While New York has always been a melting pot of cultures and languages and people from all over the world, it’s also a fundamental responsibility to also keep our eyes and ears on the folks who are “born and bred” here as they say.
They hold a deeper sense of the DNA of an ever-evolving city and its history, its true nature; the lowdown of what it means to be from this place.
We’ve been hit hard. Some much more than others.
The economics and their implications of this Covid-19 disaster are devastating to many of us, but the mourning and human loss compounds our sense of sadness, even while we are resolute to overcome. If we are all metal in that melting pot of New York that explains how we create a powerfully strong alloy of humanity. We know how to triumph together in times of need and we are unbeatable and loyal allies, despite our sometimes aggressive side.
Artist Oliver Rios was raised in El Barrio of New York from Puerto Rican parents and grew up as an artist drinking in the color, sounds, smells, and style of late 70s Hip Hop culture. Shaped and formed by the beauty and the devastation that life can bring to us, he has channeled his spirit into memorial wall painting, illustration, photography, advertising, digital design.
Profoundly moved by the events that Covid-19 has spun into existence here, Rios is sharing with us a dense and meaningful piece of art that speaks to his history, his heroes, his fears, and his passion for this city and the people in it. Using a subway map for canvas, he depicts first responders – in this case people he knows personally or admires sincerely.
“The image of the nurse is my wife Carol Rios,” he tells us. “She is a Nurse Practitioner at the John Therur Cancer Center in Hackensack, NJ. The police officer is PO Ramon Suarez who perished in 9/11 and who was also my first daughters’ grandfather. The image of the fireman is inspired by a retired fireman and childhood friend from East Harlem who helped at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. His name is Dennis Mendez. The subway train is an homage to the Late Great Dondi White.”
We asked him more about the creation of and motivations behind “Native New Yorker 2020”:
Brooklyn Street Art: As a Native New Yorker you’ve probably seen and experienced this city being hit hard by different crises while living here: Financial crisis, economic downturns, 9/11 etc…This pandemic is possible New York’s biggest crisis during our lifetimes. What do you think makes New Yorkers get up and fight every day? Oliver Rios: In order to survive you have to be “NY Tough”, to quote Governor Andrew Cuomo! It’s a different kind of toughness that not many people understand. To live in NYC you have to understand and go through the city’s everyday grind! Understanding the everyday hustle, the history, the diverse cultures, the crime, the rats, the pigeons, the parades, the clubs, the bars, the historical sites, the crowded subways, the cabs… everything. Once you live in NYC and understand that lifestyle – to overcome anything is possible.
Going out to party in the greatest city in the world also helps ease the daily stress. We as New Yorkers protect and love the city and that’s why we get up every day and fight!!
BSA: Your work on the poster sends a message of unity and perseverance while at the same time it honors those who are at the forefront of the pandemic. Can you tell us what was your inspiration to create this artwork? OR: This project was really about painting a piece on a subway map. As I tuned into Instagram and join DJ DNice’s “Club Quarantine”, I heard him play “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey , a favorite song of mine. I immediately started with the “Native New Yorker” theme and decided to give it a 2020 version. I wanted to really honor my wife Carol Rios who’s a Nurse Practitioner at the John Theur Cancer Center in Hackensack NJ, my Brother-in-Law who’s a Fireman/Veteran in Belleville, NJ, all the first responders and essential workers dedicating their lives to help fight this pandemic.
I started with my wife who is on the top of the poster and it evolved from there.
BSA: You mentioned that your wife is a nurse. How has it been for the family to see her every day going to work knowing the risks and dangers she will confront at the hospital? OR: It’s an uncomfortable feeling every day, knowing that your loved ones are heading out the door to face danger every day. I try to keep the kids busy with school work and video games as we wait for her to get home to have dinner, watch our favorite TV shows, or play board games. We appreciate all she does and her patients do as well.
BSA:By including some members of your family and friends in your artwork you are honoring them and their work, preserving and commemorating their memory, and at the same time you are persisting with your creativity. How does an artist find the motivation to create works like these in such challenging times? OR: For me, it’s never easy… the inspiration is around me every day in my studio; I have a framed photo taken by Martha Cooper of a memorial mural dedicated to my good friend Juan Anthony “TEE” Castro that I painted during 1993 in El Barrio (East Harlem). On the frame, I have prayer cards of family and friends who have passed away during the years. Next to it I have a photo of my brother who was murdered by gun violence in 1981. My oldest daughter’s grandfather PO Ramon Suarez is there too; He perished saving lives during the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. The UPS worker is the guy I see driving up and down the street delivering packages. Fireman Dennis Mendez is a childhood friend from East Harlem who helped dig out debris at ground zero days after 9/11. The Subway train is an homage to the Late Great Dondi White.
I find that as artists we have to remind ourselves how we are all connected. This is my way to thank and connect to my Native New Yorkers. God Bless!
Thinking outside the box is a prerequisite for most graffiti writers and Street Artists. You may say that they are so unaccustomed to the prescribed routes of reaching an audience with art and ideas that they simply barge into new ones, and bringing the art to you.
The same can be said of the Berlin creative laboratory YES, AND … productions (YAP), and their forward-thinking cultural partners at the newly mobile Museum of Now (MON). Together they are presenting new ways of bringing art to the people.
Now thinking outside the museum, the team brought the museum outside to Berlin streets this week thanks to their new nighttime programming that mixes classical western standard-bearers like Michaelangelo with modern masters of new forms like the light artist Multiscalar. The end result is a newly energized city block that projects both artists on facades just outside your living room, viewable from inside it.
Allowing museum-goers to stay home and stay safely physically distanced from strangers, MON director Denis Leo Hegic tells us that the neighborhoods where MON has been this week have become suddenly alive. People are attracted to their windows by the blasting music and continue hanging out of them to watch the show, looking out at the few stragglers on the sidewalk who are likewise smitten by the unannounced exhibition suddenly stealing their minds for a moment, away from the mundane worries and credible fears of COVID-19.
Because of the heaviness of our time right now, Multiscaler chose a message that was optimistic – which you can see here. The artists’ messenger is Michelangelo’s David – writing a letter to us as he would perhaps send today.
Hegic tells us that the whole project was set up, planned and produced within just a few days as a joint venture between the Museum of Now and YAP. “Without the YAP crew, this project would never have seen the light of night,” he says.
With a projector and speakers in the back of a van, many an
anarchist and artivist is familiar with using their voice to protest. For the
museum, it is about making art accessible to everyone, and Hegic says that many
institutions are committed to this, yet very few of them actually put this into
“I believe that the post-Covid world will be different from what we know now, and it is up to us how we want to shape it, “ he says. “For my part, I will fight for a culture that is alive and vivid – and accessible to everyone and always.”
We had an opportunity to talk to Hegic more about the
BSA:This is an ingenious solution to having a museum experience at a time when museums are necessarily closed. How do you choose the location of your exhibitions?
Denis Leo Hegic: At a time when we all have to stay at home to reduce the spread of the virus outbreak, our cultural participation also decreases. Therefore, it is very important that we do everything we possibly can to keep art and culture from coming to a standstill. When choosing the locations, it is very important to have spots with great visibility from a large number of windows and balconies. We want the largest possible audience to be able to see the exhibitions from their homes
BSA:Have you had the opportunity to speak with any audience members?
DH: We have not spoken to anyone in person as we keep physical contact to a minimum. But digitally, via social media and email, we have had a lot of exchange with the audience.
People are surprised and thankful to see a positive message. In times of crisis when doomsday news is omnipresent, it is art and culture that brings people together.
BSA: Projections are often used for commercial pursuits as well today. Is it a challenge to communicate to people that this is intended as public art?
