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How Did Philadelphia Become Home to One of the World’s Best Sticker Shows? A Chat with Tmom’s Robert Perry

September 4, 2019

Tattooed Mom (TMoms or Mom’s for short) is an institution for Philly’s artist community. Not only is it truly Philly’s officially unofficial museum of street art, the bar and restaurant also host a variety of events and programing with artists from an array of practices including poetry, comedy, drag, and much more. And soon TMoms will again host its bananas successful international sticker show, Characters Welcome!

Events like Characters Welcome, the general loving and inclusive vibe that’s always on tap at Mom’s, the fact that TMoms even supports this blog’s street artist interview series, it all starts with the mind and heart of one Mr. Robert Perry. The owner of Mom’s, Robert is an absolute gift to this city, and I don’t say that lightly. He’ll go down in Philadelphia folklore for generations. There’s not a street artist in Philly who doesn’t have a Robert story. And while he’s without a doubt a pillar in this community, somehow I’ve never interviewed him before. This changes today!

Check out my chat with Robert below, we talk about the 8th annual Characters Welcome and how you can still participate, and how Tmoms has become one of the largest, longest running collaborative art experiments in Philadelphia…

Streets Dept’s Conrad Benner: As Characters Welcome turns 8, I’m curious about how it got started. What inspired the first Characters Welcome?
Tattooed Mom’s Robert Perry: Characters Welcome, our international sticker art show, was born in 2012 but its roots really go back much further to the beginning of TMoms art history. Long before it was even called “street art” the upstairs space here has always been a place for sticker artists to meet, draw, and put up work. If you look hard enough you may see decades old work by OG legendary Philly sticker artists like Bob Will Reign, Nosego, Under Water Pirates, El Toro, Ticky, Soma, Question Josh, and more on the walls. We wanted to celebrate this art that was such a vibrant part of our story so we asked Bob Will Reign and Under Water Pirates to help us spread the word to organize the first show. This was just before the explosion of Instagram so we were inviting folks by word of mouth and on Flickr and Tumblr. To honor the strong hand drawn, character based sticker culture of Philly we called it Characters Welcome, but so many different forms of sticker art are represented: hand drawn, screen printed, stenciled, collaged, stamped. The response was amazing – stickers from all over the world came pouring in. The first show was the biggest gathering ever of sticker artists in Philly and set the model as an event to meet, celebrate these little portable adhesive canvases, and raise money for local youth arts organizations. In addition to the big night time 21+ event we made sure to host a Saturday afternoon all ages edition since many of the participating artists were under 21.


SD: How has Characters Welcome grown over the years? Who are some of the artists that’ve participated?
RP: The show has stayed true to its original mission: to showcase the work of sticker artists from all over the world, to provide a space to celebrate that work and meet the artists behind the sticker or character. Thousands of stickers are generously donated by hundreds of artists and 100% of all sales of sticker art boards, framed stickers, sticker packs, and raffle prizes go to help support youth arts programs at our local art education heroes The Village of Arts and Humanities and Fleisher Art Memorial’s Community Partnership in the Arts.

The show has grown every year with more stickers, new artists, and exciting new work that pushes the boundaries of art on a piece of paper with a sticky back. We’ve added new elements to the mix of visuals: mini photo prints of the history of sticker art at Mom’s, full floor to ceiling sticker wall installs, a Characters Welcome Hall of Fame with a selection of boards from all the previous years, and some new special edition boards (custom built by our NY sticker art friend City Kitty) that we’re excited to share this year.

We’ve been so fortunate to have been able to include the work of so many sticker artists in the show over the years. From legendary sticker icons like Robots Will Kill, Stikman, RXSkulls, Hiss, Sleep Is Famous, and countless others to the very rich and deeply diverse community of Philly sticker artists, Characters Welcome really is an international sampler of sticker art.


SD: So, yes, as we’ve talked about there are of course sticker shows other places, but what makes Characters Welcome the best one in the entire world?
RP: There are many other fantastic sticker shows that we’ve been inspired by all over the world and we’re not the oldest nor the biggest show. But Characters Welcome is special for a couple of reasons. Its home is Philly, the best sticker city in the world. And at Tattooed Mom, we embrace sticker art every day of the year (see the ever changing walls here for new stickers daily and our Sticky Art Machine series now in its 7th edition). The show is 100% produced by sticker artists who create the compilation boards, sticker packs and installs. There aren’t many local shows in any medium where you can see literally THOUSANDS of pieces of art created by HUNDREDS of artists from all over the world. And last and certainly not least we’re very proud that through the generous spirit of Characters Welcome’s artists we are able to support the work of local youth arts programs. There is a positive ripple effect as a result of the show – from sending sticker packs to school kids in remote villages in Thailand to Fleisher’s sticker art summer youth camp – we hope to foster the next generation of budding sticker and street artists.

