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NDA Installs Philly’s First Large-Scale Street Art Sculpture Series

April 24, 2018

A new form of street art hit the streets of Philadelphia this weekend… Philly: Meet large-scale sculptural street art!

Much more on this work and an interview with its artist NDA below, but first let me quickly break down some terms to help better explain why the installation documented in this post is so 1) Interesting to me personally as someone who’s been running a blog about Philly street art for now over seven years, and 2) Something truly unique and completely different than any other kind of street art we’ve seen in Philly (maybe) ever.

When we talk about art in the public space we have two overarching categories, or buckets, to put them in. Bucket A: Things that were commissioned and therefor done legally. And Bucket B: Things that were done without permission and therefor done “illegally.” (In quotes because I have found that most artists and writers do their work on abandoned structures or in ways that don’t permanently damage anything, so it’s illegal in only the most technical of senses, like how smoking in the park is illegal, or jaywalking. Do you wish people didn’t do it? Maybe you do. But should people receive huge fines or even go to jail for it? Absolutely freaking not.) In Bucket A, we have things like murals, public art, and monuments. And in Bucket B, we have graffiti and street art.

On the Bucket B side of things, the non-commissioned/illegal side, graffiti is where it all started. And, if you didn’t know, it started right here in Philadelphia with the likes of writers like Cornbread in the late 1960s. Now, it should be noted that still many argue that modern-day graffiti/tagging began in the Bronx at around the same time and that credit should go to both cities. And it’s more than possible that folks in two different cities in the late ’60s could have had the same idea, especially considering it was only just about 10 years after the invention of the spray can. But, I’m more than happy to give Philly the credit here because Philly is the best city in the whole world, period.

Street art, which grew out of graffiti, is pretty much everything else one might consider art that’s done illegally in the public space from stickers to wheatpastes to ad takeovers to yarnbombs. Generally speaking, street art is always adhered to a surface with a paste or glue (like with wheatpastes and stickers,) drilled into trees (like Low Level does,) screwed into street sign poles (like Kid Hazo has done,) or “bombed” to a fence or other surface (like Ishknits and Binding Things do.) There’s a million ways to street art, but not until this weekend have I seen an artist create and install large-scale, free-standing sculptural street art!

(And yes, a street art purist, if such a person exists, might argue that Yomi’s school shooting installation, Pussy Division’s latest anti-street harassment newspaper boxes, and even Kid Hazo’s Ruff Life Café are examples of free-standing sculptural street art, but I’d argue back that those were all made/altered starting with found items which is unlike what NDA has created here.)

Now that I’ve hopefully outlined why I think the installation that you’ve slowly been scrolling past is pretty groundbreaking, let’s chat with its artist…

This past Saturday, Philly-based street artist and muralist NDA invited me out to shoot the installation of his temporary, large-scale street art sculpture. Over the course of several hours the artist and some helpers would move the four piece installation to new locations around the Point Breeze neighborhood, set it up in different formations, and leave it there for about a half-hour while people walked by, some asking questions, some like myself photographing it, and even some kids playing and interacting with it.

Streets Dept (Conrad): What inspired you to get into sculpture after years of wheatpasting and more recently painting murals?
NDA: I’ve been toying with the idea for a while now, but couldn’t figure out a practical way to do them at a large scale. I started by cutting some smaller pieces out of wood. I was speaking to my dad about it and he had some ideas for how to do them large-scale. He used to design stage sets so was familiar with making large props that were lightweight and easy to move around.

SD: What are the sculptures made from, what’s their size range, and how long did it take you to make them?
NDA: The pieces are made out of styrofoam. I wanted to be able to work at a large-scale and not break the bank. I’m not sure the exact sizes but they range from 5 to 12 feet wide and maybe 8 to 10 feet tall. The main size restriction was that they had to be able to fit through my door. The whole thing took about a month to make.

SD: Why were they installed where they were? Why did you choose this neighborhood, these spots?
NDA: Well, the honest answer is a practical one. These spots were close to my house. Originally I had done some location scouting around town and the plan was to drive a Uhaul truck around to a wide variety of locations. This option added another layer to the project, but in then end it was just more simple to do the first round of installs in my neighborhood. I go on a lot of walks so I already had some spots in mind. The cool thing was that as we walked around some install spots presented themselves organically in the moment.

SD: When I first came up to you, you had a number of kids helping you/playing with the sculpture. Did you mean for the pieces to be interactive?
NDA: I always feel that if kids are interested in what you’re doing then you’re probably doing something right. We set the pieces down in the park (Wharton Square,) and the kids started coming over. They asked a bunch of questions and had a lot of different ideas on what the pieces meant to them. And once they were in to it, they started to help move the pieces, even deciding on what order and configuration they should go in!

I definitely had hoped for some level of engagement with the work, but that was way beyond what I had expected. It was really positive to see these kids get in to the work. Early on in making these I knew that the thing that would complete the project would be the environments and the people that interacted with the work. I intentionally made a lot of open spaces in the work to create windows or frames for the world around. When the kids started literally jumping through the pieces I realized that my vision for interaction was limited. Now I have a bunch of other ideas on how they can become even more interactive in the future!

SD: Can you talk about the designs of them?
NDA: As I mentioned above, I had seen a lot of these shapes as portals or frames to highlight what already existed in the area. Looking back on that I may push this idea further in future versions of this project. Over the winter I was constantly thinking about what I could do to get my self re-engaged with street art. The idea of sculpture came to me and it leant itself to a bit of improv. A lot of these pieces were pre-planned a bit, but the real excitement for me was the idea that I really didn’t fully know what the end result was going to be. Cutting and gluing pieces together would then give me ideas on colors and patterns. And when one was completed it influenced what happened with the next one. The idea was to create as many different shapes, colors, and patterns between each side of each piece so I could maximize the amount of possibilities the sculptures could produce together.

SD: Lastly, these installations were temporary, but are you interested in creating more permanent or longer lasting installations around the city? Should we expect any more street art sculptural installs from you this summer?
NDA: Absolutely! Something I’m hoping to do with these temporary pieces is get people interested in the idea of seeing something like this in a permanent space. I love the idea of what temporary sculptural projects can be and the relationship they have to street art, but I’m really fascinated by what you’d have to consider in making something similar permanently for a space. Longer lasting works over time become a natural part of the landscape they’re in and get to change with the environment. I’m really excited about that idea!

Thanks so much to NDA for inviting me along for this installation and for allowing us to interview him!

As I built this post, I couldn’t help but imagine some public spaces in Philly working with NDA to create more of these brilliant sculptural pieces at places like the Schuylkill River BoardwalkSpruce Street Harbor Park, or one of PHS’ Pop Up Gardens this summer. And if anyone from one of those, or another, public space is reading this right now y’all shoud totally hit him up.

Either way, I can’t wait to see more of his NDA’s sculptural work around Philly this year!

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