20 Questions with Conrad Benner of Streets Dept

Conrad Benner is a photographer and founder of Streets Dept, a blog that focuses on documenting and celebrating street art and muralism across Philly’s public spaces. We get to know him in 20 questions.

1. What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

If I’m being honest, whatever pops up on my Facebook and Twitter. Though a lot of the news I get, I get through listening to NPR throughout the day, as I walk around, do my dishes, etc.

2. What was your first job?

My first job was cleaning my cousin’s bar in Port Richmond on Saturday and Sunday mornings when I was 14. My first real job was at Old Navy at The Gallery in Center City when I was 16, and I worked there through high school for about three years.

3. Who has influenced your career?

So many people, but the first three that come to mind are Keeli Manning, my boss at Whole Foods in my early 20s, who taught me a very valuable lesson about being the kind of person people want to work with, and how that can open a lot of doors that talent and a resume alone often can’t. Steph Scott, the account manager I worked closely with at QCM for four years, who taught me to value my work and to ask for what I deserve. And last, but not least Lansie Sylvia, who offered me the life vest of a part-time, year-long freelance gig in 2015 working on voter engagement in that year’s municipal election. That gig offered me the opportunity to transition from working in marketing to doing Streets Dept full-time, and taking control of the projects and opportunities I wanted to pursue.

4. If you weren’t a _____ what would you be?

If I wasn’t a blogger/ curator, hmm … with how bananas my life and career is now building Streets Dept, with all its ups and downs, I guess I’d go the other way and look into something more stable and perhaps do something at a university or a museum.

5. 3 qualities that have helped you in your career?

A kind of blind, optimistic faith that I’m doing the right thing for my career. A deep loyalty to my own ideas, that I think has helped me stick with things through tough times, and being a very observant and good listener. On that last note, my 8th grade teacher told me on a progress report once that I was a very good listener, and that that would help me a lot in life, and I think she couldn’t have been more right!

6. Favorite perk of the job?

Truly, and I can’t overstate this, not having to set an alarm unless I have an early meeting. I very much like working on my own schedule.

7. Worst part of the job?

The reverse of the above, sometimes not knowing when to stop. Last year I had many nights working until about 4 a.m., then I had a bad panic attack before a speaking engagement that I ultimately had to cancel and my doctor told me to create a better routine. So, since then, I stop working most days by 8 p.m. at the latest. But, it’s tough when half of my job is running around to photograph art, record podcasts, take meetings; the computer work can get left behind some weeks and I feel the need to play catch up, but I now just try to remind myself that my to-do list is never going to be empty and that most things can wait a day.

8. Change you’d like to see in your industry?

Artists, creators, we need to be valued more. We need to make more money. We contribute so damn much to society and culture, we need to be able to live, and more than that, we need to be able to thrive. But, I wouldn’t say that this is just an issue with creatives, the whole working class needs higher wages. 

9. How do you unwind after a bad day?

If I’m having a bad day the only thing that helps me is a long, meandering walk. Like, a three hour walk. Then I’m reset. Sometimes a phone call to a friend happens on that walk and that helps too!

10. When do you feel the freest?

After an afternoon of cleaning my house and doing my laundry. I literally just dance around my house. 

11. How much risk do you like taking?

It depends on the situation, but I’d say I’m someone who’s more prone than not to taking a risk.

12. Who’d you invite to a fantasy dinner party? Anyone dead or alive.

Oprah, Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR, Sally Hemings, Nefertiti, Keith Haring, Caravaggio, Nina Simone, Plato, Betty White, and Ezra Miller. Wait, how many people can go to a dinner party? Also, in this scenario Ezra Miller is my husband.

13. When do you get nervous?

Right before something. Like the seconds before something. But the moment I start, I’m good.

14. What do you think about Love?

Whenever I’m in love or feeling loved, I feel so connected. Connected to life and to the universe. So, I guess my hope is that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42…j/k, that it’s love. That somehow love connects us all at the end of the day.

15. What are you most grateful for, right now, in this moment?

That the sun is shining through my window as I type this.

16. I am proud to have _____

I am proud to have taken tools (social media) that most people use just to share things from their lives, and to have used those tools to build a little media platform. And I’m proud that I’ve stuck with it over the years where many other blogs have come and gone.

17. What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

One, to stop using Proactive and to drink more water. Two, to relax, you’ll figure it out, there’s no rush. But also, when you do have an idea you like, run at it. Don’t sit on your ideas, don’t over-think it, just run and you’ll figure out the things you don’t know yet as you do it.

18. What would you like to leave behind once you’re gone?

Holy moly, I’m 33 hopefully whatever I leave behind I haven’t even thought of yet!

19. What’s something that makes you hopeful?

A really deep laugh with friends. Like, the kind where tears begin streaming and you have to remember to catch your breath. Nothing seems insurmountable in those moments. For like just a split second, the world seems like a big playground full of kids pretending to play at being adults. And ultimately that’s what the world is, so it’s nice to remember that from time to time.

20. What was a defining moment in your career?

Being able to interview Swoon for the first season of my podcast (the Streets Dept Podcast) last year felt like a full circle moment. I have been a long, longtime admirer of Swoon’s street art work, even well before starting my blog in 2011. She’s truly a street art legend! On top of that, starting my podcast, building a new Streets Dept platform separate from my blog and Instagram was such a challenge in its own right. So, to be able to kick off my first podcast season with an interview with one of the world’s leading artists, it just blew my mind and gave me some confidence that Streets Dept can continue to grow and expand and evolve.