DH: Not at all. Everyone immediately understood what it was about. This is probably partly because we play quite loud music and sounds – which would be rather uncommon for advertising projections in housing areas.
BSA: As a philosopher, academic, and aesthete, what or who was your inspiration for this project?
DH: The word “inspiration” comes from the word “muse”. And the muses reside in “museums” – the temples of inspiration. My inspiration, my muses are always the people, and if they can no longer come to the museum, we will bring the museum to them.
It involves taking advantage of a monstrous shock to our social and economic system while we are too preoccupied to stop them. People behind corporations actually “game” the future like this – methodically planning to force through changes to society that they always wanted but couldn’t find an acceptable justification for while you were looking. A crime committed right under your nose – while you are worrying about losing your job or paying your rent or your grandma getting sick from Covid-19.
In the case of today’s story of a Brazillian Street Artist named Mundano, the earth, and soil that he used to paint his new mural comes from the region destroyed by a dam break of toxic sludge last January. With hundreds of townspeople and workers swept away by tens of millions of tons of toxic sludge and earth, the people of the area held searches for weeks after and had public meetings full of accusations and fury. They also had funerals.
A similar dam owned by the same company had failed only three years earlier, and many more dams like this are holding immense reservoirs, or poison underground lakes, across Brazil – each potentially breaking apart and poisoning land, water, wildlife, and communities for decades after.
Mundano’s mural honors the workers killed in this man-made environmental disaster and he tells us that the 800 square meter piece references another painting Brazillian modernist called Tarsila do Amaral. Painted in 1933, her work titled “The Factory Workers,” depicts a sea of stern faces with gray clouds rising from factory smokestacks in the background. Mundano says he’s proud of his mural, of the mini-documentary here, and of his neighbors and country people who have raised attention to a situation that appears corrupt, and well, toxic to life.
“In January 2019, Brazil has suffered one of the worse environmental crimes of its history,” says Mundano, “when Vale do Rio Doce’s mining dam broke, contaminating the Paraopeba River with a sea of toxic mud, and killing everything that was in the way, including almost 300 people who lost their lives that day,” he tells us. We talk to him about artists using their work to educate and raise awareness to advocate for political or social change, a term often today called ‘artivism’.
Brooklyn Street Art:With reason, there’s a lot of anger against the government and the owners of the mine about this fatal catastrophe. How did you get involved? Mundano: The environmental and social causes are a big part of my activism or artivism, and I’ve always been a critic of the exploitation of lands for mining purposes. We have over 200 mining dams operating today in Brazil under the risk of breaking. In the last four years we had two of the biggest catastrophes of our country, both in the state of Minas Gerais; Mariana in 2017 and most recently in 2019 in the city of Brumadinho, where a “tsunami” of toxic mud contaminated the Paraopeba river with 12.7 million cubic meters of sludge, dragging everything that was on the way, including almost 300 people who lost their lives.
As an artivist it is really important for me to be present and see what happened with my own eyes, feel the pain of the victim’s families, follow closely to the inquiry and use the platform and reach that I have as an artist to help these people find justice, and most importantly to put pressure on governments and big companies so that they’re held accountable, preventing this from happening again.
Brooklyn Street Art:What is the role of an artist should be in his/her community? Should art respond to social needs? Mundano: For over 13 years now, I’ve been practicing artivism in several cities across the globe. My actions and the art I create need to have a bigger purpose. For me, art has the power of bringing reflection into society and impact people’s lives, make them think and reflect on their part in society. That’s how I see my art and how I believe I can contribute to bigger causes. I wouldn’t say it’s every artist obligation, but with these huge global challenges naturally we’re gonna need to become more artivists.
Brooklyn Street Art:The community felt betrayed and abandoned by those who were supposed to protect them. How did they get the strength to rise up and fight in the middle of their pain? Mundano: I can’t speak for them but I feel that they don’t have other options than to fight for their rights. Brazilians are quite resistant to adversities by nature. One of the main subjects of my work is the cactus, a plant that, like a big portion of our population, survives with little and still manages to share beauty with flowers to the world. It is hard to see a whole city and it’s people destroyed by such a horrible crime, yet, it was such a strong image to watch mothers, wives, sons, daughters, and friends united, marching a year later, screaming for justice, not giving up on the memories of their loved ones. That gave me strength and inspired me to create my biggest and most important work up until today to honor them.
Brooklyn Street Art:Your mural honors and remember those whose lives were lost. Yet there’s some poetic beauty in it with the pigments you used to paint it. You made the paint from the sediment in the river and the earth around it. What were your feelings as you were painting these people faces these materials? Mundano: The whole process of collecting the mud from the lakebed of Paraopeba River was delicate. I felt the need to talk to residents, local activists, and the families. It was important that I had their consent and that they understood my intentions. The mural was a way of keeping the subject alive, and to honor them in one of the biggest cities in the world, Sao Paulo. I believe that the respect I’ve shown was recognized as I started to receive messages from Brumadinho’s residents about the video, thanking me for the painting, and for me, that’s the biggest recognition of all, it made it all worth it.
Puerto Rico, “La Perla del Mar” (The Pearl of the Sea) Or “La Isla Bonita” (The Beautiful Island”) had a huge earthquake on January 7 and many vital services and systems have not been restored, causing 8,000 people to be homeless and 40,000 to camp outside of their homes, according to rescue agencies. The power plant that supplies a quarter of their needs is still shut down.
Given those challenges to humans, you don’t usually think about the animals who live on the island.
But ROA does.
The urban naturalist has long championed the marginalized animals of any culture, and since the Belgian Street Artist has basically made Puerto Rico his second home, it is no surprise that he has painted a number of the island’s animals on run-down, neglected structures to remind neighbors who their neighbors really are.
Globe exploring photographer Martha Cooper was in Puerto Rico for other pursuits this January and managed to meet up with a number of ROA’s more recent friends on her journey.
We were lucky to speak to ROA to ask him about his new pieces and his affinity for the people and climate of Puerto Rico and here we share his responses along with Ms. Coopers’ photos with BSA readers.
BSA: There have been a few major natural disasters in Puerto Rico recently. First the hurricane and most recently the earthquake. What sort of negative impact do these natural disasters have on the fauna in Puerto Rico? Are the resources in Puerto Rico available to help the animal species that are in danger? ROA: Undeniably, the island was hit by the disaster, but to tell exactly how great the impact is on the fauna is difficult to estimate. For example; the local green Puerto Rican parrot that was listed as critically endangered for many years and whereof were only 200 left, most of these were reintroduced in El Yunque Rain Forest as result of a recovery plan, but the hurricane completely blew out the population and we are back to point zero, and almost no PR parrot has been seen in El Yunque since then. Recently I’ve read they released 30 parrots out of captive conservation programs into the El Yunque rainforest.
BSA: Speaking of the impact that natural disasters have on animals, would you say that the largest disaster that animals face is the humans and their disdain for the preservation and the protection of our natural resources?
ROA: Of course, the greatest threat on earth for nature and all animal species, is humanity. Though we are also animals. For example, Puerto Rico: from the moment people arrived on the island the number of animal species declined dramatically and when the Europeans arrived; the original ecosystem became completely destroyed: lost natural habitat and the introduction of cattle, etc.
BSA: Are these new paintings on walls part of a personal project and if so could you talk a bit about it? ROA: My love for Puerto Rico started when I was invited by Alexis Dias en Celso for Los Muros Hablan in 2012. I returned in 2015 for an art residency organized by JUST KIDS in San Juan and this resulted in a very long residency and during that period I painted my first walls on the island and that’s how I got stuck in Puerto Rico, and that’s super great! So, since the beginning, I started to paint around in different places on the island and in San Juan, and this project is naturally grown out of road tripping, painting and meeting Stefan from Elegel in 2018 by painting the Red-Tailed Hawk in Humacao (Grita Walls).
