emblematic of a new generation of curators coming up that are more and more informed by many different disciplines. But where he differs is that he finds them all interesting and sees how they can all inform and influence for a greater good. His role in Philadelphia’s art community is a vital one.”
Benner’s idea to create his blog really arrived from one of his most enjoyable ways to mellow out. An avid walker, solo tours around the city were the impetus of chronicling unique street art and getting to know the people behind the scenes. It was a notion that made his blog an instant success, and it also landed him a job at one of the city’s more respected marketing agencies. However, it was a mix of long hours and the rapid growth of the Streets Dept. brand that found Benner leaving the 9-to-5 life after a four-year run in 2015 to run his personal brand full-time.
“I’d be walking around and see a Joe Boruchow wheatpaste on the street, photograph it and put it on my blog and he’d message me and be like ‘you might not remember me, but I was your bartender at Tattooed Mom a few weeks ago, do you want to grab coffee?’ and then it was Ishknits a few weeks later and so on and so forth. It’s really when I knew that this blog is really more of a collaboration to help showcase the work of these artists and at the same time get educated on their work, how it’s made and its inspiration. I knew that if I found this stuff interesting, there has to be a whole network of people out there who feel the same way I do.”
Fast forward six years to multiple local and national awards and well over 100k who follow his Instagram page, it turns out Benner was exactly right.
The PRIDE of Fishtown
Today’s highly gentrified version of Fishtown is a much different one than Benner can recall growing up gay on Belgrade Street near Susquehanna Avenue not far from the Berks station stop on the Market-Frankford Line. His father purchased the house in the 1970s and it’s where Benner, born in 1985, grew up learning from surroundings he says featured teenage street gangs, drug use and a pretty significant undercurrent of racism and homophobia.
“Oh yeah, it was interesting growing up in Fishtown, I remember that there were different [factions] of these kid gangs that would hang at the Fishtown Rec Center and fight and stuff,” said Benner. “You know it was typical life living in an inner city, I heard gunshots, I saw fights, [Fishtown then compared to Fishtown now] was very different. But to be honest, even though I was a skinny kid, I was taller for my age. I kept my head down and really didn’t cause a scene. I’m fortunate, I guess because no one really messed with me.”
And because he never was messed with, Fishtown is where Benner currently resides not far from his family home. What growing up in Fishtown did teach Benner was how to speak his mind and stand his ground.
“Conrad has an insatiable love for this city like a lot of us in the art community have,” said Justin Bertsch, a community outreach coordinator for Fishtown-based V.U.R.T. Creative, a non-profit initiative dedicated to beautifying Philly’s streets and neighborhoods through public street art in addition to raising both awareness and funds for various organizations, it’s most recent being a drive to refuel a dwindling art program in the School District of Philadelphia. Bertsch claims that Benner’s Streets Dept. blog has been instrumental in putting V.U.R.T’s mission on the map.
“He does a phenomenal job at unearthing the newest and hottest pieces around Philadelphia,” continued Bertsch. His blog alone has helped us at V.U.R.T Creative…but we also appreciate his realness. The fact that he speaks his mind on any subject and stands his ground, not just trying to appease a certain group, goes a long way to nonprofits like ours.”
Perhaps Benner has been so successful because he’s constantly learning as he goes. He’s never considered himself an expert – in anything really – and it’s that same humility and thirst to learn that has made Streets Dept. a staple. From the first time he photographed an explainer on Ishknits’ “yarn-bombing” walls and fences all over the city to his multiple collaborative efforts over the years with political artists, activists, museums and even city officials, every instance, every collaboration for Benner has been a way to gain deeper knowledge of the world he’s surrounded by daily.
“You have to learn from other people, no one can know it all,” Benner said. “Streets Dept. has to be a collaborative effort, it’s literally a blog about other people’s art. So I have to understand people, understand art, understand artists and really dive into that community. Like I said, I didn’t go to college, I had no formal arts education, so a lot of the art education I got was from these artists.”
However with education has grown his influence and it’s that same influence he’s used to create and affect change in the city. During the presidential election, he fueled a project called Signs of Solidarity, pairing some of the city’s best street artists with everyday Philadelphians to create protest art displayed all over the city. Additionally, Benner spearheads a street art tour the second Saturday of every month and recently announced a partnership with the Art Museum for a project called “Philadelphia Assembled,” created to fuse art and civic engagement.
“What really comes through for me is his excitement and love of discovery,” said Robert Perry, owner of Tattooed Moms on South Street, widely respected as the unofficial (official) museum for street artists. “That spark of walking down the street or turning a corner and finding something unexpected. Street art has that magic sense of instant transformation, of seeing a place in new way. Conrad embodies that energy through his lens, his life and his love for both the art he documents and the folks who create it.”