No one has documented the state of the world in 2020 better than street artist Symone Salib.
It’s hard to miss her work. From the mobile handwashing station mural in front of the South Street Community Garden to the public health awareness installations prominently featuring women of color (with the notable exception of a Tiger King-inspired piece with Carole Baskin in the Italian Market) to the wheat paste/yarnbomb portraits of the Fab Five she created with Nicole Nikolich as part of a scavenger hunt to celebrate Queer Eye’s season in Philly, Symone’s bright messages about self-love, community, and solidarity against oppression are refreshing during a year when COVID-19, systemic racism, and state-sanctioned violence fill us all with dread.
Strokes of hope
The first thing you realize when you talk to Symone is that she’s as delightful and approachable as the art she makes, as I found out for myself when I spoke to her over Zoom recently. She attended Rowan University for PR and Communications, but she said she connected with her community while working in an art gallery on campus. Finding her artistic identity and falling in love with Philadelphia’s murals when she moved to the city in the summer of 2015 set her on the path to creating accessible art.
“My journey as an artist began in 2017,” she shared. “When I moved here, I thought, ‘Wow, I love [the murals and street art], how do I become a part of this?’ I literally didn’t know how, so I wiggled my way in by myself and tried everything I could.”
She began painting portraits in 2017, and her work as a street artist quickly followed.
“I think when I really started to do street art that summer, that’s when things really changed for me. And that’s when I realized that the world is like your art gallery,” she said.
Liberating the self
Salib is a self-taught artist. After honing her skills as a canvas painter (her subjects have included artist Frida Kahlo, Barack Obama, and Cuban singer Celia Cruz), she learned how to create portraits in wheat paste and install them on her own. She views the shorter shelf life of street art as liberating; knowing that there are no barriers between herself and her audience, she said, has been a source of inspiration that drives her to create fully realized works, sometimes with as little as three hours between the conception and installation of a piece.
A recognizable style has emerged during the three years she’s produced art around the city. Her work featuring outspoken women and activists has helped earn her more than 11,000 followers on Instagram (her tribute to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill at Broad and Wharton streets in 2018 is among her most-celebrated works on social media).
This year, her work has been a response to current events, namely the pandemic, as well as forces of systemic oppression that perpetuate racism, xenophobia, and transphobia.
“What is driving me during the pandemic and during the Black Lives Matter movement that’s happening right now is definitely knowing the power we have as artists to visually make something," Salib said. "To know that you’re using that power responsibly, and making something that is not only palatable but thought-provoking, is important.”
When she’s not taking her art to the streets or creating commissioned work, Salib is intentional about practicing self-care. Her go-to methods include riding her bike around Philly, indulging in a well-deserved nap, and cooking lavish meals from scratch.
“The biggest form of self-love is making a big, beautiful meal for myself. I’m known in my friend group for making elaborate-ass dinners with all homemade ingredients.”
Currently, the artist is working on an installation for the Philadelphia International Airport. As one of seven children in a tight-knit Cuban/Egyptian family, she is excited to produce a permanent art piece that will be seen by millions of travelers a year, especially immigrants coming into the United States.
“I’m doing a whole piece based on my legacy, my lineage, and my immigrant story," Salib said. "I’m doing a bunch of illustrations of people in my family and extended family in a collage style. It’s going to be colorful!”
What, When, Where:
Follow @symonesalibstudio on Instagram to see her latest art installations around Philadelphia.