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The Veteran’s Cut: A Streets Dept Oral History with Street Artist and Muralist Joe Boruchow

August 5, 2018

(Joe Boruchow mural on 33rd street between Girard and Oxford, 2015)

Post by Streets Dept Contributor, Phillip Reid, photos by Conrad Benner

Welcome to the Streets Dept Oral History Projecta new 20-week series created by Streets Dept’s first-ever intern, Phillip Reid. Over the course of this series we will be collecting and sharing the stories of a mix of 20 street artists, graffiti writers, muralists, and public arts leaders all working to shape and create the art in Philadelphia’s public spaces. Read more about this new temporary series in our announcement post here.

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After fifteen of years of displaying his art on Philadelphia’s streets, Joe Boruchow has garnered significant recognition for the distinct cutout style he employs in creating both large-scale murals and off-the-cuff wheatpastes. Since his early days of using street art practice to condemn the controversial policies of the Bush administration, Joe has remained one of the most dependable political voices within the Philly street art scene, having created some of the most compelling protest art of the Trump era. With most of his time currently focused on raising his young son, Ber, Joe has slowed down his output and is reflecting on the reservations he has about continuing to do street art, his worries about the dangers of social media, and other issues that have been on his mind during a transitional phase in his career.

(Joe Boruchow wheatpasting, 2011)

I don’t feel I’ve finished a piece until I’ve somehow gotten it out to have people set eyes on it, y’know? So you can move on to the next thing. I remember doin’ that with the show posters, ridin’ my bike all around town and puttin’ stuff up. It’s kind of ritualistic.

I came to Philadelphia in 1996 after I dropped outta college, I was two years on my way to being an English major before I decided that school wasn’t for me. My sister was breaking up with her boyfriend in South Jersey and was working in Philly, so she wanted to get a place downtown and I wanted to get out of my parent’s house as soon as possible. So I moved up here, and I’ve been here ever since, 22 years, now.

A year or two after I moved up here, a friend of mine from high school who I used to play music with moved up here for graduate school, and we started a band called The Nite Lights. To promote the band I started makin’ these handmade posters using different mediums. I’d been taking lots of art classes throughout my life until I moved up here, and then we started the band and I wanted to put those–I wouldn’t call them “skills,” but, “interests”–into work for the band. At first I was doing stenciled flyers, where I’d be able to use spray-paint to make 10 or 15 flyers, maybe 25. But as I got better at cutting out the stencils they wouldn’t hold together for as many impressions. They would get impregnated with the paint, get crunchy and fall apart, or the small spaces would get clogged up really quickly. So I came up with the plan to just do a paper cut-out on black paper, put a piece of white paper behind it, take it to the copy shop and run off hundreds of ’em for very little money. I was able to make a really cool, handmade looking flyer, and get a bunch of ’em up.

(Joe Boruchow “Orphan” wheatpaste, 2011; “Bell Jar” and “A Closed System” wheatpastes, 2012)

A couple years after doin’ that I just started getting into doing posters that had nothing to do with the band, and stapling them up. They were mostly just stapled to telephone poles and coffee shops and stuff like that. I loved the feedback I would get. I loved being able to make something, put it out there, get feedback, outrage people *Laughs*. I loved that process, and I still do. It’s still like, I don’t feel I’ve finished a piece until I’ve somehow gotten it out to have people set eyes on it, y’know? So you can move on to the next thing. I remember doin’ that with the show posters, ridin’ my bike all around town and puttin’ stuff up. It’s kind of ritualistic. It was a part of my social life, too. I mean, being out, talking to people, meeting other creative people. People are nice, in general. If they see you’re workin’ hard at somethin’, they’re gonna try to encourage you. I was open to that encouragement. I was looking for those green lights. My first attempt to really integrate something into the landscape was on relay boxes, which are those green mailboxes that you see all over the city. I made a piece of a bird in a cage pulling its feathers out and kinda used the shape of the mailbox as the birdcage. From then on I just expanded on that practice, with making small cutouts, blowing them up to fit into certain spaces. That translated into the murals and that’s where I’m at today.

