Stephen J Powers is a New York City artist who at one time wrote graffiti in Philadelphia and New York under the name ESPO ("Exterior Surface Painting Outreach"). He was most well known during the late 1990s for his conceptual pieces as well as his role as the editor and publisher of On the Go Magazine. ESPO's work often blurred the lines between illegal and legal. Pieces like "Greetings from ESPOLand" utilized the style of the Asbury Park Billboards and appeared to be a legitimate billboard. On January 4, 1997 ESPO began his most ambitious non-commissioned art. He painted on storefront grates in Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, TriBeCa and the South Bronx, covering the entire grate with white or silver paint and writing his name over it. Powers painted in daylight, wearing street clothes; he told the New York Times in 1999 that when passerby asked what he was doing he would tell them, "I'm with Exterior Surface Painting Outreach, and I'm cleaning up this gate"; the official-sounding name was enough to ward most people off. Powers targeted shops that appeared to be out of business and grates that were already heavily vandalized, describing his graffiti as a public service. In 1999 he said that he had painted around 70 grates. Powers is from Philadelphia's Overbook neighborhood; he graduated from Robert E Lamberton High School in 1987 and took classes at the University of Arts. He moved to New York in 1995.
In December 1999 Powers was arrested for vandalism after he participated in a protest conceived by Joey Skaggs,against Rudolph Giuliani's attempt to shut down the controversial art show at the Brooklyn Museum, "Sensations”; he charged that the arrest was politically motivated. A New York Times editorial criticized the Giuliani administration for its secrecy in the case, but dismissed Powers as "a noodge and self-promoter, one of those deliberately annoying characters whom most of us could do without." The Village Voice was similarly critical, describing Powers as an egotistical, careerist "celebrity offender"; the author writes, "in the graffiti world...many consider Powers a media-fed simulation of the Real Thing." Charged with six counts of criminal mischief e eventually accepted a plea bargain and performed five days of community service.
Powers stated in 2000 that he had given up graffiti. His work has been shown at the Venice and Liverpool Biennials, as well as numerous shows at New York City's Deitch Gallery. In 2003, Powers designed the artwork for Tommy Guerrero’s third studio album Soul Food Taqueria and performed voice overs for the international television series Kung Faux seen in over 150 countries around the world. His first solo museum exhibition was in the fall of 2007, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Powers has done many projects at Coney Island In 2005 he curated "The Dreamland Artists Club" a project in which professional artists helped Coney Island merchants by repainting their signs. In 2008 he created a waterboarding-themed installation there. His studio art currently sells for as much as $20,000. He is the author of a book on graffiti's history, "The Art of Getting Over," published by St. Martins Press in 1999, as well as the graphic novel, First and Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories, Villard Press, 2005. He has also designed clothing for Marc Eco, Nike and Calvin Klein
Powers was a Fulbright scholar in 2007. He used the grant to create murals in Dublin and Belfast's Shankhill area, with the assistance of local teenagers. His work in Belfast was inspired by the area's Political Murals; Powers told the New York Times that he was "taking the form of the murals, which are insanely powerful for all the wrong reasons, and trying to retain some of the power and use it in a really good way.”