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Normalizing Vulnerability: A Streets Dept Oral History with Philadelphia Street Artist Blur

October 13, 2018

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

Welcome to the Streets Dept Oral History Projecta new 20-part 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.

Read more interviews from the Streets Dept Oral History Project here.

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Through her uplifting series of stickers and wheatpastes that combine striking visual art and emotionally forceful poetics, Blur has forged intimate connections with countless Philadelphia strangers and online fans. Recognizing that people experience daily silencing and oppression due to a variety of social prejudices and systemic inequities, she hopes to create unifying artwork that addresses each of our individual needs to be seen and heard. On a personal level, her creativity speaks of her struggles to be vulnerable in an emotionally-suppressed U.S. culture. As a form of social activism grounded in her experience as a woman living with a slew of chronic illnesses, her art resists sexism and the stigmatization of chronically-ill people by a society that frequently fails to acknowledge their limitless potential.

I lost the control I had with my body, and because of that I wanted to have some sort of control over my environment. And that was making the stickers and just peeling it off and sticking it on something, just that whole process. Every single time I put work up, I felt like I was regaining some sort of control of my life.

I grew up in New York, and then moved with my family to Pennsylvania, right outside of Philly. My older brother, in like 2008, he moved into the city and went to Temple. I would go down to visit him often and at the time he was really into Philly murals and he even worked for the Mural Arts Program doing mural tours, so he was a big influencer in my creative path towards street art. I had already been an artist my whole life, but that was my first experience seeing the murals and loving how you didn’t really even have to go to a museum to experience the culture of Philly and art.

I personally didn’t live in the city until I transferred to Temple in 2015. I’ve been sick since I was 16 years old, and so when I was 20 I moved into the city. I was going to Community College for a while, and at that point I was doing IV antibiotics every single day, I had a Port-a-cath in my chest and was self-administering all this stuff and it wasn’t working. I was in and out of the hospital all the time, so I pulled myself off of all of it. I thought, This doesn’t make any sense, why am I not getting any better? This is all making me more sick, I don’t get it. *Laughs* I definitely leaned into denial pretty heavily at that time, was just like, Uh, I don’t want to do treatment anymore. I’ll just do my best to try to live with all these symptoms, I’m gonna move out, go to school, and hope for the best. And if I’m really positive, it’ll all work itself out. So that’s exactly what I did, and it blew up in my face. *Laughs*

But before it blew up in my face, I was just doin’ my thing over the summer before classes started. I’d walk around Philly, soaking in my new independence, and I’d see all of these stickers all over the place and I would stop and read almost every single one of them. I loved how the sticker art would kinda take me out of my own bubble. I would read them and it would completely change my day. I got really interested in remembering the sticker artists names and seeing the same artists in so many different parts of the city. I’m a total romantic about Philly street art. Like, I just think it’s so amazing that you just put something as simple as a “Hello My Name Is” sticker on something, and walk away, and that sticker can be read by 5 people, by 20 people, and you can connect with each person. It’s, like, unbelievably romantic to me.

It was that fall that I got very, very sick. I had a couple seizures that brought on this slew of neurological issues, and I developed Cervical Dystonia, which affected my speech because of all the painful spasming of my neck muscles. Ironically that time is now kind of a blur *Laughs* And it’s also a blur now as to why I even thought of going and getting a packet of labels and started to draw and write on them. But it just kinda happened, and I loved the idea of, oh –’cause I couldn’t speak at the time – of just expressing how I felt, and have been feeling, for a really long time, and put them on a pole, a mailbox, and walked away from them. Feeling less heavy. I really only started documenting it on like Instagram because it was another way for me to write more and share more along with each photo that I took. It was all done for like myself, I didn’t really think about anyone else in the beginning of it. Like I just wanted to get some of the heaviness off of me and continue to share, it was so therapeutic.

