Skip to content

Philly Street Art Interviews: SEPER’s Metamorphosis from Old-School Graffiti Writer into Abstract Muralist

August 7, 2019

(Photos by 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.

Anthony Torcasio, better known by his graffiti name, SEPER, got in trouble a lot when he was a kid. It didn’t really faze him. When he was sent to his room, he would draw; when he was arrested for graffiti, he would go out tagging the next night. But when he reached adulthood and got his first job, he quit graffiti—and all forms of art—cold turkey.

Eleven years later, he burst back into the art world with a new signature style. Now, he’s regularly collaborating with Philly schools, he’s a member of the art collective Tiny Room For Elephants, and South Street is a veritable portfolio of his colorful and distinctive abstract murals.

Anthony likens his growth as an artist to the life cycle of a butterfly. Writing graffiti as a teenager was his caterpillar phase, when we was hungry for experience, reputation, and the graffiti culture. His subsequent hiatus from all forms of art was his chrysalis phase, during which his pent up creative energy morphed his graffiti experience into something new. Finally, after an inspiring experience with his daughter triggered his emergence, he began his butterfly phase, now painting as much as he possibly can.

Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: Thanks for joining me for this interview!
Anthony “SEPER” Torcasio: You’re so welcome, man. It’s a big pleasure.

SD: You started writing graffiti in 1989, at the age of 10. I know a lot of writers start young, but that seems… really young! How did you get started at such a young age?
ST: Well, a friend of mine, Christopher—he writes DK. We just grew up together and he was already writing. I would be playing tag, and jailbreak, and 10-year-old games, and he would come around and invite me out writing graffiti. I was like nah, I’m playin tag, man. I eventually gave in and went, and it started my graffiti adventure. It was really really cool.

SD: By the time you stopped doing graffiti in 1999, you had been arrested 15 times. Why did you keep going out after arrests 1 through 14?
ST: It’s highly addictive. You kind of go from being a normal kid in the neighborhood to sort of like a little neighborhood celebrity. You get addicted to that. You grow up playing cops and robbers, and now you’re really doing it. You’re breaking the law. That extra adrenaline rush; the fame you get off it; the credibility you get off it—it becomes addictive, and the culture becomes addictive. You start to thrive off it. When I got later in my graffiti career, it was more of a reason not to stop, because I’d put in so much work. You don’t want to waste all your efforts. We planned on writing for the rest of our lives. So it’s kind of against the rules to quit on your culture like that, you know?

 
SD: Do you feel like that’s what you did when you stopped writing?
ST: In a way, yeah. It took a lot for me to stop.

SD: What did finally make you stop?
ST: One main reason was I realized I was an adult now. I almost went to jail jail. Like, I just ducked it. I was about to be placed in a home, and my probation officer came to court and he really wanted me to go away. He felt like I wasn’t gonna stop, which at the time—I felt that same way. What saved me in the courtroom is my community service. This is before Mural Arts—it was called Artscape, and instead of cleaning the streets, you could kill off some community service time by going to art classes and things like that. So it was a no-brainer for me. I was like yeah, I get to kill some time and I get to learn some stuff also. So I made some paintings with them, and they were actually selling them, so the head guy at the time came in and talked to the judge for me. He brought one of the paintings, and he said I know the probation officer’s perspective on this but I see a difference in Anthony. Look at one of his paintings—we sold the other one, and this one is on its way to being sold. We’re actually benefitting off him. So I think what we’re doing in this program is working for him. I kind of used it to my benefit. He was saying that, so I was like yeah!—(I’m not gonna go to jail?)—Yeah, this is working for me! You know? So I got out of that, and I was still writing, but I started feeling guilty. And I was like man, I’m almost 18, and once I turn 18, I’m not gonna be placed in a home; I’m gonna be going to real jail. And I was starting to make some money, so I was able to buy things and explore different things in life that I wasn’t enjoying as a graffiti writer.