Stefan started helping me with getting around the island and to gather material in order to do this, somewhat a very natural project arose, that now just gets more site-specific over the island in a way that actually ties together all the different places in Puerto Rico where introduced, non-introduced and endangered animals are living, so that’s how we came across the people from “Recursos Naturales y Ambientales’, an organization that saves manatees and sea turtles… so it’s a naturally grown project started out loving being in Puerto Rico, and about being much into road trips!
BSA:For an artist and specifically for you and your work what are the advantages of living in a country with year-round sunshine and nice weather? ROA: I consider Puerto Rico one of the places I call home. I spend time during the year there to relax between certain intense projects and meanwhile, I can go snorkeling, go scuba diving, and paint around any moment of the year. So that’s the advantage of good weather, so it allows you to be and paint outside, so you don’t have to deal with a “winter”, not in a European way where you get obliged to spend much of your time inside, and I am just happier outside.
BSA:Have you found the people in Puerto Rico to be helpful with your work? ROA: Los Muros Hablan, Alexis Dias and Celso, Charlotte from JustKids who brought me here, and now with the help of Stefan Lang (Elegel) and the new art residency, I definitely have felt support in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are very warm and jovial people and it has a unique ambiance.
psychiatrist, and anthropologist – probably in that order – DONT FRET is more
invested than you may appreciate at first, and the underside of American
division and inequality bubbles quickly to the surface when he is asked if the
country is beyond class.
“Whoever is saying that clearly has the luxury to do so.
Look at our cities,” he says.
~ Steven P. Harrington in the introduction to DONT FRET’s monograph, “Life Thus Far”
His Brooklyn residency has been a blur full of old buds from college, new bars in Bedstuy, and of course, sausage makers. He stands in the middle of an artist’s hazard zone of crumpled paper, opened pots of paint, and discarded laundry with brush poised in hand describing his recent quandary about finding a meat mecca in Bushwick and realizing that he couldn’t buy everything he saw once he spoke to the owner.
“She just started her own sausage company and we
definitely want to do collaborations,” he says. “There were so many sausages at
her place that I wanted to buy.” So you know he’s feeling comfortable here,
surrounded by fine meats.
His characters are all here, wondering aloud about physical
insecurities and decoding social navigation; cryptically critiquing the
absurdities of our class system and the underlying savagery of corporate
capital and the perverting power of cloying advertising across the culture. In
so many words.
Some hand-painted posters are still wet, some boards for future magazine covers (Thrasher, Sportsball Weekly, The New Yorker) have backgrounds prepared for him to paint featured personalities, a scattered pile of painted lottery players are grinning gamely from shiny Lotto cards, and larger new canvasses are built up with dense color and swarming symbols that dance around the heads of his imagined sitters.
“In this kind of stuff I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical but they are definitely my generation of people navigating the city, looking at life and nightlife,” he says as you look into the rolling eyes of figures that have transformed into slot machines, perhaps hoping to win the jackpot. He points to his enthrallment with “The Simpsons” as he grew up and sees the bewildered savviness of the players in himself and in most of his peers as they navigate “adulting”. It’s chaos, but an entertaining one.
“There are clips of the Simpsons that go around in my head
again and again,” he says. “There is one with Bart and Millhouse find twenty
dollars and they get a Super Squishy, which is basically a crack squishy, and
they go on this bender,” which makes him laugh. He turns to the blottoed bloke
on his new canvas and describes the scene.
“It’s like a song and dance. They’re singing (and he breaks
into singing) Springfield! Springfield! It’s a helluva town! – and there is
this scene of them wandering Springfield,” he says.
You can see this is a stand-in for this month in the BK in this case and DONT FRET’s active imagination about the lore of this dirty metropolis. “You see this neon popping up, and the animation just swirls. And then it just wakes up to Bart, hungover in bed.”
“I don’t know, I always just like those images. For me, these are like Brooklyn and Manhattan,” he says with glassy star-struck dizziness in his eyes.
Catch DONT FRET tonight at his opening at the Bedstuy
Artists Residency, and you can swirl around colorfully with other symbols of
this time, and this electrified city full of promise. BSA co-founder will be there to sign his
introduction essay inside fresh copies of “Life Thus Far”, DONT FRET’s giant
A hummus plate is promised.
Thank you to Kathy, Erwin, and Marshall at the BedStuy Art Residency for your love and support to the arts. Always.
A retrospective at Brooklyn Museum currently showcases the photographic works and public projects envisioned and created by French Street Artist JR. Covering roughly two decades of work, JR: Chronicles dedicates an in-depth examination into his practices and personal philosophies when creating – as evidenced by this collection of his murals, photographs, videos, films, dioramas, and archival materials.
His most recent and one of his most original ideas has been to use the techniques of professional film compositing to impart a permanent, living aura for what may otherwise be static collaged works. With high res digital works working in concert, the life of the subject takes on an additional dimension, juxtaposed as it is with other figures they may or may not have ever interacted with.
Often in these recent projects you have the opportunity to see and/or hear personal recordings of the person through interviews for the piece. The centerpiece and partial namesake of this show is the new large-scale mural of more than one thousand New Yorkers whom he chose to feature, accompanied by audio recordings of each person’s story as told to him and his team.
Many of these concepts and philosophical observations, including sociopolitical commentary on a number of hot-button issues of the day, may feel familiar to fans and Street Artists around the world – particularly over the last decade and a half. Here you can see that with the number of resources and teams that he can amass, JR is able to create the ideas with a sense of largesse and garner greater audiences, putting many of his works before many more.
Epic is a word often used to describe the projects, and when you see the JR: Chronicles exhibition you can understand why.
We spoke with the curators of the exhibition Sharon Matt Atkins and Drew
Sawyer about their experience with this exhibition and how JR is defining new
areas of photography with his use of it in public space.
Brooklyn Street Art:JR created a new digital collage for this exhibition featuring a thousand or so people individually interviewed and photographed. Can you tell us about what criterion he used for selecting his subjects? Sharon Matt Atkins: JR’s main focus was on capturing the rich diversity of New York City. As such, he photographed people in all five boroughs of the city, including many neighborhoods that were new to him. While he did invite some guests to participate, most of the people were passersby, or business owners and workers of local stores.
Brooklyn Street Art:It may be that there has been a return to
black and white photography in
the last decade – so much so that one may not register the significance
that JR employs it for expression almost exclusively. How do you think
the limited palette aids his work in telling his narratives? Drew Sawyer: In
many ways, JR’s use of black and white photographs is in direct
opposition to contemporary photojournalism and the digital circulation
is images. His close-up portraits may recall the work of earlier
documentarians, such as Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange in the United
States, but JR’s decision to print them on inexpensive paper and paste
them nearby counters they ways in which images often circulate in the
global media far away from the places where his collaborators live. Also,
the monochromatic images certainly stand out against the colorful built
environments in which JR typically installs them.
Brooklyn Street Art:As you deeply analyzed his career and its
various phases, what would you
say is one of the through-lines that you see in his practice as it
evolved? Sharon Matt Atkins:
Our show is centered on his projects that have been created in
collaboration with communities. From his earliest photographs
documenting his graffiti writer friends to Inside Out with more
than 400,000 participants in 141 countries to his most recent mural The
Chronicles of New York City, JR has sought to give visibility to those
often underrepresented or misrepresented.
Brooklyn Street Art: How has JR used his work in a new way that may prove to be inspiring to photographers and fans of photography? Drew Sawyer: For JR, photography is just one part of his collaborative process. His work is really about bringing people together, lifting the voices of others who rarely have control over their own representation, countering narratives in the global media, and shifting the discourse around specific issues and events. He started his practice before there were social media apps like Instagram, which now provide platforms for many people to do the same in a digital form. Since then, JR has explored how new technologies can help him tell and share more stories. I hope his process inspires other artists to use photography in similar and new ways.