SD: Let’s back up a bit and talk about you. Tattooed Mom is a restaurant and bar, like, that’s the bread and butter of your business. But you’ve built this amazing culture of creativity here. Why is supporting Philly’s street artists so important to you?
RP: We like to think of ourselves as a non-profit creative arts community center disguised as a late stage capitalist for profit small business. ;)

Providing a place to meet, create, and exchange ideas freely in a non-curated, safe and open environment has always been at the heart of what we love at Mom’s. It’s a thrill to see sticker artists putting up their first stickers ever here, to watch street artists try out a new idea for a series, and to be able to introduce folks to new work that we excitedly discover on the walls all make a day’s work a day of joyful play. Supporting street artists is so important because they make this city a more interesting, beautiful, thoughtful, energetic and livable place. I’ve had countless moments of whimsy, discovery, and education by turning a corner and encountering a piece of street art. We are a better city because of our thriving art culture so it’s only natural to want to celebrate, nurture, and support that spirit and its creators however we can.

SD: Speaking of supporting street artists, the second floor of Mom’s is now an officially unofficial museum of street art. A constantly rotating museum where there’s always new work up. Was the plan always to let artists take control of the walls upstairs or did that happen more naturally?
RP: Sticker, graffiti, and street artists have been Tmoms family since the beginning. They were part of the original crew along with skateboarders, photographers, musicians, writers, and film makers who found a home here. We had lived and had fun in similar spaces before Moms – band houses, squats, skate parks – so it was just comfortable to “let it happen” upstairs. What you see today is 22+ years of just “letting it happen.” It’s been an amazing gift to just say YES and to see the walls (and ceilings, floors and doors!) evolve and change with the creative impressions of thousands of local and visiting artists. And unlike most museum settings where there is a look but don’t touch, frozen in amber vibe our anarchistic “museum” is living and always changing with an open invitation to add to or remix the beautiful chaos with your own creative contribution. We wish we were better at documenting it all (hello, calling all photographers & filmmakers) but the idea of preservation is the same as it is on the street: a piece may last a few hours or a couple decades; you never know how long something will ride but you enjoy it while it does.

SD: Wait do you have an arts background yourself? Are you a secret street artist?
RP: I’ve always been creating. I’ve been lucky to have so many incredibly talented friends in my life. And I’ve always curated odd collections of things for my personal enjoyment. I studied design and was in book publishing as an art director in a past life. Tmoms has gifted me an opportunity for this weird, beautiful free form life long art project. It’s so much bigger than any one person. Tmoms is one of the largest, longest running collaborative art experiments in Philadelphia and I’m grateful to be able to open that door every day just to see who and what walk through it next. Characters Welcome is all part of that.

As for your 2nd question: Oh, OK. Yes, I am Banksy.

SD: Readers of this blog may or may not know that when I was 24 and broke my leg when a van hit me biking down Spring Garden street that you let my friends host a benefit for me at Mom’s and you surprised us all by adding to the benefit all the bar profit from that night. That benefit helped me so much for those few months I couldn’t work or walk and I didn’t have insurance. Everyone I know in Philly’s street art world has nothing but amazing stories about you, about Mom’s… So, my question: Why are you so nice?
RP: I’m very grateful to have the love and support of our community and just want to be able to give back to it in some small way. Whether it be offering up the space for a benefit like yours (shout out to Universal Health Care For All NOW!) or youth arts groups through the Characters Welcome shows (shout out to Fund Arts Education for All NOW!) I want to be able to help out however TMoms is needed. It’s a small way for me to give thanks and say I believe in what you are doing to make this world a better place. Now more than ever it’s important to be present and lend a hand if you can.


SD: Ok, back to Characters Welcome: What can people expect this year? And submissions are open right now, correct?
RP: Characters Welcome 8 is gonna be great! From first time artists to sticker god legends, we’re so excited to share this incredible collection of sticker art from all over the world with you. There’ll be sticker compilation boards, mixed sticker packs, sticker wall installations, sticker photo prints, framed single stickers, special raffle prizes, tons of stickers made on the spot, and much more, all benefiting local youth arts programming. You’ll have a chance to meet, make, and swap stickers with local artists as well as creators and fans traveling from all over the U.S. and Canada who’ll join us for a weekend of sticker festivities. The Friday October 18 evening show is 21+ but the Saturday October 19 afternoon edition is all ages so bring the kids for free pizza, soda & sticker making.

Submissions are open now through October 1st and can be mailed or dropped off in person at TMoms. The show is an open call to all interested in the art of stickers: we welcome first time sticker artists and artists from other mediums who want to try their hand at stickers to be a part of the fun. Follow @characters_welcome on Instagram for sneak peeks of stickers from this year’s show as well as a history of past years and stickers at Mom’s and around town. Hope to see y’all at Characters Welcome this fall!

SD: Thank you, Robert!
RP: Thank you Conrad for your love and support of Tmoms and for shining a light on sticker and street art & their creators all over the city!

EXTRA READING… Check out our interviews with a couple of the artists mentioned in this chat with Robert by clicking on their names: Bob Will Reign and Under Water Pirates!

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