SD: What do you think would happen if you started writing again?
ST: I don’t think I would be enjoying my life as much as I did as a teenager. But I would enjoy my culture, because that’s what I’m used to.

SD: When you’re just a 10-year-old, and your friend is like hey, come write with me, how do you learn that culture?
ST: Learning the culture is like throwing yourself to the wolves. The streets teach you. The culture itself teaches you and shapes and molds you. Older heads, once they see you’re serious, will be like don’t do this and don’t do that. It was different back then because there was no social media—you had to create confrontation sometimes just to meet somebody. Like, we would go disrespect people on purpose, just to get to meet them, and that was a double-edged sword. You would go start beef to just meet the person, and hopefully it didn’t turn out too bad.

Here’s a funny story: AB was very popular at the time as I was coming up. He had already been writing while I was just getting my feet wet, like 1990, ’91. We wanted to know who he was. Me and my whole crew—we went out, crossing his name out everywhere. I mean, we spent a whole week; whole bags full of paints just crossing his name out. It took some work, because he was everywhere. I mean everywhere! We felt like we had to know him, but he was a mysterious man at this point. So I’m at this party and my friend is there who was older than me. It was relatively early for a party night for me to be leaving, and he was like dude you’re leaving? I was like yeah, I gotta get out of here. He said where you going? I was like I’m going on a mission, man. He’s like what do you mean? I was like ummmm, I’m going to write graffiti, man. He was like oh, for real? You write? I was like yeah, do you write? He was like yeah! Well what do you write? I was like nah, what do YOU write? Back then it was sketchy—you wasn’t open about tellin’ people who you are. But he went first, and he was like I’m AB. I was like uhhhhhhhhh… He was like what’s the matter, man? I was like oh shit… um… uh… I’m… SEPER. He’s like WHAT??? You and your friends have been—!!! I was like look, man, we didn’t know it was you. We were just trying to meet you! And he was really pissed off, man, but because of our good relationship outside of that, it kind of saved me from an ass-whoopin’. I was like look man—DK, XEO; they’re on their way here! We’re going out writin’ dude. We have a bookbag full of paint… just come with us! He was like you know what? Fuck it! Cause I wanna see XEO and these motherfuckers who have been crossing us out everywhere! Him and AM were like the dynamic duo of South Philly. So I walk outside with him and everybody’s out there like who the fuck’s this old head? And I was like well… before you guys say anything… I want to introduce you to my friend… This is AB. Everybody was like oh shit! uhh… I was like dude, I already explained everything—everything’s cool. Let’s just all go writin’ together. And that’s what happened!

SD: Did two-letter names used to be a lot more popular? Cause you’ve mentioned like four of them already.
ST: Yeah, for sure. I don’t know for sure, but inside my crew it was. And I think for them, it was more about being quicker—you’re in an illegal situation so you want to be as quick as possible.

SD: Maybe that’s why you got arrested so many times—you had so many more letters!
ST: Hahaha maybe! I think it was foolish pride. I got too brave for my own britches.

 
SD: How has Philly graffiti changed since you were writing?
ST: Whooo man. Graffiti in Philly changed for me in so many different ways. One, there’s actual possibilities of evolution after [being a writer]. When I stopped, you only became a bigger criminal. You just stepped up to a bigger crime. Or you just stopped and stepped off the scene and you just became a normal citizen. That’s what I did, which was a downfall for me, because I’m not a normal citizen, you know? I’m a creative soul, and [graffiti] played a part in most of my creativity that is transpiring today and pouring out of me. So it was a blessing in disguise.

Social media changed it a lot. Graffiti kind of influenced street art, and for a while they were side by side but graffiti artists didn’t really associate our culture with that culture. But that has combined now, which is very different than when I was a kid. We didn’t do too many stickers. It was kind of like being a punk. You tag on a sticker, you slap it up somewhere, there was no risk in that. It was getting up, but it wasn’t respected in my era. I feel like street art helped boost [positive perceptions of graffiti among the general public]. In our era, we wanted as many people to know us as possible—we didn’t care about how they felt. It felt good.