I was out of my house for like six months before my health really declined, and so those six months were spent falling further in love with public art in Philly. And I thought that I could do it too. I’ve been able to kinda live a double-life, in a way. I still had that apartment, I still was able to live in the city at the time, but it went from being healthy and enjoying the street art, to being very, very sick, and just hobbling around the city, putting my own things up. That was the transition into this creative endeavor with street art. In between putting my work up, I’d be in bed, living a pretty isolated life, (because that’s just life with chronic illnesses). Going back and forth from doctor appointments, painful treatments, physical therapy, and occupational therapy – all of that stuff. I would bring stickers with me to all of those appointments or bring my notebook and write things that would eventually go into the mouths. I’d be in my bed with just like so many labels around me and I’d spend all day just drawing stickers, drawing them. There was a span of time that I was bedridden, so my sister, my boyfriend, and my brother, they’d take the stickers and would put them up for me and take pictures of them for me. But that didn’t last all that long because I found it more therapeutic for me to go around and take up public space, even if it hard as hell to do. I lost the control I had with my body, so I wanted to have some sort of control of my environment. And that was making the stickers and just peeling it off and sticking it on something, just that whole process. Every single time I put work up, I felt like I was regaining some sort of control of my life.

To this day, what drives most of my street art is the experience of being a person with chronic illnesses. I’m very fascinated in the new relationship that I have with my body, and that most people have with their body, and how that changes with illness versus when you’re healthy.

I have Cervical Dystonia, Essential Tremor, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, and Chronic Lyme. *Laughs* So, all of those together, are kind of a perfect storm for just making a person very ill, and recovery questionable. I take around 50 pills a day, I get IV treatments weekly, and I’ve been doing that for a little over five years. But I’ve been sick for eight years. And that all started with the Swine Flu. Good old Swine Flu *Laughs* Yeah, I was one of the people who got that. But getting Swine Flu was enough to just shut my entire immune system down, and it was a bacteria that just kinda took over and now I’m very immunosuppressed. Whenever I go on planes I get like very sick after, and I even wear a face mask and stuff. I mean that’s been really messy and complex and complicated. I had to drop out of high school because of being sick and not getting the help that I would need. Essentially it was like either I would get a little bit of help and just struggle while I was there, or I could just stop and then get my GED on my own time, which is what I did.

Prognosis-wise, I’m not told anything. They’re hopeful that I can manage it, but I mean I have arthritis, lots of damage has been done because of it, so it’ll be whatever it’s gonna be. I’m really thankful that I’m able to do this at all. So yeah, it’s been a crazy, crazy road. And still, I mean, to this day it’s what drives most of my street art, is the experience of being a person with chronic illnesses. I’m very fascinated in just the relationship that I have with my body, and that most people have with their body, and how that changes with illness versus when your healthy. Like I was a person who really depended on their body all of the time. I was an athlete, I was just reckless, I’d jump off things and I was just kind of a crazy, ADD kind of kid. So just going from having full trust in your capabilities and your body’s capabilities, to like not trusting yourself at all, is like really weird, emotionally, to go through.

I just think we, as a society, are so uncomfortable with the uncomfortable, that more times than not we just pretend like we’re okay when we should just probably get help sooner rather than later… I think everyone struggles with empathy, like, just understanding where that person’s coming from. We’re all good at sympathy *Laughs* But not necessarily empathy.

Most of my life I felt like I was silenced. I’ve always just been an emotional person, and because of that I was always put down for having a lot of feelings, and was told, Just shut up, or Oh my god you need to calm down, kind of thing. I’d be so confused by my parents saying when I was growing up, Don’t be so dramatic. I’d feel obligated to not express myself eventually. I learned eventually that my feelings are a burden, leading to always feeling like a burden. Guilt was always accompanied by my sharing anything I had inside. I became pretty shy because I was being taught overtime, essentially, to take up less space. So, not only losing my ability to speak for six months was the thought behind the “blur mouth” but also not speaking up has also been a constant theme in my life.

Street art to me has been so therapeutic. I’d read a wheatpaste, or sticker, and be like, Oh my god, that was amazing. That made me feel this way. I think it’s important to have those things out there, ‘cause you never know how much people are struggling, ‘cause they keep things to themselves. One sticker that says “You Matter” on it, could change a person’s day or life, or maybe they go get help that day. I just think we, as a society, are so uncomfortable with the uncomfortable, that more times than not we just pretend like we’re okay when we should probably get help sooner rather than later. I’m also always infatuated with the idea of vulnerability and empathy, and I think everyone struggles with empathy, like understanding where that person’s coming from. We’re all good at sympathy *Laughs* But not necessarily empathy. I wish it was more acceptable to speak honestly. So, I want to start those hard conversations through my own personal honesty and vulnerabilities. Street art is the most accessible way for me to do that.