“Since 2017 JR has been creating participatory murals inspired by the work of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera in the first half of the twentieth century. In the summer of 2018, JR and his team spent a month roaming all five boroughs of New York City, parking their 53- foot-long trailer truck in numerous locations and taking photographs of passersby who wished to participate. Each was photographed in front of a green screen, and then the images were collaged into a New York City setting featuring architectural landmarks. More than a thousand people were photographed for the resulting mural, The Chronicles of New York City. The participants chose how they personally wanted to be represented and were asked to share their stories, which are now available on a free mobile app.”
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
“In January 2009 JR carried out another iteration of Women Are Heroes in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. Following close dialogue with the community, JR covered rooftops with water-resistant vinyl printed with photographs of the eyes and faces of local women. The images both transformed the landscape and provided protection from the rain.
The train that ran along the Kibera line was also covered with photographs of the eyes of women who lived directly below, and images of the lower halves of their faces were pasted on the slope beneath the tracks so that as the train passed, their faces were completed for a few seconds. The idea was to celebrate, or at the very least to acknowledge their presence. Of his projects, JR has said, ‘I search with my art to install the work in improbable places, to create with the communities projects that promote questioning. . . and to offer alternative images to those of the global media.’ ”
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
“On October 8, 2017, for the last day of the Kikito installation at the U.S.-Mexico border, JR organized a gigantic picnic on both sides of the wall. Kikito, his family, and dozens of guests came from the United States and Mexico to share a meal. People at both sides of the border gathered around the eyes of Mayra, a ‘Dreamer,’ eating the same food, sharing the same water, and enjoying the same live music (with half the band’s musicians playing on either side). “
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
JR: Chronicles is curated by Sharon Matt Atkins, Director of Exhibitions and Strategic Initiatives, and Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator, Photography, Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition is now open to the public. Click HERE for dates, times and directions.
Image Description A (see earlier in article) “As the first photograph in what would become JR’s Portrait of a Generation, this image launched his career. The series was initiated when Ladj Ly, a filmmaker, and resident of Cité des Bosquets (called “Les Bosquets”), a public housing complex in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, invited JR to collaborate on a project in the neighborhood.
JR said of the image: ‘I took this picture when I was eighteen. It was the first time I went to Les Bosquets. If you look carefully in the back, you can see small posters from Expo 2 Rue—and I wrote ‘Expo D Boske.’ The kids asked me if I could take a picture of them. This photo of Ladj Ly filming me was the first one on the roll of film, and I felt something special had happened. This image is very emblematic of my work and of the message of this project with Ladj.’
This photograph was also the first large-scale image that JR and his friends wheat-pasted in the neighborhood prior to the riots there in 2005. It appeared as the backdrop in photographs accompanying newspaper articles and television footage about the uprising, thereby becoming JR’s first published work. “
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
Image Description B (see earlier in article) “In 2013 JR learned that the housing towers in Les Bosquets were going to be demolished, so he revisited the Portrait of a Generation project. Using images from the original series, he and a team pasted portraits in the building before it was destroyed. He recalled, ‘We couldn’t get authorization to paste inside. So we got plans from the former inhabitants, and we entered at night, twenty-five of us, and spread out over all the different floors. We pasted eyes in someone’s kitchen, a nose in someone else’s bathroom, and a mouth in a living room. . . . When we came down, the police arrested us, but they couldn’t understand why we had just spent hours in this building that was about to be destroyed. The pastings were so big that they couldn’t see what they were. The next day, when workers started the demolition, the portraits were revealed, little by little, while the cranes were ‘eating’ the building. Only the people who were in the neighborhood that day witnessed the gigantic spectacle unfold.’ “
Little Ricky thinks Anna Wintour is someone important whom people consider significant or iconic in popular culture, which is already a humorous supposition. In his multiple street iterations of the fashion editor, he has dressed her as a sheep in Chanel, as a sheep in boxing gloves with Andy Warhol (replacing Basquiat), as an American Express fashion gladiator in stickers and wheat pastes on the Streets of New York.
Each tiny episode of his ongoing SHEEP series may bring a perplexed smile to the average person who is looking at them while waiting for the traffic lights to change. In the case of the Wintour character preaching and prognosticating and posing, an insider joke that appeals to the fashion gatekeepers in this city, of which many have self-appointed. The question you may ask is, who’s the sheep, who’s the shepard.
A Street Art icon/brand in the making, Little Ricky’s talisman-woman of a candy pink sheep character inhabits the new strata of 20-teens Street Art that reflects the ease of social media commentary here grafted onto actual walls, the fascination we have with visually sampling pop cultural references, and the time-honored practice of lampooning with absurdity. A California-based Gen X Street Artist with uncommon discipline and work ethos in his practice, Little Ricky has been studying, developing, archiving, formulating his campaigns in the Street and gallery for the better part of a decade now.
in New York to sample the late-summer fragrance potpurri of pot, urine, and Italian
sausages on the streets of Lower Manhattan, BSA had an opportunity to chat with
Little Ricky one night when we were gallery hopping with a buddy. He talked about new art on lightposts and
guard-rails, the nature of his one-off comical creations, and his deep desire to
launch a Keith Haring show here next year using his ewe-inspired interpretations
of Harings work and life.
Brooklyn Street Art:We’ve seen many Anna Wintour pieces recently by you on the street. How does the muse find you? Little Ricky: I never imagined that I’d be spending a year working with Anna as my muse. It’ll be weird once the year comes to an end. But I know that SHEEP will continue to surprise me and Anna will most likely keep popping up in my work. The connection will always be there.
She can find me on IG. But, since she doesn’t have a personal IG account, I hashtag her name #ANNAWINTOUR and I tag @voguemagazine. Maybe one of her PA’s will get the word out to her. A few months ago, I even sent her a large pink manilla envelope with a SHEEP zine/bio and stickers too. Whether she ever received it is another story. I don’t expect to hear from her, but I have a feeling that our paths may cross at some point. Either way, our stars are crossed, at least in my head.
Brooklyn Street Art:People are sheep, aren’t they? Little Ricky: I’d like to think that we’re all sheep but without the negative connotations. Sure we can all follow along with the masses, or maybe not fit in, but at some point we all crave to be ourselves as we are. At the heart and soul of SHEEP is that we’re ALL different. When Alexander McQueen referred to himself as a ‘pink sheep’ I understood that he was making a comment not only on his sexuality, but more importantly on the idea that he was different from even the black sheep. Reading that sentence in his biography altered the course of my life and is what inspired SHEEP.
After 51 years of life and almost 7 years of working on the series, I’ve learned this. (See if you can follow along or if it makes some sense) Being born is what we ALL have in common. Yet at that moment no one ever has or ever will be identical. In one moment we’re connected and different at the same time. We then spend a lifetime searching for meaning/purpose. The secret- to learn, embrace, and honor all those many little things about ourselves that make us…ME! When we do so, we go back to that moment of connection. So yea we’re all sheep finding our way back to an essence of being.
Brooklyn Street Art:Can you talk about your feelings toward Keith Haring and the impression he and his work made on you? Little Ricky: I feel a deep connection to Keith. It goes beyond being inspired by him. I feel him alongside me like he’s guiding me along. I first came across his work in the late ’80s. The simplicity of his images struck some magic in my soul. They still do. They felt familiar. Until now, I didn’t realize that Keith’s passing in February of 1990 coincided with my coming out the month before. Weird! Maybe he passed the torch along. My first boyfriend who I met in January of 1990 even drove Keith around SF the year before. I wasn’t into the art scene in any way, but I started taking art classes while at UC Berkeley. I imitated his lines and figures, but there was no ‘me’ in what I was creating.
