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Philly Street Art Interviews: Keeping It 365 with Symone Salib

July 11, 2019

(Photos by Conrad Benner and Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale)

Welcome to Season 2 of Streets Dept’s newest series of street artist interviews, created in partnership with Philadelphia’s own unofficial official street art museum, Tattooed Mom. Each month, Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale will sit down with one local street artist to ask them about their work. Together, we’ll learn more about the incredible artists getting up around Philly.

In the past several months, Symone Salib’s nascent art career has really begun to take off. That can partly be attributed to her recent push into street art. Her wheatpasted portraits and quotes have proved quite popular, leading to collaborations with other artists and many messages of support from followers. We sat down recently to talk about her beginnings—both in fine art and in street art.

Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: Hey Symone, thanks for coming by to chat!
Symone Salib: Heck yeah, thanks for having me!

SD: For starters, I want to congratulate you on a somewhat… meteoric rise? It seems like it’s been pretty great for you!
SS: Yeah, it’s, like, really wild. To make stuff, and have enough people resonate with it, especially that are in your city, that you call your home—but then also from people that don’t live in the city… to have it be shared with people [outside Philly who] also connect with it and message me… I’m like oh my gosh! It’s, like, really wild.

SD: So for folks who are unfamiliar with you, let’s review the past couple months… You were in a gallery show with Malachi Lily at The Art Dept Collective in April, you were a part of Tattooed Mom’s 22nd birthday show in May, and your work is on display at Photo Pop Philly at The Bourse this summer! That seems like… a lot?
SS: Yeah, definitely. Especially with juggling other parts of my life, and my jobs, it is definitely a lot. But at the same time I feel like this is where I feel the most fulfillment. So I’m happy to do it when I’m super tired at the same time. Like, this is what I want, right?

SD: And only a few years ago, you were working as a restaurant server. How did you get from point A to point B?
SS: Kind of out of leaving my job in a way that I was really upset. It was super unhealthy, the work environment. I loved the job, but the management wasn’t the best, and I ended up leaving like wow, y’all kind of did me dirty. I was like I don’t want to get another industry job right now. That’s when I had just started really doing a lot of art and doing a lot of portraits. I was like you know what? I have one job—that’s my side hustle; I’m gonna try to do art as much as I can and see if I can live off that. And I did that for like a year. And I was working my ASS OFF. I was working SO HARD. I was making so much stuff.

Someone said to me if you can quit your job and live off of nothing for three months and just make your art and still survive, you got it. I’m telling you, it’s gonna end up rolling. And if you’re not good after three months, then go get another job. But if after three months you’re still killing it and you still have the energy and you still want to do it, roll with the punches if you can. So here I am! I don’t even remember who told me that, but for some reason that really stuck with me. It definitely was a little bit life-changing for me.

SD: How long have you been painting?
SS: I’ve always really loved to make stuff, whether it’s painting or sculpture…I was really into clay when I was in high school. But really taking myself seriously, like trying to do it in a career step? Probably since November 2017. I was like I’m just gonna try it and if I can, I will, and if not, I’ll do something else.

I’ve always really loved it, and I think something was just stopping me. Even in college… Like, I worked in the art department for three years. I worked as a gallery person, and all my friends were in the art department, and I LOVED it! I used to always be in the screenprinting room. What was I making? Nothing! I don’t know why! I was, like, scared, or intimidated by everyone else around me and all the creative energy. I don’t know why, but I definitely was, and I’ve just kind of stepped on that as I’ve gotten older. Like yo, if you feel compelled to make something, just do it. And you don’t have to show anybody if you don’t want to.

SD: So I take it you don’t have a formal arts education?
SS: No, I actually went to school for PR & Communication Studies. I thought a little bit about going to school for art, but I honestly hate when people tell me what to do with my art. I’ll see so many of my friends in the early classes in art school… Like, yes, you do learn so much in art school, and I think it’s a really amazing thing for some people, but I was just not here to take any of those classes where they were going to make me do some shit that I didn’t want to do. So I was like I’m gonna just go for something else.

But I think it’s actually been helpful. I feel like the things I’ve learned through PR & Communication Studies weirdly kind of affect how I do some of my art sometimes, and how I market myself. Because obviously I do my own social media and stuff, like most people our age.

SD: How does it affect your art?
SS: I think just my social media tactics. Like how in this last year my art has kind of exploded. I really made a PR plan when I started to do my stuff. Like I’m gonna post at specific times, and I’m gonna BEAT the algorithm, and I’m gonna FIGURE IT OUT! I think in that, it’s kind of helped me. But also the lens I use on how I read things is also from a lot of stuff I learned in Communication Studies classes. I feel like there came a point in my life after I started to take certain classes, where I reevaluated certain things—like movies or shows I’d watched. Like, I remember watching Sex and the City in high school and really loving that show; then watching it as an adult and having this really critical lens on, and being like whoa this is SO toxic! Why did I like this when I was younger?

SD: #YourFaveIsProblematic…
SS: Yo, exactly! And that show’s not even the worst show that exists! I think sometimes the lens that I’m using to view something—or even taking a step back and not even looking at it from my own perspective; just being an ear and listening—really affects how and what I get inspired by.

SD: Let’s shift gears. This interview series is about street art after all! When and why did you begin putting art onto the street?
SS: I remember when I first moved to the city in 2015 and seeing stuff everywhere. Obviously there are murals everywhere, but then I remember specifically seeing Amberella’s hearts go up, and being like wow, these are cool. I liked them, and then I kept seeing them everywhere. I was like wow, this person really just put them up EVERYWHERE! That’s crazy! That’s really nuts. Could I do that? And then I was like I don’t know if I could do that, actually. I don’t know HOW to do that. Then, after I really started to make a lot of art, I was like I wanna contribute to this public space that everyone else is using. I think that community is really beautiful, and I want to wiggle my way in there if I can.

I remember being so scared the first time I put a piece up. Or actually, no, I was really angry—I was in a bad mood about something that happened. The first thing I made—I didn’t put my name on it, I did it in the dark, alone… That is NOT the way I do things now. I would never go and install late at night—that looks sketchy. I don’t do anything that looks sketchy. Heck no. But I remember putting it up and feeling like… I don’t know. It was so cathartic! I put it up and I felt better, weirdly. I was like wow, this was the cheapest therapy in the whole world. I went home, and I was like dang, I should really keep doing that. The more I put up, the more people started to reach out to me like I really resonated with that piece. That’s all I could ever ask for—that you could make something and make someone feel something. Or that they find comfort in something that you made. That is a beautiful thing to be able to make and give to the world.

SD: What was that first piece you put up?
SS: Oh my gosh. I had this idea… It was a pretty big iPhone, and it was like “messages from the universe.” It said something like “if you feel something is off, trust your intuition. It’s telling you for a reason.” There was nothing else. It was the blurb, and then no one answered. It just said “The Universe.”

SD: As far as I can tell, the first piece of street art that you posted on your Instagram was a portrait of Nia Wilson, a black teenager who was murdered in Oakland, CA in 2018. Why did you choose that as the first piece to post?
SS: I just remember when it happened, I was SO upset. I’m an older sibling—I am one of seven kids. My sibling I’m closest to, my sister Naomi—I love her so much. If anything ever happened to Naomi, I would be like oh my god. I would be so hurt. I remember hearing about it, and, like, her sister was THERE. That was terrible. So much happens to people and nothing is ever said about it, or sometimes the media covers it but only to a certain extent. And I feel like if I have a voice, I should use it. I don’t even know [the Wilsons] or their family, but that HURT me. That was part of the if you feel compelled to make something, make it.

SD: It sounds like it was also partly the therapy you were talking about.
SS: I think so, but also I felt like I couldn’t be the only person that was feeling that way. To be one person that feels that way, there’s got to be other people. It messes your day up! In a way that it kind of messes the world up. Ugh.

SD: You’ve stated that your purpose is to highlight stories like Nia’s. How do you choose whose stories to tell and to depict on the street?
SS: Often I’ll hear something and it will resonate with me personally, but I don’t always do things that are specifically about myself. I feel like so much of life is about storytelling, and how you view the world and how other people view the world. A lot of times, if I hear something—especially if it’s not something that everybody knows—I’m like I had no idea about that. If I felt that way, there’s other people who feel that way. I think that’s more what pushes me, unless there’s a moment of injustice for somebody. That’s also something that propels me in a specific direction. Especially if I’m mad. If I’m mad about it, I feel like I can’t do anything that crazy, but I can at least make art about it. I think that’s what pushes me at the end of the day—to let other people feel heard, especially if maybe they’re not being heard.