(Joe Boruchow “Widow’s Walk” wheatpaste at 13th and South Street, 2011; various wheatpastes at 11th and Race streets, 2011)

We went to the gallery and my dad asked the receptionist at the gallery whether Keith was there today. She said, “No, but if you wait for 10 or 15 minutes we’re expecting him.” So we did just that, and he came in, she introduced us, and he just invited us to meet him in his studio later.

I’ve always been interested in art, done art for as long as I can remember. My father was an art collector. He would often go to other artist’s studios to look at their work and talk to them about their work and purchase their work. I always really loved the artist’s studios and seeing their pieces. My first memory of art making comes after going to visit an artist named Patricia Tobacco Forrester. She did these plein air watercolors, massive scale, they’re just mesmerizing. Her work is amazing. I visited her studio with my father, and it was just mind-blowing. I think at one point he owned four or five of her pieces. I went home and tried to emulate her style with watercolor, and that was the first time I remember bein’ like, I wanna do this. I wanna be an artist.

(Joe Boruchow “Enter the Noosphere” cutout in his studio, 2011)

I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, right outside of DC. In high school, instead of going to athletics, stuff like that, I took art classes. One experience that had a big impression on me was an art class that employed the Xerox copier, it was like about using Xerox, and collage, and all this stuff. I think he only offered that class once because at the Arlington Arts Center, where we had it, we destroyed the Xerox machine that we used. They didn’t like that. Back then Xerox machines were extremely expensive, and it was a lot of money just to run copies, toner was really expensive. So I think the costs far exceeded what they were making for the tuition on those. But anyway, that one I think has really had an effect on my work, in retrospect.

One of the biggest, most influential events in my life was meeting Keith Haring. I was a big Keith Haring fan when I was about 12 or 13 years old, I loved his work. Being a kid that was interested in art, and seeing his stuff contemporaneously, it was a really great place to be, y’know? I loved his work. I felt like it really spoke to me. And it still does, I love Keith Haring, to this day. But meeting him, seeing his studio–he took us in to see his studio, he just treated us so kindly. My dad was from New York, and would take one of the kids (I have two sisters) he would take us all up, individually, once a year. We would go to art galleries, and museums, and visit places where he used to go and stuff like that. So, knowing I loved Keith Haring, we went to Keith Haring’s gallery–which was called Tony Shafrazi Gallery, in SoHo–and to the Pop Shop, which was his little retail outlet where he sold t-shirts, and posters, and calendars, and books, and stuff like that. So we went to the gallery and my dad asked the receptionist at the gallery whether Keith was was there today. She said, “No, but if you wait for 10 or 15 minutes we’re expecting him.” So we did just that, and he came in, she introduced us, and he just invited us to meet him in his studio later. It was amazing. I have a couple pieces downstairs in my home, one of ’em from that visit.

(Joe Boruchow “Dead Boy” wheatpaste on the back door of Tattooed Mom, 2016)

When I moved to Philly and really got into doing the artwork, I tried to hone my skills with perspective and figure drawing, so I took classes at PAFA, University of the Arts. So that’s really the extent of my art education, other than just going to museums and *Laughs* looking at it and thinking about it. I also gained a lot of inspiration from my experience workin’ at Tattooed Mom. I worked there for 18 years and just the atmosphere there, and the owners and my co-workers there, they’re all creative people, and very supportive. That was kinda like my family in my post-adolescent adolescence. The first time I ever saw anyone do paste-ups was in the upstairs of Tattooed Mom.

(Joe Boruchow “Prosperity Theology” Ad Takeover at 19th and Walnut, 2017; “Transition” wheatpaste at 9th and Spring Garden, 2016)

I always am interested in linking personal psychology to current events. That’s my way of kind of unraveling the tensions between the two, is doing a cutout about it.

Early on, when I started doing artwork other than band posters, a lot of it was very political stuff. All this was during the George W. Bush years and at that point I guess I imagined that was about as bad as it could be *Laughs* I’ve been disabused of that notion now. I was so angry at what was going on, I mean I was so furious about the policies that were goin’ on back then, naively thinking that it couldn’t get any worse, y’know? Yeah, it’s funny, it’s been a real wake-up call.