Here’s another big difference: back then, if you were a graffiti artist, you was looked at as a piece of shit by the general public. To other graffiti writers, we were the shit—certain people was looked at as “kings.” Now, when people hear you’re a graffiti writer, and it doesn’t matter who it is, they’re, like, enthused. They’re ecstatic! They’re like whoa! How long have you been writing? What’s your name? Back then, it was like you wrote on my damn car! Now it’s like can you write on my car, man? I’m so used to being hated on, it kind of molded me. Getting positive feedback? I’m still getting used to it, man. It’s like a different world for me!

SD: Ok, so after you got out of the game, you completely checked out of art for 11 years. Why the break, and why the return?
ST: I was really uninspired to create anything. My passion and love for graffiti, for me, is to be illegal—to be out doing destructive things. As I grew into an adult, I didn’t want to do that anymore. After I started making money, I didn’t want to fuck that up. Most of my friends were selling drugs and things, and they’re sitting in jail for that, and I didn’t want to go to jail and have them be like hey dude, what are you in here for? and have to be like I was tagging last night. It wasn’t really a good look after a while. It wasn’t worth the risk anymore. But my true passion was to be a graffiti writer—I didn’t know any other way. If I wasn’t gonna do that, I wasn’t gonna do nothing at all.

The return to art and being creative solely stems from my daughter. So when she was one, I would color with her. After that, when she was, like, one and a half, we were in Atlantic City. My wife and her was collecting all these seashells and rocks, and my wife was kind of skeptical. She was like she wants to keep these things. What the hell are we gonna do with them? I was like it’s cool—I’ve got an idea. We took ‘em home, and we started making paintings with them. We really had fun with them! It made such an impression on my daughter—I didn’t even understand it at the time. A few months after that, as the winter came around—I’ll never forget this moment. We were walking down Front Street, and she started picking up all these leaves. I was like ah man… So I guess I was feeling like my wife, like we’re not taking these home, all these dirty, weird leaves… She was like hey dad, could we take these home and paint them? And I was like wow. It made me realize how much of an impression that made on her, and I started helpin’ her. I was like yeah, let’s grab all these damn leaves! We made a painting out of that, so now it was sparking up some creative thoughts for me. I’m experimenting with my daughter, we’re having fun, we’re bonding on top of it.

So I decided to surprise her for her second birthday. I let her paint this wooden panel whatever color she felt like painting it. Before it was a solid color, I would have her practice different things—whatever she felt like drawing, if it was a letter or a heart, shapes, whatever. And then I wanted to just use some spray paint [on top]. I didn’t want to do graffiti, so I created a design for her that was not quite my signature style now—but it was definitely the moment where I felt like holy shit. This feels great. This is ME, man. This is it. This is what the fuck I wanna do, man. This whole path opened up in front of me, and I just saw it so clear and vivid. I just hopped on the rocket and rode it. That’s what really got me back into being creative. Once that spark of inspiration started for me… I’m still at this point right now, exploding with creativity, man! I can’t stop! My style right now evolved in so many different ways. It’s still my abstract signature, but I can create sculptures out of it. I can use photography as a medium and still create my signature. I can paintbrush my style now. I have so many different mediums that I can use right now through experimenting with my creativity that it just don’t stop.

 
SD: How does it feel to take credit for your work instead of having to stay anonymous?
ST: It feels great, man! Again, I’m still gettin’ used to it. It’s a big [weight] off the shoulder, you know? I don’t think there’s a particular word to describe it—it just feels so damn good. At the MECRO show [at Arch Enemy Arts], a handful of famous underground writers were there, and one or two I got to meet for the first time. There was like eight of us toward the end and we all took a picture together. It was funny, and I had to laugh during the picture—we got someone to take the picture for us, and everybody’s, like, covering their face, and I’m just bare-faced and smiling my ass off cause I don’t have nothin’ to hide. It feels really good, man.