With SHEEP, almost 30 years later, I can see his influence in my work, always will. But now I know, that I’m creating a world of my own with a little touch of his magic. It’s been an effortless process. For that, I give some credit to Keith. When the idea for SHEEP came to mind in 2013, I didn’t know what I’d be creating. I purchased a toy sheep and started doodling. After a while, a shape took form and it looked familiar like I had seen it before.
Thinking about this now, I realize that it was like finding my own Haring ‘baby.’ I wasn’t looking for it, but when I saw it, I knew it was the beginning of everything. P.S. Last year in May, I did a 31-day study I called SHEEPDOG. Each day, I painted an image combining Keith’s dog and my SHEEP. I was surprised that I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It was magical seeing it evolve.
Brooklyn Street Art:Recently Dusty Rebel has been traveling around the world speaking with and filming Street Artists from the GLBTQ community. Why is it important to know if a graffiti writer or Street Artist is GLBTQ? Little Ricky: As I get older, labels have become less important. I jokingly tell my sister that I’m the ‘+’ in the GLBTQ+ If I’m to label myself, it’s definitely queer over gay. I like qweirdo even better! When I started the series, I assumed the street art community was a bunch of heterosexual males. Other than the names Bansky and Shepard Fairey, I knew nothing about it. Knowing that the SHEEP were queer, I felt some hesitation about how the community would embrace them.
Unknowingly, I’d even censor myself so that they weren’t too ‘gay.’ That all changed after the Orlando shootings when I was reminded of the importance of living out loud and proud. But once I started meeting the artists, I came to find out that no one cared about how I identified or if the sheep were gay or not. All that mattered was that I was getting up and they loved what I was doing. Meeting all these artists, queer or not, has been one of the greatest parts of working on SHEEP. So, it’s not so much about knowing who’s queer or not, because in the end, we’re all doing the same thing. But thanks to Dusty, there’s a new found community.
Once I started, other than HomoRiot, I wasn’t aware of anyone else. It took me a few years before we eventually met up. Now, I have a new community of peeps that I get to call friends. I’m excited to meet many more along the way. I feel grateful to Dusty and all his work. He’s shedding light on an untold story and the many artists who often go unrecognized. It’s like the M&M commercial- we do exist!
Brooklyn Street Art:Which city is more fun for Street Art right now? Little Ricky: As much as I love my beloved city of LA, I feel like I’m living ‘in’ art when I’m in NYC. Art’s everywhere! Aside from SHEEP, walking is a great passion and there’s no better city than NY to combine my two loves. When I was there recently, I put in 20 miles in one day. The opportunity to paste-up SHEEP is everywhere and anywhere. LA’s different that way. Even though I do walk a lot and I paste-up wherever I go, it’s not the same. It’s very random. Plus you’re not going to see my work whiledrivingaroundd. SHEEP is definitely for the pedestrian and NY is the perfect place. Initially, I thought my little SHEEP would get lost in it all, but came to find out that New Yorkers do pay attention while walking.
When it comes to the queer art community, street or not, I often wondered if my work didn’t fit in because it wasn’t erotic or specifically depicting a ‘queer’ image/message. But I now know, that regardless, they’re queer and they’re pink! It’s in the heart and soul of the each SHEEP. Whether this is conveyed when coming across my work is not as important as the feeling you have when seeing them. Feel the JOY!
Brooklyn Street Art:In what way is your work political? Is it commentary? Critique? Little Ricky: This was a tough question. I don’t see it as being overtly political or even commentary. There are some pieces that may be so, but overall they’re expressions of joy. I keep it simple. If you smile or laugh out loud when finding my pieces on the street, I know I’ve done my job. I often laugh out loud when creating them. There’s such silliness. For example, the idea of Anna Wintour as a pink sheep in roller skates makes me laugh. When I began the series, they started off as ‘gay’ sheep and now they’re more a symbol about a feeling.
I’ve always felt different, it goes beyond my sexuality. As I age, I feel more and more different. And the more different I feel, the more connected I am. So the SHEEP being out and about, regardless of the character or message, are a symbol of that feeling that we all feel. Being different, feeling different is a beautiful thing!
A unique private/public protest/memorial to raise awareness since 2005, the founder of The Pansy Project has planted the namesake flower, in some circles a pejorative term against gay boys and men, in thousands of locations around the world to commemorate a place where violence or intimidation toward LGBT people took place. Where it is difficult to find a good place to plant or to buy live pansies the gifted illustrationist simply paints one.
Understated and symbolic, the political and personal Street Art act bears witness to the brothers and sisters and others who society fucks with because they don’t fit traditional expectations of gender conformity. After nearly a decade and half, Paul says he will keep doing this work until it’s not necessary. You’ll probably need to help.
Recently we spent time with him on his visit to New York,
watching him plant pansies and asking him questions about his practice.
Brooklyn Street Art: When we think of monuments to historical events we often place them in locations that correlate with things that happened there. Can you talk about the similarities that this act of planting an ephemeral flower has to huge hulking brass statues in recalling our feeling and our memories?
Paul Harfleet: When I began to think about how to respond to my experiences of homophobia on the streets, I became interested in the particular nature of my memories of these attacks, they were rapid and fleeting and therefore I felt my response should be temporary and non-permanent. It felt archaic and overly municipal to begin making ‘permanent’ memorials to my own relatively minor attacks. A small unmarked living plant would add to the conversation, the flower could live and grow as I do through my experience. A tiny pop of color, unsanctioned by the city would reflect my own apparently illicit position in the urban environment.
I’m interested in how ‘permanent’ memorials became invisible over time*, their meanings sink into the fabric of the city, they become street furniture, their significance evaporates over time, unless they’re re-activated by an occasion or anniversary. Particularly when flowers are placed at war memorials, this and floral road-side memorials are echoed in The Pansy Project.
exact location was loaded for me, so it was essential that each place
should be altered by my intervention, it’s this that transformed how I
remembered the streets. The ritual of planting a pansy has become a
performative reparation on the street.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you know of someone else who was inspired by your project and began a new one of their own?
Paul Harfleet: It’s difficult to know if and how my work has inspired others. I know that people have planted pansies to mark their own experiences of homophobia and I’m aware of some students that have made very different work that has been informed by The Pansy Project which is humbling.
am aware of other actions that explore homophobia, I was touched by the
work of Nando Messias, “Sissy’s Progress” is a performance where the
artist revisited the location they were attacked with a marching band,
though I don’t think they were informed by the project, I enjoy the
absurdity of the response to homophobia, which in itself is an absurd
reaction to difference.
Brooklyn Street Art: In the US we have had a serious and fiery debate about historical memorials that glorify a period of racism, a sort of glorification of figures who championed racism. How does our perception change when we learn about the significance of location and events that took place there?
Paul Harfleet:This has been an fascinating debate, it challenges the idea of a memorial becoming invisible*, this is an example of the memorial being re-activated by context. I think it’s invaluable to have these discussions. It’s a shame that the debate seems to be so binary; keep or destroy. As an artist I would be interested in reinvigorating these memorials rather than removing them.
The fact they celebrate the achievements of a racist society should not be forgotten, it should in my opinion be remembered and challenged through art and education, small additions or amendments to these memorials could re-contextualise their meaning, there is an opportunity here to allow these memorials to a racist culture to become something that acknowledges the behavior of previous generations and act as a warning to future ones. We only have to look at the fragility of human rights at the moment to know how important it is to retain knowledge of previous injustices.
Brooklyn Street Art: When one considers the long period that this campaign has persisted, you may wonder how Paul Harfleet continues to have enthusiasm for it. Do you ever lose interest? What inspires you to get back to planting pansies after you discontinue for a while?