Essentially, when I, y’know, hit that rock bottom, I gave myself permission to become a poet and street artist. Like, I didn’t necessarily think like, y’know, Who am I to be street artist?Or a writer or a poet? I just gave myself the permission to be that without having the quote-quote “qualifications” to do it. I simply began, and simply became. ‘Cause that’s the fun, rebellious part about art in general, that you can be like, Screw the rules. I’m gonna just do it. I decided that I didn’t need permission from anybody else to become that. And as a person who just waited around for permission, it was so freeing. And still is today, very, very freeing.

I found that the mouth design was a great vessel for words. I essentially have put my diary all over Philly the last three years *Laughs* I’m obsessed with the combination of visual art and language. I just think it’s fantastic. There’s not always a visual way to represent the things that I’m feeling and so words do it the best. With visual art you can try to express something and people might never see it from your own perspective, because they see it through their own experiences. So my goal in my work has been specifically wanting people to understand exactly how I’ve felt, and it’s seemed to me that would be accomplished through poetry or prose, or a phrase. I mean a lot of times – because there’s not a lot of space in the mouth designs – it’s one sentence from a larger poem. And when I’m picking the written pieces I try really hard to pick something that’s attention-grabbing and specific to how I feel, but also something to connect with other people and how they might perceive it, as well. That’s the power of street art, that you can connect with people, without ever meeting them.

Some of them I’m terrified to put up. I’m just like, “Oh my God, do I want this out in the world?” Like, “People are gonna think I’m nuts.” And then that’ll be the one people love the most. I challenge my vulnerability each time I share my heart with Philadelphia.

Some of written pieces in my work I’m terrified to put out into the world. I’m just like, Oh my God, do I want this out in the world? Like, People are gonna think I’m nuts. And then that’ll be the one people love the most. I challenge my vulnerability each time I share my heart with Philadelphia. It’s like, Wow, okay, so lots of people feel small, and lots of people feel this way and that way. It’s just more of that connection. I mean come on, that’s really cool. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to have those kinds of real, honest conversations with people, let alone complete strangers. It’s so meaningful to me that I print out every single nice thing people have written to me, or emailed me, and I keep them all in a book *Laughs* I scrapbook that ish. I print them out and keep them all in a book, just ’cause I think that’s – that’s, like, fantastic. I mean, I started doing it for myself but now after hearing the effect it’s had on some people, like, I do feel an obligation to them to keep doing it.

I’ve had a ton of amazing conversations with women regarding that issue because I’ve written very personal stuff about healing from sexual assault. It’s been an honor to speak out in a public forum for all survivors.

As a part of the #MeToo movement, I write a lot about my experience with PTSD from an assault when I was 17, and trying to heal from that. I never reported it, I was drugged and never told anyone about it. So I’ve felt a lot of guilt about that, but that whole system is rigged against victims. I’ve had a ton of amazing conversations with women regarding that issue because I’ve written very personal stuff about healing from sexual assault. It’s been an honor to speak out in a public forum for all survivors. And, um, the feminist workshops – the one I did specifically with Ishknits, was right after the 2016 Election, and everyone was super super scared – scared consistently since *Exasperated laugh* Uh – but that was just great having everyone in one room just talking about political issues and how it makes them feel, listening to different opinions and being open and again that empathy, where it’s like, I want you to understand me and I want to understand you. We don’t have to fully get each other’s opinions, but, I have empathy from where you come from and your feelings.

The first interview I ever did they talked about the political side of my work and it was the very first time that anyone had said that my work was political to me. And I was puzzled by the comment, because I was just like, What? I’m not an activist? *Laughs* Like it’s such a simple thing to me. I’m just writing words on paper and putting them up and taking pictures and moving on. It wasn’t until after the interview that I emailed them and I was just like, Wait, okay, it finally clicked my head, I understand what you were saying *Laughs* Just the simple act of myself as a woman taking up public space, just that, is political. And the fact that I’m sharing my story, and my story is not unique to the world, that tons of other people have experienced things like me, that I’m shedding light on social issues just by speaking. Or writing. So I just always thought, it’s just like, Oh, but I’m just like, y’know, writing my feelings down. Like, how is that political? *Laughs* Y’know, and also at the same time that’s insane that that’s political. Just the fact that writing my feelings down is a political blows my mind.

The biggest thing I’ve said throughout the last three years is that we all essentially need to be seen and heard. Those are two things that all humans crave and when we get that we feel fulfilled. You can be unbelievably poor or very wealthy and still have some kind of connection of being like, No one hears me, no one sees me. I feel worthless, I’m insecure. But they come from completely different places and have had completely different lives. It’s been my goal to be seen and heard through my work, and hopefully the viewer also feels seen. For them to be like, Oh, wow. I also feel that way, or have felt that way. I just want people to normalize vulnerability. It’s such a strength to be vulnerable, it’s not weakness, and it’s just kind of redefining that. And I feel like, y’know, do it from the ground up and maybe vulnerability will feel comfortable in our society one day.

It’s gonna go wherever it’s gonna go, it’s gonna get covered when it’s gonna get covered, it’s gonna get buffed whenever it’s gonna get buffed, it has a very short lifespan. And that’s also part of the whole romance of street art I keep mentioning. That you’re not really doing it for the longevity of it, you’re doing it for the act of doing it, for maybe one person seeing it before it gets buffed, and sharing that connection with them, and then… it’s gone.

Most of the time I go out and put up work by myself, so there’s no lookout, nothin’ like that. I also, because of that, I do it during the day, because I’m – obviously a woman at night, in a city. I’ve been yelled at to take stuff down, but the cops have never been called on me. I do think that there is a positive role in being a woman with (dis)abilities. I don’t always use a cane, luckily that aspect of my health has improved a little bit. But for a while I was using a walker and putting street art up. Walking around Philly with like this walker that has a seat with like a compartment in it. So my wheatpastes and my brush would be in this walker compartment and I’d walk around then flip it, put it up, flip down – I felt like a cartoon character. *Laughs*

I’ve met some really wonderful people that do street art in Philly. It’s always great when you do go out with other street artists, because they know spots that I don’t, and vis-versa. It’s like, kind of, ya help eachother out, which is nice. Just the entire culture has been surprisingly warm and inviting. And it’s not a very forgiving culture. Like, you can easily get beef with people. If you like cover something else by an inch I swear you’ll get a message being like, You clipped my work. Don’t do that again. And I’m just like, Euh, damn, sorry. It’s street art, it’s gonna go wherever it’s gonna go, it’s gonna get covered when it’s gonna get covered, it’s gonna get buffed whenever it’s gonna get buffed, it has a very short lifespan. And that’s also part of the whole romance of street art I keep mentioning. That you’re not really doing it for the longevity of it, you’re doing it for the act of doing it, for maybe one person seeing it before it gets buffed, and sharing that connection with them, and then… it’s gone. I mean, you don’t want to step on toes. Street art culture is different than graffiti culture, and in that way you wanna respect graffiti culture when you’re performing street art, y’know? You don’t wanna be that ignorant person who’s just like, Oh, I’m just gonna put my work up willy-nilly, and you’re not respecting other people in the process. So, y’know, in that point I get it. But also to me it’s just not the end of the world if I go over someone’s thing by a little bit and then they go over mine. Like, I’m not gonna go home and cry about it, it’s the nature of the thing, you take a risk doing that.

The fact that these are mouths, I’ve always been really nervous for people just drawing big penises or something like that. That hasn’t happened to any of the mouths, but it’s happened to my Note to Self project. It’s been mostly women who have submitted to my Note to Self project, where it’s submission-based and I’m drawing portraits of women in a mirror looking at themselves and reading a reminder that reflects their own personal stories. And it’s really ironic, and not all that surprising, that it’s when there’s women drawn on a wall, then that’s when there’s penises drawn near their faces. When it’s just a disembodied mouth, where you don’t know the gender of it, that’s respected, but not the drawings of women. So that’s ridiculous and it pisses me off. I’m so much more protective of that series, because I’m trying to do justice to their lives. It’s like, I’m really taking on the responsibility of doing their story justice, and so when someone messes with them, it’s like so much more personal than someone just ruining one of my mouth pieces.