SD: Can you tell us about the piece you installed here at Mom’s today?
SS: In light of Pride Month, I made a piece of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, which are two trans women who are, like, the head of the queer movement. I put a Lizzo quote on the side of it: “if you’re gonna celebrate Pride, you better keep that energy 365!” I love Lizzo. With corporations trying to capitalize on Pride Month by putting a flag on something, I’m like are you kidding me? Really? I think that’s really rude. I think that’s not cool. Lizzo is fucking right. And Sylvia Rivera has their hand up like heyyy! Helloooo! I think a lot of times it’s a black woman in the room who has to say something for shit to happen or for something to change.

Both of them are incredible—they started STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries—years and years ago, during Stonewall times, it would be the same way it is now, where there would be queer people who are homeless, or who don’t have a space, or were kicked out, and they were like we got it. We’re gonna find you housing. We’re gonna figure it out and do something about it. People call Marsha P. Johnson “St. Marsha.” Like, bruh, Mother Theresa has all this light; Marsha P. Johnson should have all that light. Especially because she was definitely killed and thrown in the Hudson River. People said it was suicide, but everyone who knew her was like she would not have done that. Someone killed her, and that even happens now with so many queer women and trans black women, and that’s really not cool. I’m glad that we’re in a space now where people are like remember these people. Pride is here now because of people like them. So I’m like heck yes. Keep that energy 365.

SD: Why do you think there’s so little portraiture in street art?
SS: I really don’t know! There really isn’t! When I first started my Artist Statement series, I put stuff up, and then I was thinking about all these different street artists in the city that I loved, and I was like am I the only person in Philadelphia doing that? I can’t be! Like, some people do faces, but not really… There’s murals of people, but I don’t really see so much street of specific people. I don’t know why! I have no idea!

I’m just drawn to people, personally. I’m a very energy-driven person. I feel very mentally stimulated by conversation. I love when I meet somebody and there’s this beautiful, organic connection, and y’all could just talk forever. I’m a pretty chatty person, but to connect with people and feel something like that, I like, live for that shit. So I think that’s why I personally do portraits, but I don’t know why other people don’t.

I really want to start working in a direction of making portraits of people in my life though, instead of people in pop culture or people who I think are interesting. I want to do something that’s just, like, Philly-ass people. Because honestly, I fuckin’ love Philly so much.

SD: That’s a great name for a series: Philly-ass People!
SS: Haha yeah!

SD: I think your most well-known piece was your dual portrait of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, accompanied by a banner reading, simply, “believe us.” What response did this piece get?
SS: That’s when people really first started messaging me and being like thank you. It was almost like I was doing a service. That’s not even why I did it—I remember listening to like, half of what was happening, and being like I really can’t listen to this anymore. I remember turning it off, and being really upset, and then literally just making something—I didn’t have work that day. And then I went and put it up, like, an hour later. It was around the corner from my house. I feel like I needed to do that.

Honestly, a lot of women hit me up like yo, I’m glad you said something. Almost all of my friends have been sexually assaulted or have had some kind of sexual misconduct moment in their lives. Moments like that just make you think about all these times that you’ve been intimate with people and whether it was consensual or not… And then you dig deep into your brain and you’re like oh my gosh what was my life? How was I just blind to stuff? I think to connect with other people on a hardship like that—and to have SO many people have SUCH different stories that are all pretty garbage; like, they all fuckin’ suck—is WILD.

I’m glad people are becoming more vocal, and starting to definitely change more. And I work with kids—talking about consent with kids from such a young age is really important. Just talking about personal boundaries, and space, and being able to actually make a boundary. Like, imagine a five-year-old being like this is my bubble; please don’t pass it because this is what I need. I could never say that when I was younger!