Paul Harfleet: I’ve been working with The Pansy Project for almost fifteen years, for me the repetition is vitally important for how the work is read. Everyday someone is experiencing homophobia or transphobia, whether it’s micro-agression, government sanctioned or the most violent of murders, it’s always happening, so I feel I have a responsibility to continue using my art to highlight this injustice.
I’m not completely altruistic, I do have to maintain my own interest, through the project I’ve explored various ways of working from garden, jewellery and merchandise design to the writing and illustrating of a book; Pansy Boy that reveals The Pansy Project in a completely different way, most recently I’ve been exploring painting the pansies on walls where homophobia has happened.
All of these actions keep me interested. I am always trying to take the ‘perfect’ picture and document my work in new ways. I’m inspired by artists that work in very similar ways their whole careers, Sean Scully speaks about repetition; ‘I want to express that we live in a world with repetitive rhythms and that things are existing side by side that seem incongruous or difficult.’
Brooklyn Street Art: New York has an incredible story in the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Can you tell us about one of the places in New York where you planted a pansy that was particularly meaningful to you?
Paul Harfleet: My visit to New York was incredibly important for me, unusually I funded this visit myself. I usually wait until I’m invited by a festival or for an exhibition, though I wanted to be in New York during the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. I first came to New York in 2006 to plant pansies for the Conflux Festival.
These were the very early days of the project, some of the photos I took then were bad, since then I’ve gotten better at taking the pictures so I wanted to re-plant and document the pansy I planted at the Stonewall Inn to properly mark this historically significant location. Though I also planted new pansies, it was moving for me to plant one at Christopher Street Pier for Marsha P. Johnson, their life and death was complex and seeped in the injustices of time. This seems even more significant in America today when black trans women are so under threat.
As I write, we await the decision by the US Supreme Court on working rights for trans people, the fact that there’s even a discussion about this is an anathema to me. To quote the hashtags; Trans rights are human rights, we’re not equal until we’re all equal. In the US alone there has been 19 reported trans women murdered in 2019 alone – It’s staggering and heartbreaking.
was also fascinated by the queer history of Brooklyn as described by
Hugh Ryan in ‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’. I love the picture I took of the
pansy I planted under the Brooklyn Bridge to mark the multiple stories
of homophobia I heard about in his book, the quote comes from the
complaints of local residents of how the Brooklyn Promenade was being
used by men for cruising; “Misbegotten Pansies” was just such a perfect
quote for this planting.
I do more now is make a film about the places I visit, this has the
ability to explore more of the story of each planting and helps share
the project to new audiences, I’m working on a New York film now.
Ultimatelty I adore each planting, they all mean so much to me as they
all contribute to the entire body of my work.
Paul Harfleet’s short film ‘The Pansy Project Canada’ will be shown at the Inside Out Film festival in Ottowa, Canada in October and his work will feature as part of the Homotopia Festival in Liverpool in November. For more information visit www.thepansyproject.com.
a 1927 essay, acclaimed Austrian philosopher Robert Musil famously
declared, “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not
notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.”
Artist, Street Art festival curator, now muralist. Shai Dahan has hel a number of roles related to the graffiti and Street Art scene since his teens. Born in Haifa, raised in LA, Dahan lived shortly on the East Coast before he pulled up stakes and moved to Sweden a decade ago to raise a family with his wife.
There he did something you don’t see a lot of artists do – he provided a huge platform for others to succeed by starting the “No Limit” Festival in his new hometown of Borås. We had the opportunity to be there a couple of times and witness the camaraderie and quality of a well-curated festival in a part of the world unaccustomed to large-scale public art, each time executed with finesse and near-zero drama.
Now he’s visiting New York for the first time in years and bringing his favorite muse, the Swedish Dala horse – a symbol that helped him meet HerRoyal Highness Queen Silvia of Sweden a few years ago, by the way. We spoke with Shai while riding the lift with him last week just before he headed back to Borås.
BSA: This is the first time you painted a large mural outdoors in NYC since you participated with a group of other artists painting at the racetrack in Queens. How did it feel to be back? Shai Dahan: It is incredible. Since I have lived here I always wanted to do something large. Even after moving to Sweden, I would see some great murals go up by Shepard Fairy, Kobra, Connor Harrington and I always thought “Wow. That has to be such a great personal accomplishment”.
To me, it’s very personal. I left for Sweden in 2010. NYC has been the biggest influence on my art. A lot of people would ask me who is my biggest inspiration, like Picasso? or Rembrandt? or someone more modern? but the reality is, it’s this city. The graffiti on the roller gates. The stickers on the doors. The Krink on the post office mailbox. This is the largest outdoor Street Art gallery in the world. Turn any corner in the LES or Soho or Tribeca or Nolita and you can find an Invader piece or a Buff Monster Ice Cream or even a wheat-paste from someone random.
This entire city is a giant gallery. So to come back to add to it is such an honor. Especially since I left for Sweden, and spend the next 10 years building a professional art career painting the Swedish Dala Horses and becoming known in Scandinavia for that, to return on the 10-year anniversary to bring my horse to the city that inspired me, its nothing short of poetic.
BSA: The Dala horse is a beloved icon in Sweden. Yours, big and red, looms large in the Lower East Side. Is this a gift to the Swedish expats living in New York? Shai Dahan: Its a gift for NYC. From me. This city gave me inspiration, friendships with amazingly talented artists and curators and writers (BSA shout out!), that I still maintain to this day. This city got me my first art show at the Grey Dog Cafe where I hung a bunch of skateboards in 2007. It’s the city where I took part in amazing projects like Mom&Popism, The Underbelly Project, the NY Ad Takeover and it’s the city that let me find my true talent and skills.
So, in a way, I wanted to give the city a gift back. Give her something for everything she’s given me. Swedes, of course, appreciate it (it’s been in every single major newspaper back in Sweden since Saturday Morning and even the Swedish Mission to the UN posted it to social media) so clearly, it hit a soft spot for Swedes around the world. But for me, its something more romantic than that. It’s gifting a horse to New York City.
Brooklyn Street Art: You have been painting for a bit while among your subjects is these horses. Have you noticed an improvement with your technique and style since the first horse you painted back in Sweden? Shai Dahan: God yes. But that is good. I almost feel like I am not technically a “professional” artist because that would mean I mastered my talent. I don’t believe I have. Clearly, my horses have improved in the last 10 years but I would be ignorant to assume my horses won’t continue to improve. You can always improve. But on that subject, it is fun to see my horse collection around the world. From the city of Gothenburg to the islands of Stockholm to a big city like NYC and even in the middle of the forest in Southern Sweden; My horses have a way to find a home anywhere they go.
A lot of people ask me “Why horses?” my usual response is that I am terrible at painting cats, but the truth is that horses have been used in art for centuries. The famous Napoleon Crossing, the Whistlejacket which hangs in the London Museum, you had paintings of horses in battle and war, with kings and generals. We have sculptures in Europe and here in the US with these giant masculine horses.
The horses, throughout history, have always been used as a heavy masculine symbol. But my Dala Horses, they are shades of Red, sometimes Blue or Purple. They have soft “Kurbits” patterns (Scandinavian Floral Symbols) on their bodies. They take something big and strong and give it a soft and almost feminine display. It is something that takes the original Dala Horse and moves it forward; Reinvents it or reinterprets what it means to paint horses.
Brooklyn Street Art: You organized a very well-curated urban art festival in Boras, Sweden and your participation has come to an end. Can you tell us what big lessons you learned from this experience that could be useful for other people who embark on organizing street art festivals? Shai Dahan: It’s important to approach curating festivals in the same way I approached my art career. It should never be about money. Never about fame. The sole driver for doing a great festival is to do it for your city. The people.
