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Public artist Joe Boruchow takes his work to Philadelphia's streets

Joe Boruchow has a surgeon's grace when armed with his X-Acto knife, carving intricate patterns and austere scenes into sheets of black paper hardly bigger than his hand.

Joe Boruchow has a surgeon's grace when armed with his X-Acto knife, carving intricate patterns and austere scenes into sheets of black paper hardly bigger than his hand.

If he slices a millimeter too far, it may create what Boruchow considers a flaw. But "sometimes if you've looked at something for awhile, your eye corrects little mistakes," he says, scrutinizing the freshly sliced checkers in a taxi he's cutting.

Awareness of tiny flaws seems appropriate for Boruchow, who works seven hours a day in minuscule detail. But it's also unexpected, perhaps, given where he chooses to hang his work: telephone poles, mailboxes, dilapidated buildings across the city.

His reasoning? "Very few people go to galleries and museums, and when I put my work up in the streets I know people will see it and react to it. And I feel like that's what makes the art live."

For six years, Boruchow has enlarged his cutouts to poster size, which he then plasters on eyesores and other unremarkable places in Philadelphia. Those in the public-art scene admire his stark designs, which offer social commentary, irreverent humor, elaborate patterns, and whimsical portraits. His work has become a fixture in Philadelphia - a city rich in public art - as he has tackled an array of genres, vigilantly posted his work, and paid attention to both craft and concept, they say.

"Intricate isn't a word that I would use to describe a lot of street art. But his art is very technical and intricate," says Judie Gilmore, the Mural Arts Program's director of strategic initiatives. "It's so simple. It has this simple beauty to it."

Boruchow, 35, who lives and works in South Philadelphia, certainly feels accomplished, but he's at a unique juncture, looking to alter the approach that has made him recognizable and, perhaps, move away from a quality that has given his art its edge - impermanence.

"Every artist wants their work to last," he says. "Right now, when I go so will all of my work. You won't see any of my work. There will be nothing that'll be left. I want to leave something."

At the end of July, Boruchow posted his newest series of cutouts along 11 big, boarded-up windows outside the Philadelphia Traction Company, a run-down trolley station in West Philadelphia that has been converted into a collaborative art space. Artists there asked him to do the installation after seeing his work around town.

The series, titled Polarities, deals with "opposites" - juxtaposing weapons with lilies, an exploding volcano with two people whispering. Magnetic Field, Copperhead, and Cars and Housetops offer signature black-and-white patterns, while Widow's Walk presents social commentary on race and dying. The originals will be displayed for one night only on Aug. 17 inside the art space at 4100 Haverford Ave. The outdoor installation is his biggest yet - literally: The posters are as tall as 8 feet and as wide as 6 feet; in the past, they have never exceeded 3-by-5.

Boruchow began making cutouts in 2003, to promote his band, the Nite Lites, because stencils got too fragile. Soon after, he started posting art not related to the band in coffee shops; by 2005, he had moved on to wheat pastes that he plastered across the city.

These days, he's dreaming bigger.

"I'd love to cover a huge wall, to really jar the landscape with it," he says. "I'd love to do billboards."

He's designing a project in Manayunk for the Mural Arts Program, an opportunity offered after his application for a different project drew attention. No official deal has been made, but if Boruchow is granted the project, his art could reach a new dimension: permanence.

Now he imagines doing a metal sculpture. Painting a mural. Exploring narrative more deeply (he published a book of cutouts last year). None of his current art is featured in a collection, so it's vulnerable to weather. Passersby can - and do - tear it down. Even his new installation is temporary, ending in October.

Boruchow's thoughts sometimes waver when he discusses public art, reflecting on its potential only to recognize its limitations.

Transplanting his art to urban spaces "bombarded" by advertisements empowers passersby, he thinks, whether a pattern is a riff on an Amish quilt or Into the Future, featuring a man confronted by an endless stream of file folders.

"There's more to making images than just trying to sell you a Coke, or a pack of cigarettes, or a lotto ticket. People totally accept that. They've come to accept that. And that's why it's important - to have somewhere to challenge that," Boruchow says.

Some say that because his work is so recognizable, it's like he's having a conversation with Philadelphia.

But then, he acknowledges, people may "just pass by without even thinking about it."

Despite the challenges, Boruchow sees no end for his art, which he says is a blend of craft and concept.

What may be hard to detect from the posters derived from the cutouts is the fact that, in the cutouts, the black areas must connect. This constraint requires incredible precision and highlights the artist's perfectionism.

"He's pretty OCD," says Sienna Freeman, director of the Wexler Gallery. "There's an extreme attention to detail."

The same goes for his guerrilla style of posting his work.

"He's one of the people who is everywhere - winter, summer. It's really inspired, constantly fresh and new," says Conrad Benner, who runs the blog "As far as everyone I know in Philly, he's the most organized, the biggest go-getter."

Boruchow wears bookish glasses, speaks in a casual, low voice, and displays vibrant tattoos that run from wrist to wrist with little interruption.

He has an array of inspirations, the main ones being French painter and caricaturist Honoré Daumier and 20th-century public artist Keith Haring. But he has a different one in mind with each cutout, whether Georgia O'Keefe, Paul Cézanne, or Robert Mapplethorpe.

So his styles may range, and his approach likely will change with time. But his art will have one constant:

"It's for everybody that's out there, for them to love it or hate it. I hope to think I'm doing something productive, you know. Making something that, if it doesn't last physically, then at least in peoples' consciousness."

Watch Joe Boruchow make and talk about his cutouts at

The 'Polarities' designs continue on display at Philadelphia Traction Company, 4100 Haverford Ave., through September. The originals will be shown inside the building on Aug. 17 from 7 to 9 p.m.EndText