(Now turned into a handy calendar!)

A few months ago ago, Jessica Clark, who directs Dot Connector Studio, reached out to me with a proposal that left me intrigued. She had a passion project involving photography and street art and wanted to get my eyes on it. 

Having been immersed in photo editing for some time by that point, her proposition aligned perfectly with my field of interest. However, there was a catch. “Oh, the only thing is,” she paused, “I’ve been working on it for more than 30 years, and there are thousands of photos to get through.” 

As I delved into the project, what unfolded before me was a captivating journey through Jessica’s lens, capturing the essence of street art and its dynamic evolution over the years. The sheer volume of photos showcased the depth of her commitment and the rich tapestry of urban expression she had meticulously documented. As I continued to sift through the vast archive, the magnitude of Jessica’s dedication became increasingly apparent. This was more than a project: it was a testament to the enduring impact of street art and its profound connection to the pulse of the cities she has visited over the years. 

Many of these art pieces do not exist anymore: they were painted over, destroyed with time and weather or deteriorated. If they remain at all, it’s as a little piece of paint on the wall. However, they do exist in Jessica’s archive, and now—in this calendar we created together, that can provide a word of wisdom, a vibe, or just a mood check throughout 2024.

After we finished working on the calendar, I checked in with Jessica to get a deeper understanding of the roots of her meticulous dedication in capturing street art.

A family affair

Jessica embarked on documenting street art in the early 1990s, when her mother—an artist and art history professor—documented murals in Tallahassee during Jessica’s high school years. Initially, she photographed these artworks for her mother, but when she left Florida for college in Chicago, her passion blossomed. Her eye for words and images was influenced by an upbringing steeped in days spent in galleries and museums. Contemporary artists such as Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer captivated her, especially those involved in graffiti and word art during the 1980s.

When the City Speaks, you listen!

The project also serves as an expression of Jessica’s photographic practice, which began when she was 15. With previous stints as a web designer and magazine editor, she has long been intrigued by various forms of graphic expression. Her time working in magazines involved not just writing but shaping words, considering their appearance, and understanding their expression. 

Collecting these moments reflects an appreciation for the human hand in a landscape increasingly dominated by commercial and mechanized elements. Jessica emphasizes the disappearing craft of hand-painted signs and unique marks on the public sphere, lamenting the homogeneity introduced by pre-programmed templates in our visual environment. 

Drawing from her background as a reporter and working with documentary makers also has informed her interest in political and creative expression in public spaces. As an archive, the project takes shape as a long-form documentary. Each photo becomes a snapshot of a moment in her life, akin to a memento, triggering associations linked with specific experiences. 

During her first visit to Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, she encountered the Mural Arts Project. What stood out was the initiative’s approach of integrating street artists caught tagging into mural creation, fostering a vibrant street art scene.

Throughout the 1990s, Jessica and her husband frequently embarked on photographic adventures to unfamiliar neighborhoods in Philadelphia and other cities, capturing the essence of the murals, stickers, slogans and images they discovered along the way. While she can’t pinpoint the exact moment she felt the city speaking to her, she described it as a sensation, a rising feeling when turning a corner and stumbling upon a piece of art that seems to convey a message directly to her.

Sometimes, Jessica also found herself in a humorous conflict with street art, feeling like it intruded on her mental space due to her penchant for compulsive reading.

Voraciously absorbing information from any surface with words, she likens these encounters to mental clutter, akin to advertisements. Yet, there’s a contrasting side—these artworks occasionally offer uplifting moments, providing a touch of unpredictability to her urban explorations, speaking to her. Therefore, she named her project City Speaks.

A parallel track

The City Speaks project exists in a symbiotic relationship with her business, connected both by timing and shared themes. In 2013, Jessica worked with Katie Donnelly to co-found Dot Connector Studio, with extensive work related to public media and political expression driven by a quest to understand their societal value. That same year, she began to post a daily City Speaks photo to social media, and over the past decade she has continued to curate a collection of similar images—many from Philly, but also Miami, London, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, Santa Fe, Amsterdam, Paris, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Oaxaca, and points beyond.

Her alignment with independent and publicly funded media is mirrored in the project’s focus on street art—a conduit for political or personal expression in the public domain. She reflects that various modes of communication intersect with the graffiti, murals, and stickers she captures: from guerilla art, to culture-jamming, to personal expressions outside societal approval. The collection showcases issues such as the value of trans and Black lives, stickers about elections and social movements, pandemic moments, and civic exhortations. 

Over the three decades of the project, street art has moved from the margins to the center of culture and politics. Fast forward to today: it’s like a visual diary of city life, reflecting urban makeovers and gentrification. What used to be a bit rogue has now become an accepted cultural gig, showing up in galleries, political campaigns, and neighborhoods where property values are rising. When you spot middle-class street art popping up, you know the neighborhood’s going through a change of its own—often at the expense of those who have long lived there.

Why a calendar?

For Jessica, the essence of the calendar we created lies in passing on the moments of serendipity and human connection she experienced with each photograph. It preserves and represents these ephemeral productions, aiming to share the feeling of Look what I saw, now you can see it.

Another aspect is the daily encounter with the messages. As you flip to each day, you’re greeted with words and images that might resonate with your own inner voices. Whether it’s a reminder to charge for emotional labor, set better boundaries, or create something of your own, the calendar’s messages might offer wisdom or encourage a moment of personal reflection. Additionally, Jessica hopes you will find joy in the relationship between the themes, months, and dates we worked together to curate, enhancing your overall experience with the calendar.

Overall, she sees this as the passing on of a gift—from the artists, to her collection, and now to you. Enjoy your dialogue with the many cities she’s visited, and let us know how they speak to you!