I might be playing a role into it as well. I hope I’m not, but I guess so, because street art has become hip. Before it was just this rebellious thing that made neighborhoods ugly or something. But it’s become hip, it’s become so Instagrammable. Everyone’s taking a selfie in front of a mural, and it’s really becoming embraced and loved by hipsters, *Laughs* people with money who can afford to buy your prints.

I don’t want to harm the communities that I’m putting work in. I think street art, specifically public art, is extremely beneficial to communities, and especially lower-income communities that might not have access to galleries or going to the museum to see artwork. And y’know, in museums, everyone’s gone, the people who created the art have passed away. So it’s kind of cool to see the fact that this is artwork done recently, in their lifetime, right in their neighborhoods. To me, I would feel like, Okay. I can do that then. This is stuff that can be done right now. I want to have a positive impact on the communities that my work’s up in. So it doesn’t bother me if someone yells at me to take down.

In terms of public art being called a gentrifying force, I mean I think the critiques have validity. Y’know, I might be playing a role into it as well. I hope I’m not, but I guess so, because street art has become trendy. I’ve never spoken to anybody who it’s affecting, though, y’know? And I would love to. *Sighs* It is a tough one. There’s probably truth to it, even though I want it to not be true. You just always hope that art isn’t hurting people and that art is helping, and inspiring people. It surprises me that even community-based murals are looked down on, because then that’s giving the community the outlet for expression, for participating in the beauty of it. If somehow that could end up being negative, that just stinks. It’s a shame.

Just being exposed to creativity is such a powerful thing no matter where you are in life. ‘Cause life is creative, you have to be creative to get yourself out of situations and adjust constantly. I just believe as a person who hated school, and wasn’t good at it, and barely graduating from high school, I creatively came up with solutions to figure out how to survive. I believe that being exposed to so much creativity allowed me to harness that as a strength. I would just hope that in those communities that you just would spread the creativity around, y’know?

I go from being at home for weeks on end, feeling like shit, stackin’ up work, I have an okay day – and an okay day meaning, like, most people would take off work if they felt like me *Laughs* – and I use that as my okay day to put the art work up, like it’s that important to me.

The biggest challenge for me is having the health to continue doing the work. I just want it to be clear that I am a chronically ill female with (dis)abilities and I’m still able to do this, and I just think it’s important for breaking stigmas and the stereotyping of the (dis)abled community, especially. Because you think street art and you do not think anyone with a physical issue. It’s weird even to me, ’cause, again, I live such a weird, Hannah Montana double life *Laughs* Because I go from being at home for weeks on end, feeling like shit, stackin’ up work, I have an “okay” day – and an okay day meaning, like, most people would take off work if they felt like me *Laughs* – and I use that as my okay day to put the art work up, like it’s that important to me. I probably only go out once every three months and I just flood Philadelphia with my art. Then I go back the next day, I take photos of it. Then there’s just material I can work with on a completely different level via Instagram or my blog, where I get to revisit what I wrote and expand on it, ’cause there’s people who follow me that don’t ever get to see it because it can get buffed pretty quickly. So it gets a second life on Instagram, which is kinda cool. But yeah I just try really hard to still have the health to put it up – ’cause that’s the fun part. Creating it at home, serves it purpose, but it’s like the thrill of putting it up and getting it out of my studio.

The moment you have anything that goes wrong with you physically you just feel like you’re not capable anymore. And there’s a huge narrative about the chronically ill person – whether it’s from rheumatoid arthritis to cancer, to MS, to Parkinson’s and to someone who has a collection of issues, like me, that you just don’t feel like you’re capable of doing anything, that you can’t rely on yourself anymore. More people than not, have chronic illnesses, and so it’s a huge amount of our population that struggle with health issues. We make up our nation’s largest minority. I just want everyone who has a health issue – who feels like they are no longer capable because they can’t depend on their bodies – I want them to know that you can figure out a way to do what you wanna do and have a fulfilled life. Like, there are ways, you just have to get like unbelievably creative and have it work for you. And I figured out a way for it to work for me completely on my own. I have these chronic illnesses that will never go away, I have to manage them, they are very painful, I’m in bed constantly, I’m taking fifty pills a day, and I’m still making time in my life to do this because it’s fulfilling and because I allowed myself to do it without permission.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 18, 2018 12:02 pm

    you are very brave. i love how you chose art as your power to wade your way through all the mess.

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