There is this old Greek proverb I love and used for many years as inspiration that says “Our Society grows great when we plant trees whos shade we know we will never sit under”. Basically saying, if we create and make and do things that is good for our society, even if we won’t personally be around to see its long-term effect, it is still worth doing. That is how I approached this festival. I put the city residents as a priority. I wanted to be sure that the murals we do will have years if not decades of inspiration, and joy for them.
Perhaps 20 years from now, a six-year old girl who sees these murals will be inspired to be the next Faith 47, the next Maya Hayuk, then I’ll feel like I did a good job. At the end of the day, life is what you paint it.
You can see the rupture, the built-up cells of swollen tissue around it, the soreness festering, never quite healing.
Hope is in BedStuy studying the internal topography of external scars, and
gathering materials to map it in an atlas.
relationship between physical scars and geopolitical ones are obvious once he
lays out the similarities for you.
I will be doing is eventually finding scars that resemble the shapes of borders
and creating a re-imagined map of The Israeli/Palestinian region and it
includes its participants – the only criterion is that they need to be people
who are living in the region.”
An Israeli Street Artist with an appreciable international collectors record for his illustrative metaphors of brokenness and healing, the artist is embarking on perhaps his most significant new body of work – and not surprisingly it is about the body, and the body politic that is intimately familiar with pain.
a project called “A Human Atlas” which focuses on the
analogy between human scars and national borders,” he says as he illustrates on
a tilted wooden desktop and signals toward the small works pinned to the wall.
“So I have been collecting and documenting testimonials about scars and people
sharing the stories behind them; with different anecdotes and personal
reflections on them.”
Here in Brooklyn, one is far away from the Israeli/Palestinian rupture, yet often cheek-to-jowl with it. One owns the deli on the corner, the hat store across the street is owned by the other. In a city where 800 languages are spoken, the strife between just two factions is mollified inside a world collection of cultures and the daily roar of all these voices.
The sensitivity necessary to become an artist can be both a blessing and a curse, and often you can see it personified. A man of letters, his work on brick street walls and billboards has often been literary, if necessary, reflexively cryptic – coming from a part of the world so gripped by a continuous war that the air itself can feel thick with hostility. Intentionally or not, the wounds and the scars are always on display.
With the air conditioner rumbling as a low thunder around your conversation in this BedStuy brownstone, he tells you how the project is materializing as he studies the scars of others, perhaps comparing them to his own.
“I’ve been documenting and photographing the scars of people and collecting the stories. I still haven’t gotten around to figuring out how the artworks will actually be…” There are raised reliefs and pencil sketches floating beneath the text on the wall here at the BedStuy Residency. There are the tight and precise monochromatic illustrations using his now-familiar nomenclature of severed limbs, bodies contorted in a singular dance, white flags and doves and non-sequitorial glimpses of prose.
made a conscious decision not to decide on what I wanted the project to be. I
just started by meeting people, which is still going on,” he says as he
describes the organic process that he is taking, letting the end game reveal
itself to him.
“With time I realize that it needs to be a book,” he says. “The information that is usually written in an atlas will be comprised
of the stories that they share. And there will be maps and different mediums.”
It occurs to you that just as Street Art is an external expression that reflects the psychological, emotional state of the society back to itself, the mapping of cities is a tour of our common internalities. Know Hope appears to be looking for a physical way to trace the ruptures in his region with a desire that in the process, he can bring common healing. But first, he is studying the topography of the region and the nature of the wounds.
BSA: Before you told me about this project, minutes ago, I was talking to you about how you have arranged the furniture and your art materials in this residency space and how this place was conceivably tracing a map inside your head and consciously or not you have arranged things because they matched the map. You were saying that you moved the table in a certain direction and distance because it “felt better”. You can’t quantify it. So when I think about the scars in the maps – scars or something that we want to be healed and maybe the process of tracing them – it’s like you are saying if that person could walk along that fissure, that wound, that rupture it might help heal, I don’t know.
Know Hope: Yeah and I think that there is something about wanting to take these separate scars and separate individual experiences and mend them together to create something collectively.
BSA: To have the common shared experience…
Know Hope: The idea is – the spark that is the initial metaphor – is that scars and borders share a lot of similar traits, common traits. They are both a product of circumstance – something happens to you or to a body or to the land. A war and a wound happe either by design or accident or an act of violence or through surgery.
At this moment it all comes together, this falling apart. You can see how Know Hope knows, and how the Atlas will become an important reference for our time.
kind of develop this long-term relationship with the scar or the wound that
ends up becoming the scar.”
Both celebrate the power and expressive ability of the letterform and
yet each appear as entirely separate pursuits. Uniting them requires
understanding both very well, contemplating their friction, their
possibilities, and a lot of negotiation.
Since 2007 Niels “Shoe” Meulman has been investigating, experimenting
with, enraptured by this pursuit. From thousands of hand sketches in his black book
to the full-body immersion techniques of creating across large walls and
floors, using paint and brush by the gallon in premeditated/subconscious all-inclusive
gestural choreographies. Shoe knows how to stay in the moment.
It’s this elevating together of disciplines that reveals their contrasts;
awakening the inner conflicts and core strengths, parading them on view.
He discovered the perfect transmutation here in Brooklyn. It was that
night of art-making with Haze that was a turning point..
“We both decided to go to the art store and get a whole lot of tools and stuff and just started working to see what would come out,” he says as he glances out the 1st floor brownstone window at the pile of recycled cardboard in the tiny courtyard. 26 years as a writer from Amsterdam who had met his New York graffiti heroes like Dondi, Rammellzee, and Haring, Shoe had pursued a career in advertising, and was still in love with fonts and their power to communicate.
“Without a commission, without a brief,” he remembers. “And like that – my
old passion, calligraphy, mixing with graffiti, just came out!”
Shoe says he created “calligraffiti” and he ran with it: developing a
body of work around it, writing a book about it (Calligraffiti), collaborating
with a growing number of artists who also had an affinity for the penmanship of
an artful communication modality that spans centuries.
He has developed brushes, tools, techniques, opened a gallery in a
garage (Unruly), covered surfaces from cars to museum walls, finished three more
books (Painter, Abstract Vandalism and Shoe is my Middle name).
It was as if he had finally decided at 40 that it was okay to be an artist, and
he left advertising to dedicate himself fully to his craft.
“Because my dad is also an artist- maybe I was finding the right moment
to be an artist,” he says as he shows you a stack of many papers from the art
supply store, and he contemplates why he had hesitated for years. It’s not that
he was concerned about competing with his father, but the stakes were high. Speaking
of his father, he says, “I think he was thinking ‘if you’re going to be an
artist you better be a successful one’ – because being a struggling artist –
that’s the worst!”
Additionally, he thought that before he could call himself an artist, he
should have something substantial to show. “It also felt like there was
something more profound to it,” he says. “I always thought that to be an artist
you have to have life experience and have some knowledge and purpose to bring
to the table, you know?”
Whether wide tip, wide brush, or wide cap, the bending letters are cryptic and stern in their old-worldliness. Fluid and stilted, wild and ornate, gilded, in black, in iridescence, in silver and gold. The additional layers of ink burst violently with destructive force in the swipe, the slash, the bash. The splatters are sometimes built up like an aura that glows around the cavorting dark letters – as if bruised and pummeled, their damaged and moistened epidermis now sweating black blood, infusing the air with a miasma of industrial soot.
With broad interests that delve into abstract, into wordplay, even poetry, this moment is the clarity in early morning fog on a quiet street in old BedStuy, now rumbling with the sweet sickness of gentrification. The residency that brings him here is so named to recall history and to look forward, offering a respite for many a visiting Street Artist.
“I didn’t really have a plan when I came here but, like many times, I come up with something on the plane like the day before – and of course it’s brewing in my head.”