And [that piece] stayed up for so long. No one tagged it; no one painted over that wall. They ALWAYS painted over that wall, so that was crazy. I was like maybe someone who lives there doesn’t mind that it’s up at the moment.

SD: That piece turned into an impromptu collaboration with Hysterical Men. How did that come about?
SS: They messaged me, like can I do this? I’m like yo, GO. HECK. YES. I live for that! But also with street art, there’s an evolution of every piece, where it’s coming off, or someone’s tagging it, or someone adds to it in whatever way they see fit. I was like this is the BEST. This is AMAZING. And that was their first [foray] into doing street art!

SD: Wait, really? They hadn’t done anything before that?
SS: Barely—that was their piece that started moving them to start really doing a lot, I think! I had never even met them in person until a little bit after, when people were kind of freaking out about [that piece]. I was like I would love to get coffee. Do you want to be my real friend? You have to be cool! And they’re great. Actually, on a recent piece I just did with Lace in the Moon, with the queer legs and that cute skirt that we made—

SD: That was a really cool piece!
SS: Oh my god, we did it so quick! We didn’t have any measurements… Nicole was like I’m just gonna make a skirt; you make the legs. I’m like what size? How long is the skirt? And she’s like I don’t know, feel it out! But it really worked out, size-wise, better than we expected.

So the skirt got stolen in, like, one day. Me and Nicole are like someone’s probably wearing it around Philadelphia. Haha! We’re both like whatever. And then someone spray painted orange over it, but you could still see it. I was like this is so funny, how this has changed so much in such a short amount of time. But over the weekend, Hysterical Men put a piece right above it, and also messaged me like is this ok? And I’m like OF COURSE IT’S OK! I love this! We start these, like, street conversations with people. I feel like, to be walking to work and have a conversation about a public piece of art—that’s, like, the point!

SD: Are you interested in doing more political art?
SS: I would say yes. I don’t think my main focus is to make specifically political art, but there’s so much going on in the current climate of our life that if you’re going to make something that’s going to change someone’s mind, or push them in a direction that opens their eyes… Why would I not? I wouldn’t solely do political art, cause I don’t know that I have the heart to only do that, but it’s our life—it’s around us. It’s in my everyday. People who are like oh, I don’t follow politics—that’s a privilege thing to not follow politics. I’m not blind to what’s going on around me. I’m upset, like everybody else.

SD: You’ve talked before about your cultural identity, how do you think that has shaped your life and your art?
SS: It’s so weird, because I’m pretty white-passing, especially growing up. It wasn’t until I was in college that someone told me that I was biracial—in like a weird way. I was like I’m not biracial. Why would you say that? Also, why would you say it like that? I don’t even know what the context of the conversation was, but they were like yes you are, girl. I was like I guess I am… “bi” is two, ok…

I’m very first generation. My dad is VERY Egyptian, and my mom is VERY Cuban. My dad speaks Arabic; my mom speaks Spanish; and both speak English. But there are so many little weird words that are a mish-mosh of Arabic and Spanish that I’m like nobody has any idea what I’m talking about. Like, I thought I knew some secret language shit when I was little, cause I went to school and nobody else knew what I was talking about. But really I just lived in a pretty white town.

I think with my art, to have my eyes open and be a part of a community but have everyone else not be a part of that community is kind of what I felt like when I was little. It was almost like a code switch, when I would go to school and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I think that’s cool, to make something that’s palatable and to open someone else’s eyes, or to put them in someone else’s shoes.

SD: Ok, last but not least, what’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
SS: Today, I’m gonna go with a burger with some tots on the side. Or pierogies if they have them, but it’s not Thursday!

SD: Thank you so much!
SS: Thank you!

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PHILLY: Join the Philadelphia Podcasting Society and Tattooed Mom for the 7th Annual Philadelphia Podcast Festival (21+) from July 20-28! With 32 podcasts all offering LIVE show recording at TMOMs for free, you’ll see the voices behind your favorite podcast and find some new shows altogether.

Click here to see the full line up!

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Read past articles from our Philly Street Art Interviews series by clicking the artists name: Hope HummingbirdFaithsFunnnBob Will ReignTaped Off TVLow LevelVoid Skulls, Kid Hazo, and Under Water Pirates!

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