SD: Why do you still use the name “SEPER” for your current work?
ST: Because that’s all people really know me by. Even my family members call me “Sep.” Nobody I grew up with calls me Anthony—everybody knows me by that, so it just felt normal.

 
SD: How did you end up with so many murals on South Street?
ST: Interesting. In the beginning of doing these abstract paintings, I didn’t have any murals. Living in the mural capital of the world, I felt like man… So I went on a mission. I’m knocking on random doors in South Philly; I’m all over the place. I’m like look, I wanna do a free mural on your wall. They’re like do you work for Mural Arts?—Nah.—Have you ever worked for Mural Arts?—Nah. Nobody was even taking me seriously. My thought going in was who would say “no” to a free mural? I wanna do something cool on your wall, man! I was getting nowhere, so I dug deep, and I’m like man, what business owners do I know?

I reached out to [South Street] Souvlaki—I’m really good friends with Tom and the employees there, so I was like hey Tom, I’ve been searching for a place to do a mural, man, and I would love to do a mural on your wall. He was like what? He’s kind of breaking my balls, but he’s finally like alright, go ahead, but I’m having work done, so wait until the work’s done. It was like heaven—I’ve finally got this yes. And it was on South Street, which was everything to me! It was close to where me and my graffiti buddies used to meet up outside Johnny Rockets. So it was cool to have a spot close to that. And then I just kept going hard, man! I put determination and persistence into my recipe and I just would not stop until I got some walls. Fortunately, I got the yes [at Souvlaki], but DiBruno’s was my first official mural that was completed. Souvlaki would have been my first mural, but they were getting work done. I just started getting all of these yeses, and then once people started seeing the murals, I got more inquiries, and then I was actually getting little commissions in.

SD: How did you get involved with Tiny Room For Elephants?
ST: Through New Sound Brass Band! They were a part of the first Tiny Room for Elephants, and they had no clue what they were getting into. I remember my friend [in the band] coming home like yo man, you gotta get in this warehouse. All these people are doing all this crazy graffiti; man, you should definitely be there! At the time, I was like I’ll do whatever, as long as I get to paint! But it was in the middle of being done, so he asked and then kind of forgot about it. But then at one of the New Sound Brass Band shows, they introduced me to Ben [Howard] and said hey, he’s an artist, you’re an artist, you guys need to talk. From there, me and Ben became good friends—we started seeing each other out at art events. So when Tiny Room For Elephants reached out to Ben and asked him hey, have any recommendations? I was one of his recommendations. I sent them work, and they accepted me, and I’ve been a part of them ever since.

 
SD: At the beginning of July, you did a studio takeover there, called Secret Portals. What was that like?
ST: That was awesome, because what I respect about Tiny Room For Elephants is they’re really for their artists. They’re really into lettin’ you be you. So, I’ve been doing cutouts behind the scenes, which is three-dimensional versions of my abstract style. That’s evolving into more sculptural designs [like] my kinetic sculpture that was a part of the Tiny Room festival this year. However, Secret Portals is an abstract atmosphere. I want people to come in and get an experience. I wanted to paint my muralism on the walls as a backdrop, but really highlight my three-dimensional cutouts. It was the first real revealing of them, which was super exciting for me.

SD: How can people see it?
ST: It will be up until at least August 10th. The studio space isn’t open 24/7—if we’re in there, anybody is welcome. If you’re randomly there and we’re open, come on in. If anybody would like, they could DM me or Tiny Room For Elephants and we’ll schedule a personal showing.

SD: Tell us about the collaborations you’ve been doing with Philly schools!
ST: The collaborations with schools are a big thing to me. I want to inspire children and teach them how to use spray paint as a medium in positive ways. As I was a kid, it was only introduced to me in negative ways. Again, no regrets, but things are different now. The culture’s different.