When I was in junior high school, in the U.S. awareness was building about countering Apartheid. I was compelled to take the Keith Haring “Free South Africa” drawing, run that off on a photocopier and hang it up all around the school. I’ve realized that was really an exercise in what I’m still doing, but now I’m trying to create the image, you know? Really I do it out of just kind of a primal outrage. I don’t know *Laughs* I don’t know what else to do with myself, it (injustice) disturbs me so deeply. I always am interested in linking personal psychology to current events. That’s my way of kind of unraveling the tensions between the two, is doing a cutout about it. That definitely comes from my parents, because my parents were both psychiatrists. So I think that I often, in my work, I’m trying to psychoanalyze and decouple from my Id *Laughs* and to give that purpose in having a message that I believe in, for the moment.

I guess in retrospect I sort of see that words were kind of a crutch that I used? Not all the time. I think sometimes I would have ’em and they would really work with the piece. I still do words in my pieces sometimes. You know the piece I’m working on right now, I’m doing a piece for my son’s nursery, and it has his name and his birthday, and my name, and Alli’s name, and I put a lot of care into the words in it. So I wouldn’t say they’ve gone away, I’m just more careful about using them. It’s optimal if I can tell a story without ’em, but I’m always willing to throw ’em in. The visual alone, it’s more immediate. It grabs you by the neck and doesn’t require as much effort from the viewer to digest, it just comes at you at a glance. I guess I’m a bit impatient, so I’ve always kind of liked that about visual arts. When I was really little I had a lot of trouble with my handwriting. I took like some extra classes, kinda of an occupational therapy to get it so I could write legibly. One of the lessons that I learned, that I’ve always remembered, was that one of the instructors had me draw my letters, rather than write them. I think that’s kinda stuck with me as well. I’ve been doing that as a practice ever since I’ve been making marks.

(Joe Boruchow billboard at 13th and Cherry, 2011; “Watchtowers” mural at 9th and Dickinson, 2013)

When I was just starting out, I did like a couple portraits for people, back in the day. I did a couple things for people’s pets *Laughs* I don’t do that anymore. I guess a big thing where I started, maybe, to think of myself as a professional was when I got a grant to publish a graphic novel. It was a piece that I worked on for like four years. It was a hundred cutouts, and I entered into a contest through the Xeric Foundation, they give grants for people to self-publish graphic fiction. And I won the grant, which was a nice thing to happen. So, published it. It starts out with a little bit of text, but as the thing goes on, there’s less and less text in it, kinda just the images take over. It took me four years to do it, so, my style developed along the way, and I had to go back and redo like the first quarter of it. Because by the end I’d gotten so much better–I was better at it, and then the characters were more fully realized in kind of how they looked, and they were kinda just developing in the beginning, so I had to go back and redo all first pages. But yeah, it was a fun project to do, it was an obsession of mine. I just had them accumulating up on the wall, you know? Page by page by page. And I had it story-boarded out, you know, in pieces as I went. I would do like a ten-page sequence at a time… But yeah it was real, uh, it was a good experience. So I was walkin’ up 11th street one day and there was a–in a window–there was a stuffed, like, fox, a white fox, stuffed in this window. And it just gave me the idea, like maybe the seed to start this story about this family who memorializes their pet dog and puts him in the front window. And kind of the story of the loss of the dog, and, it really is more of just a coming-of-age story, kind of a surrealist, coming of age *Laughs* I don’t if it’s really surreal, but, a little psychedelic. Soon after that, I guess, Mural Arts hit me up to do a mural on the side of a house. My first mural was on Dickinson, between 9th and 10th, called “Watchtowers”. And I guess pretty much from there it’s kinda caught on.

I think being creative is so important to my overall mental health and physical health. You know, I just didn’t feel right not doing it, I felt like some kinda chump if I wasn’t making work. I just can’t live like that. I just have to have the time to do work, or I’m not happy. I don’t know what it is, exactly. I mean I guess you could psychoanalyze that any way you wanted to *Chuckles* But that’s the truth of it. If I’m not doin’ work, I’m not gonna be pleasant to others or myself *Nervous Laugh* you know?

(Joe Boruchow “Fireplug” wheatpaste at 9th and Spring Garden, 2017)

With the pamphletting that went on, early in Philly’s history–Thomas Paine, and stuff like that–I feel like the whole political persuasion thing–trying to get people to see things your way–it has a big history here. So I’ve always felt like my work fit right in with that. With the printing press being the mode of getting out those pamphlets, that’s kind of an analogue to what I do with the copying now, getting it out there, putting out my feelings on, uh, current topics, you know? Maybe I’m self-aggrandizing *Laughs* I guess an artist has to do that to sustain their drive.

(Joe Boruchow wheatpasting “Trump Shit Bigly” and “Nightmare” at 5th and Bainbridge, 2016)

When I’m out posting, I would say 95% of the time the feedback I get is positive. Most people recognize my work when I’m puttin’ it up, and say that their fans and I try to give ’em a poster or something to remember our interaction by. I’ve had a few times where I’ve had people mad at me for doing what I’m doing, and I always welcome them to remove the piece and I move on. I mean I try to look as legit as possible. I put my stuff up during the day. I have a minivan, I go out there in like a Philadelphia Fire Department T-shirt, that’s my favorite shirt to put stuff up in. And I just go and do my thing, and usually my stuff fits kinda neatly in wherever I’m pasting it. I think most people just think I’m doing guerilla advertising for something, or that I’m working for the city.

I certainly think about community input when I’m doing murals. When I’m doin’ paste ups, you know I think most of my stuff works, like, anywhere. I like to think so. So if I find a good spot I’m gonna put it up there, I don’t care what neighborhood it’s in, y’know? I’m not a daredevil. I’m not gonna go climb like any side of a building to get anywhere. But if it’s a great spot and I can reach it with a 8 foot ladder, I’ll go for it without much consideration like, Oh, is this neighborhood gonna see it this way?

When you start feelin’ that way, and questioning your role in it, you gotta take a step back and reevaluate. That’s why I feel so comfortable about where I’m at right now, you know? Not producing as much, because I really gotta figure these things out myself.

I’ve really been in a transitional stage of my career right now. Since we had our son, Ber, I have not been doin’ any wheatpastes, very few. I don’t really have the time to do it since I’m taking care of him during the day. My wife works her day job, and I only gotta couple hours in me after she gets home *Laughs* But I haven’t been doin’ as many just off-the-cuff, kinda commentary things since he’s been born. And frankly, I’m not as interested in doin’ it anymore. Maybe I’ve just kind of done it for long enough. I guess I don’t feel like I need to get it out there as much. I’m enjoying taking a break from it, lettin’ the young kids out there have the good spots for now. And if I need it again, I’ll go out.

(Joe Boruchow “Enter the Noosphere” wheatpaste, 2011)

I recently quit all my social media stuff, so we’ll see how that goes as far as marketing is concerned. But I had to do it. I hated it. And feeling sucked into it was really debasing, I felt like. I was like, Euugghhh. I started to think, after reading that book 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media by Jaron Lanier, it’s like, Am I designing for Instagram? Am I like making work to see it shown back at me through Instagram? And is that the motive I really want to be directing my stuff? Y’know, I think there’s a better way to do it out there. So, I gave it up. And I feel good about it. They can post it on their social media. They can do that independently of me knowing about it. I don’t need it even anywhere on my radar. I think it’ll have a good effect on my work. Yeah *Laughs*.

(Joe Boruchow “Metamorphosis” wheatpaste at 9th and Spring Garden, 2017)

My piece “Metamorphosis” was deemed inappropriate for Instagram. They removed it and said if I got caught doin’ it again they would kick me off. But at that point I had already read the book and I was already considering cuttin’ bait anyway, you know? So then I as like, You know what? These people can–suck dick. Fuck off. My whole thing is like, if they can be outraged by that and then they let this fuckin’ madman [Trump] fuckin’, shit on the world, you know? What the fuck is goin’ on? The value system is so outta wack!

One reason I’m not as interested in doing street art right now is because I don’t know if it helps the political situation at all, you know? Especially with all the shit going on with the social media, how those platforms are serving such a shitty business model, I’m not sure if my work is helping anymore. You know it’s feeding into the whole outrage thing. To get noticed on it you gotta be real provocative. It’s a weird weird position we’re all in, the whole climate today.

With regards to public art being criticized as a gentrification tool, I think that’s kinda somethin’ that’s put me off of it a little bit, also. Made me lay back on it, kinda thing. I feel like it has become like that. It’s kind of passé in way, y’know? When you start feelin’ that way, and questioning your role in it, you gotta take a step back and reevaluate. That’s why I feel so comfortable about where I’m at right now, you know? Not producing as much, because I really gotta figure these things out myself. I don’t wanna be that person, you know? So. I guess I have some reservation about the developers hiring muralists. I mean artists have to eat, so they gotta take a paycheck where they can, and I don’t think that they’re all the same. I think that some developers are really cynical about their use of street art and hipster, urban aesthetic. And there are others who I think care a little more, or are a little less just riding on the bandwagon of it. They actually have a true interest in it–to a degree. That being said, you’re still limited to their vision of their property’s development, and that is an issue when you’re an artist, you don’t wanna be doin’ that for someone all the time.

(Joe Boruchow student-created wheatpastes at 448 North 10th street, 2017; “Smoke Signals” mural at 10th and Buttonwood, 2018)

With murals, and especially with Mural Arts, they goes through a community involvement process with all of their murals, so I don’t really feel like the gentrification criticism is a big issue with them. I think that’s all blown out of proportion, people’s objections to their thing. They’re good about involving the community in what goes on in their backyard. I think it’s very unusual that they get any negative feedback from the neighborhood, or at least majority negative feedback. They’re really working with these neighborhoods. My most recent mural was at the Spring Arts, on 10th Street. I was working with Arts + Crafts Holdings, my experience with them was great. But I also did it through Mural Arts Education, so I was doing projects with high school kids from Northeast High School and CAPA. Mural Arts Education reached out to me, asked if I wanted to do a project with ’em, then we brainstormed with two instructors, came up with kind of a curriculum for the year, and executed it. First semester we did some wheatpastes with the high school kids, and then the next semester they painted a mural that I designed. It was a great experience, I really liked it. There was some pushback on one of the kid’s pieces, ’cause it had some religious imagery in it. But the kid was totally cool about it, and that’s a lesson you gotta learn *Laughs* It’s like if you’re doing it on someone else’s stuff, with their permission, you’re not really gonna be able to get away with putting religious symbols or nudity. The kids were all great. They were really into it and they did a great job. It was a lot fun working with them, it was a win-win for everybody, you know? So it’s not all bad. You just have to keep your eye out for what is, and keep your own measure of what your boundaries are with it.

I feel like I’m okay to lay in the cut for a couple years and see what I wanna do next. I think that’s where I’m at right now. I’m gonna do things at a slower pace, but see where it leads me.

(Joe Boruchow mural on 33rd street between Girard and Oxford, 2015)

Lately I’m doing prints and some commissions, I try not to do many, one or two a year. But mostly doin’ murals, sellin’ stuff outta my studio. When Ursula Le Guin passed away, just recently, I heard something she had said. They were memorializing her with some old interviews and stuff on the radio. The interviewer asked how did she manage to continue being so productive and involved in her own career when she had three children, and she’s like, “Well, they don’t stay babies forever.” So that’s my mantra, whenever I feel like, Ah, I can’t do this. But you know I’ve been doin’ cutouts obsessively, for lack of a better word, since 2003. So I feel like I’m okay to lay in the cut for a couple years and see what I wanna do next. I think that’s where I’m at now. I’m gonna do things at a slower pace, but see where it leads me. I haven’t been able to convince myself to start another graphic novel, just to get involved in another four year project without knowing I’d get any kind of remuneration from it. But now that I’m off social media, maybe I’ll reconsider it *Laughs*, to have more of a long-term vision.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anappleperday permalink
    August 6, 2018 8:49 am

    Are these all done with the site owner’s permission? I’m thinking of the SEPTA bus stop and city sites.

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