Steve Powers, pouffy brown hair springing from the top of his head like a sheaf of wheat, is in his element: El trains rattling along Market Street in West Philly, horns honking below, broad brick walls rising and falling across the cityscape - canvases from the past, ready to be used again.

Back in the '80s, Powers - whose tag was ESPO - painted these same walls, these rooftops and gritty towers, carrying on a decades-long Philadelphia tradition of street art. And in the '90s, the city just as resolutely painted it all over.

But ESPO lives.

Powers, with a fluctuating tag team of street painters, is transforming a skein of Market Street rooftops into an episodic multi-block chain of garish love letters, a combination of street art, neighborhood homage, and true grit. He calls the piece Love Letter and it is nearly complete - as much as love can ever be complete.

Love Letter - done in conjunction with the Mural Arts Program and funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative - will eventually consist of roughly 50 "letters," or giant postcards or murals or whatever you choose to call them, stretching from 46th to 63d Streets on either side of the Market-Frankford El.

About three dozen are done. Several books and a film documenting it all are in the works.

What exactly is it?

At what seems to be its center, the 52d Street El stop, the love notes blare from ragged walls everywhere:

I got the butter. I got the bread. I got the milk. I got the blame.

This love is real so dinner is on me.

Meet me on 52d if only for 50 seconds.

"The only thing that everybody can invest in is love," Powers said yesterday, standing in a sign shop at Farragut and Market Streets. Part of the project involves training neighborhood residents in sign painting, and putting their skills to use refurbishing signage in a neighborhood battered by long-term economic trends and paralyzing El construction.

"Love's the only thing that's in every song on the radio," Powers continued. "It's the only common denominator we have. When we were at community meetings and we were talking to people, and people would begin to dispute whether it was relevant to the neighborhood or not, when it comes back to love, it's everybody's problem, black, white or Puerto Rican."

Powers, 41, grew up in Overbrook, and tagged and painted rooftops all along Market Street, one of the best-known graffiti strips on the East Coast. In the 1990s, he went from Philadelphia street to New York studio, publishing a short-lived magazine, making art, working on a sign project at Coney Island.

Last year, he won a Fulbright scholarship and traveled to Ireland, where he painted a love story on the walls of Belfast and Dublin.

Now he's back with his ESPO roots.

Riding the El or walking the street, he recalled, you could see a diary of urban life - if you could read it. That visual thread is made explicit in Love Letter, a series of bold if somewhat cryptic notes.

"Anybody can put themselves in the position of being the one being spoken to or the one doing the speaking," said Powers. "People can take the train or walk through the neighborhood and put themselves in the story. We're hoping that a few smart guys out there, a few smart ladies, take the cue and tell their significant other they did it for them. There'll be no evidence to the contrary."

James B. Jones, 38, a street artist himself, definitely wanted to participate in Powers' project.

"I was born and raised in West Philly," he said. "I remember all the walls. The El was like the major thoroughfare for graffiti. So it was a lot of graffiti out here. People used to take the El just to see it."

The Love Letter project, said Jones, has created a hum in the neighborhood.

"People are definitely excited about what's going on," he said. "Everybody's been talking about it. I live in the neighborhood. Last week, we were kind of shut down, but I was out there, and people know I'm an artist and I'm involved in the program and were asking me about it: 'When we gonna get this wall done?' 'When we gonna get that wall done?' "

One direct inspiration for Love Letter, said Powers, is Cornbread, the most famous of Philadelphia's early street writers. More than four decades ago, Cornbread covered walls with proclamations of his love for Cynthia.

"The best graffiti ever done, Cornbread was doing to impress a girl. All of these roofs and alleys, we're seeing like traces, trace elements of graffiti form the '60s," Powers said.

"We found a couple of pieces definitely from the Cornbread era. The thing with Cornbread is that when he was doing it for love, he was doing it to get this girl's attention - it was a totally pure, understandable human expression, millions of guys have gone through it . . . .

"Cornbread got famous. After that, kids weren't writing to be loved as much as they wanted to be known and get what they thought was respect or some kind of fame," Powers said. "But graffiti fame is the most ridiculous level of fame ever. You get no power, you don't get a good seat at a restaurant. It's like being a checkers champion or something."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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