How it started was with my daughter’s preschool teacher, Ms. Sue. I saw her at the Mural Arts Wall Ball, and I had a painting there. It sparked up the conversation of would I want to come into her classroom and do a demonstration. I was like of course! Two nights before the actual demonstration, I’m thinking to myself man, I’m just gonna tell her to bring out the supplies from the room so the kids can do some stuff with me. I don’t wanna just stand here and paint in front of these children. She’s, like, magic, because she calls me and she’s like hey I had an idea; I don’t know if you’re up for it, but I found this spray paint that’s safe for the kids to use. Would you want to involve them? I said man, this is perfect! You read my mind, because I was gonna tell you to bring out whatever you got, and we were definitely gonna collab. I wasn’t just gonna stand there. So she got this spray paint, and it worked out well! It was a Montana spray paint, water-based and safe. Little cans that fit in their little hands, and it was great!

I teared up, man—before we actually collaborated, I was in the classroom, behind this wall, and Ms. Sue was showing them my work, and the questions they were asking were amazing to me. All these different things. They were super happy about seeing the work, but then Ms. Sue said guess what. We’re gonna get to work with him today! It made me feel like a rock star, dude. They were like YEAHHH!!! I came from around the corner and they all surrounded me and they were hugging me and it was like I was the best thing that walked on Earth, you know what I mean? It was overwhelming.

What introduced me into the art education world was Ms. Sue again. She had a demonstration for the PAEA—the Pennsylvania Art Education Association—it’s a big deal. What happens is all the art teachers from Pennsylvania go to this thing to look for new ideas and lessons to do with the kids. So Ms. Sue was like we’re gonna present our collaboration. Then I got invited back, through Ms. Sue, to Moore College, for more of a private thing with just a handful of teachers from the Philadelphia Teacher’s Alliance.

And then from there—I have a tradition at Penn Charter. Every year, I go there and collaborate with their second grade classes. All three classes, we go outside and we make paintings. It’s awesome. It’s a tradition. I did Bayard Taylor, a school in North Philly… What was cool about that one was they had poor attendance for grade school, and only the kids with perfect attendance at that time got to collaborate. It was a couple different grades, and they got to brag about it and go back to the other kids like we come every day, so we got to do this.

 
SD: In a previous interview, you said that you’re ready to take your style to the next level. What is the next level for you?
ST: The next level for me is very vague, actually—it’s just challenging myself. But the next level as an artist is just to solely be able to rely on creating art as a full-time occupation.

SD: Is SEPER still riding out there anywhere?
ST: Hahaha. Yeah, there’s some tags that are living, which is awesome. On some Regional Rail lines… There’s some in the subway which became—“everlasting tags” is what we call them.

SD: That’s awesome. Alright, so what’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
ST: A honey sriracha wrap (with no onions). It is heaven on a plate, dude. It’s unbelievable. Hell yeah, man. Jesus. I can’t live without ‘em. There’s a few things I like here but as an addict, it is the honey sriracha wraps for sure.

 
SD: Thanks for doing this!
ST: Dude, thank you! I enjoyed it. It’s another part of the positive process.

______________________________________________________________________

PHILLY: Join Tattooed Mom’s for the Philly Queer Bazaar, returning to the 2nd floor of TMOMs with several other local queer business owners on Saturday, August 17 from 1-5pm!

Come hang out, shop, support, show your beautiful faces, meet new people, and catch up with old friends! Vendors include: Hearts & Bruises, Bearded Noise, Jewelry Mama, Eunoamia Kaze, Grrl Blk, Tiny Neenja, and more… Learn more now here!

______________________________________________________________________

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

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 9, 2019 9:39 am

    This was awesome. Very cool to hear his story and I really love the work he’s doing with kids and schools now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: