Susan Ferrence was in a rush on a December morning as she passed by Jefferson Plaza at 12th and Chestnut Streets. She was late for a workout session when an image stopped her in her tracks.
It was a stenciled mural of a young child, screaming while wrapped tightly in a straitjacket.
Ferrence, an art historian and director of publications at INSTAP Academic Press, took pictures of the freshly stenciled work with darkened shadows and etched grooves. She told her friends she had just spotted a Banksy.
The “Banksy” turned out to be the work of a Southwest Philly artist who goes by Bad Luck. The 33-year-old, who opts to conceal his identity, had stenciled the sketch of the screaming child on a wood-paneled wall hours before Ferrence walked by it.
The idea for the mural, he says, stemmed from a feeling of restriction, like being bound in a straitjacket. Bad Luck wanted to break free of his thoughts, like the child he drew screaming in enraged silence.
That’s how he’s always envisioned his artwork — as a cleansing of thought and emotion. But the comparison to Banksy is something he says he never imagined or wanted.
“I hate it, man,” he said. “He’s so big, talented, and clever. But if you try to do stencil work, then somehow you’re automatically biting off of Banksy. That’s how people view it.”
Philly artist Bleak, who shares an Instagram page with Bad Luck and assists him on select projects, said the comparisons are “wild.” “We admire Banksy’s work obviously, but we’re trying to be our own thing.”
Bad Luck started out as a graffiti writer before transitioning to stenciling after seeing Banksy’s work, but he wants to avoid being labeled a copycat.
“I’m inspired by him for sure, but not as much as people would like to think,” he said. “He showed me a new way to be able to create things years ago, but I try to find my own style. I try to send different messages, which is why my work can be darker.”
Since long before catching Ferrence’s attention, Bad Luck has been fascinated with the art world, but was forced to admire it from afar.
Growing up in foster care, and bouncing around group homes as a teen, the self-taught artist never attended a traditional art school. In time, Bad Luck said, art became his emotional refuge. He embraced the pain of his challenging upbringing and called himself “Bad Luck.”
If it were up to Bad Luck, he would spend most of his nights drawing on street corners and highway overpasses. But with a full-time job and a separate life as a husband and father, it can be a difficult balancing act for both him and Bleak.
“My wife has definitely expressed concern about cops and safety,” Bleak said. Thankfully, there haven’t been any real run-ins with law enforcement. The only real conflict, he says, has been between stencil and graffiti artists.
“For any art form, Philly is all about being respectful and true to yourself, but [Bad Luck and I] have received a lot of love and a lot of hate,” Bleak said. “Stencil artists don’t mix well with graffiti writers. We’ve heard some good things too, so it’s not completely sour.”
Bad Luck said he’s had graffiti artists spray over his artwork, and he has covered theirs in retaliation.
Despite the criticism and infuriating comments — including being called “Fake Banksy” — Bad Luck said his respect for graffiti artists and other Philly creatives has never wavered.
“The art in the city is unreal man,” he said. “The people here are talented with brushes and paint cans. I feel like that’s real art.” But when it comes to stenciling, he doesn’t see anyone else doing it on a large scale.
Conrad Benner, who’s covered the arts for years under his Streets Dept banner, says there are plenty of stencil artists in Philadelphia. But like many trends in the industry, some rise in popularity or grow more obscure over time. While Philly’s street art generally doesn’t have a recognizable Banksy influence, Benner said, there are definitely stenciling artists in the city other than Bad Luck and Bleak.
West Philly resident Tyquaan Bardlavens is surprised by the Banksy comparison.
Bad Luck’s ability to convey his emotions through his work is what drew in Bardlavens. And as they have become friends, he’s encouraged him to take his street art to wider audiences.
Bad Luck said he next plans to place his work in gallery spaces. He’s still figuring out how to navigate commercial art space, but above all, he wants to deliver positive messages through his creations and be known as “the stencil man.”
“It’s not about the money — I don’t want to get paid,” Bad Luck said. “I want normal people that are in the art world to see my s— on a wall and in an exhibit, and for me to get recognition. Oh, and to not get caught by the police.”