He points to a couple of handled black plastic shopping bags that he has tacked to the wall. With a capacity to recognize and understand his own emotions and the emotions of an era, he has connected to the pleasantry printed on them “Thank You for Shopping With Us!”. It’s not just the sentiment that captures the late 1970s design hand, for him, it’s the upbeat openness and lyrical bending of the letters and lines that attract him.
The letters are sweet like cherry lip-gloss on a rollerskater in hot
pants in Central Park. Suddenly you are flipping through the pages of Eros,
Fact, or Avant Garde, a relief of melodic line and sexual liberty.
“Thank you for shopping!” he exclaims like a fan. “That’s so New
York for me; that’s exactly graffiti – that 70s Herb Lubalin look,” he says of
a time when magazines were so head-over-heels in love with new type treatments
that they might feature a 2-page spread of it entirely just for you to salivate
“It’s free,” he says, perhaps reflective of the liberal sway of social mores and the swinging romance that advertising had with the Baby Boomer’s ‘me’ generation of the seventies. It’s a phrase rooted in consumerism, cities were in the last throes of an ample middleclass America who had cash and credit to shop with. That fact contrasted with the suffering of a bankrupt NYC – a spirit that inspired train writers as well, even if used as critique.
“I think the whole graffiti scene that started here had something to do with this sort of lettering,” he says. “It came from that freedom that you could see in advertising. The type design was so good.”
For now, this month-long residency is a reprieve for Shoe, a time to
examine and relax into the spring that gradually warms New York and brings rose
blooms to the bush in the small front yard of this residential street. His new
sketches from his black book contain pithy barbs, hidden meanings, pop-culture
references, and life truisms drawn in what he might refer to as a monk-like
“I’m not religious. I don’t follow any religion and I don’t meditate but
I like this idea of knowledge and introspection,” he says. “This is where
Chinese calligraphy comes in and you are reminded of the medieval monks and all
kinds of calligraphers”.
A congenial host, Shoe shows us walls full of new pieces, individual words or phrases on a large variety of papers, textures, and stocks. He describes his inks with as much enthusiasm as his personal relationships, which are sometimes as tumultuous as the intense splashes of midnight here. You can see there is definitely work being done.
“That knowledge comes from that kind of introspection. The influence of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy comes in because at that time if you were by yourself writing…. Those monks either wanted to be enlightened or were enlightened in some way; it’s a search,” he says.
Queer artists and writers in the graffiti and Street Art scene have always been present but like everywhere else in the culture they were more or less bullied by peers to deny it or keep it hidden. It might strike you as ironic or even hypocritical that a subculture of people who feel largely marginalized would propagate another layer of rejection onto their own peers, but humans and clans can be mysterious. And we don’t forget that it was the fags and drag queens who fought against the police in 1969, and who ultimately won through sacrifice, persistence, and collaboration – despite the odds.
As attitudes slowly change in mainstream society, LGBTQ+ peeps with aerosol cans, stickers, stencils and wheat-pastse are also using graff and Street Art to bring their issues to walls around the city. Today we talk to two artists – Homo Riot and Suriani, along with photographer, film maker, and social activist The Dusty Rebel, who organized their own wall this week to collaborate in saluting one of those Stonewall queens who fought back, Marsha P. Johnson. Even after this new piece was vandalized, the crew simply went back to work to put it up again. The accompanying text and probable title of the piece is “Pay It No Mind”
BSA: Dusty, you’ve been thinking about this wall for Pride for a long time now. The Dusty Rebel (Daniel Albanese): For over a year and a half, I have been traveling around the world filming my documentary about the global Queer Street Art movement. Very little attention has been paid to the topic, which I find curious since so many street art pioneers were queer. In my exploration, I have found that many queer-identifying street artists primarily install their work without permission and it’s often more subversive- which stands in contrast to the growing dominance of muralism.
This wall is actually the kick off to a series of Queer Street Art that will be coming to NYC for Pride Month. I have partnered with Art In Ad Places, Keep Fighting NYC, and other community based projects to create a queer alternative to the overwhelming flood of corporate pride events. While not part of Reclaim Pride Coalition’s inaugural Queer Liberation March on June 30th, I was inspired by the activists who have organized to bring the “Spirit of Stonewall” directly to the street, and who are keeping the focus on the continuing needs of the LGBTQ+ community
BSA:What’s the genesis of your idea for this installation? Getting walls in NYC for artists to paint free of charge is almost impossible. How did you manage to get this sweet spot? The Dusty Rebel: Because it’s seems rare that queer artists get to paint overtly queer legal murals, I wanted to find a way to bring one to New York City. Several months ago, I contacted my good friend Steve Stoppart, and asked him if I could have his wall on Houston — just one block over from where Keith Haring painted the legendary Bowery mural in 1982. Immediately, he said yes and told me I had permission to do anything I wanted. We have no corporate sponsor, so the wall is totally funded by all of us chipping in as a community.
Once I had the wall, I immediately
reached out to Suriani and Home Riot — two artists I have known for years, and
who’s work had inspired me to start my film.
BSA:Almost as soon as the piece was completed someone defaced it. What was the message they tried to send by disrespecting the art and the artists? And how did you respond? The Dusty Rebel: I know street art is ephemeral, and I also know that work that is unapologetically queer is especially targeted. So I knew it was coming, I just didn’t expect something that big and that fast in less than 30 hours. We made this piece as a community, for our community. We really wanted to start conversation about the issues that LGBTQ+ people face, and to honor the memory of Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riot. To have that important conversation cut short felt like a punch in the gut
In terms of how we dealt with it – we
knew who it was, so we reached out to him and explained why the mural was
important. He said he wasn’t motivated by homophobia and apologized. And I get
it. I’ve known enough vandals to understand that sometimes when your bombing
you’re not necessarily thinking about what you’re hitting. But we had planned
for something like that, so we were ready to “pay it no mind” and to restore
BSA:How did Homo Riot and Suriani approach the collaborative aspect of the installation. The Dusty Rebel: We began planning this wall over seven months ago. I told them I wanted it to be a celebration of queer liberation and make reference to New York’s history. While they are familiar with each other’s work, neither had met in person. Both artists have very different aesthetics. Homo Riot’s work being more homoerotic and aggressive, while Suriani’s is a colorful exploration of gender. So I knew it would be a challenge, but I also knew they would take the collaboration seriously. This wasn’t just two artists who were slapping their work next to each other. They listened to each other and compromised, without compromising their artistic voices. So, I’m very proud of them and the wall they created.
BSA: Why do you think it’s important to have queer perspectives in Street Art? Homo Riot: Street art is egalitarian. It’s open to all and its consumption is not restricted to a particular class, creed or level of education. And because it’s ubiquitous in our current environment, it provides opportunities for queer and marginalized people to be visible. In urban environments, queer art becomes part of the landscape and our presence hopefully becomes part of the collective consciousness making way for acceptance and inclusion. In small towns and long stretches of interstate, representations of LGBTQ+ art are important for those members of our community who are isolated and may feel alone.
BSA: Why do you think it’s important to have queer perspectives in Street Art? Suriani: I think it is important to have queer perspectives in all kinds of art or environments. Street Art is a space of free self-expression. It happens in public space, so it is accessible to everyone. Queer culture traditionally occurs in closed spaces due to the repression and violence LGBTQ+ people have suffered throughout history. Expressing our values and points of view to a larger public might spread awareness of our existence and help our communities in our fights for equality in terms of acceptance and rights
The official art world is already aware of these issues as we can see with the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall“. The problem is that only a very limited percentage of the population has access to museums. Urban Art is part of the city, it comes to people instead of waiting for people to come to it. Our message is directly visible to everyone who’s out there in public space: Inside of that resides its main power.