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 pointed at Nile Livingston, an artist who was standing in front of a blank wall. Mx. Livingston would soon be painting a huge mural and the « canvas » would be the side of an apartment building facing a parking lot in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood area. But Mx. Livingston was having a hard time finding the right words for a promotional TikTok.
« We can do a thousand takes, » said Mr. Benner, his voice warm. He had chosen both the place and the artist.
Mr. Benner, 38, runs Roads Department, a photography blog and social media presence dedicated to spotlighting street artists. In addition to interviewing artists on video and photographing their work, Mr. Benner screens artists for Wall arts Philadelphia, which it says is the largest public art program in the nation. In a city known for the richness of its cultural institutions and its public art sceneMr. Benner wants to « serve artists in every way ».
“It’s a bridge into the public art community,” Mx. said Livingston. « He stops and slows down and looks at things around him, and he really cares about the city of Philadelphia. »
Before meeting Mx. Livingston, Mr. Benner’s camera was trained on another artist, Alexei Mansur, which Mr. Brenner had selected to paint a live mural as part of a street festival. It was nearly 90 degrees and huge speakers drowned out Mr. Mansour, a self-described « mumbler » not keen on public speaking. There were people everywhere and even Mr. Mansour was struggling, his face turned bright red. (“I passed 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 off. He shifted locations, first trying to record Mr. Mansour in an adjacent building (also too noisy) before settling into a corner away from the hustle and bustle.
« 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, which some consider one of the earliest non-binary figure.
Mr. Benner, who grew up in the Fishtown neighborhood and usually wears a flat-brimmed cap and mustache, avoids attention when documenting art, directing people’s eyes to the artists he supports.
« My interest has always been to point the camera outward, » 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 newbie to the world of street art – Mr. Benner is not a seasoned artist and had long planned to pursue architecture – his early posts took on what he defined 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 the seats in multicolored knit fibers. The attention landed Mr. Benner in a full-time marketing job, which he quit in 2015 after surpassing 100,000 Instagram followers (he now has more than 150,000 followers and another 34,600 on TikTok) and gave all his attention to Streets Dept. Later he started to subscription service through Patreon, a membership platform for content creators.
In 2020, Mr. Benner began selecting artists and locations for Mural Arts, which he says now provides the bulk of the Street Dept’s funding, after nearly a decade of independent curatorial work, which he continues to do on the side.
Central to all that work is a love of a city he believes is uniquely suited to a thriving community of street artists.
“Most of the street artists working right now are constructing abandoned buildings or building materials,” Benner said. « Nearly every neighborhood in Philadelphia has an abandoned building that is a former warehouse or abandoned homes. »
« There was this idea that, OK, industry and maybe some people have left this city, so now it’s our playground, » he said of the street performers (the city’s population has declined from about two million over the years ’60 to about 1.5 million in 2021). « If you leave an abandoned building, it will fill up with art. »
Hours after filming with Mx. Livingston and Mr Mansour, Mr Benner popped up from a vacant artists’ wall 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 he had never met him. It was Shaun Durbin, an up and coming local artist who had tried to get Mr Benner’s attention earlier to live painting. He agreed to let Mr. Benner present his work.
Mr Benner took out his camera. « This is so kismet, » he said. Her favorite part of his job is meeting new artists and sharing their work with the masses. « Why else are we in this world if not to look around and be excited about our surroundings? »