Street Art Turns New York Neighborhoods into Public Art Galleries
New York City is famous for its art museums, but on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, the art doesn’t hang in frames—it flows through the streets.
From the legendary Bowery Graffiti Wall, which has showcased rebels such as Shepard Fairey and OSGEMEOS, to Banksy’s controversial series of installations in 2013, the Lower East Side has long been home to artists who refuse to color between the lines. The Lower East Side’s rebellious nature is also reflected in its colorful maze of narrow streets: the iconic neon pink of Katz’s Delicatessen, the deep green of the vintage Russ & Daughters sign, the kaleidoscopic collages created on every lamppost from the layers of pasted-over fliers.
Across the bridge in Williamsburg, the culture and colors are no less vibrant. In recent years, Williamsburg has transformed from a gray industrial center into a rainbow of restaurant and shopping destinations, from the rustic chic of Marlow & Sons to the bright California design of Pilgrim Surf + Supply. Artists who converted old warehouses into lofts and studios led this renaissance, so it should come as no surprise that much of the neighborhood’s color comes from paint splashed across many of Williamsburg’s brick walls and cracked streets.
If there were a phrase to describe the relationship these two neighborhoods have with color, it would be “urban eclectic.” Two of the organizing influences are the local businesses that commission murals, and community activists who harness the energy of the neighborhood and put it to a colorful use. Both show how urban beautification projects can reflect the native spirit of a neighborhood while helping to build a new and vibrant business community.
Kissing in Manhattan
The corner of Mott and Prince streets on the Lower East Side may be the most romantic corner in all of Lower Manhattan, and not just because of all the cupcake shops. Next to the new Space NK Apothecary, a smattering of puckered red lips kiss a wall painted with vibrant blue geometric shapes.
This mural is the vision of artist Ricardo Richey, also known as the Apexer. When thinking about the mural for Space NK, Richey took into consideration one of the unique architectural features of the Lower East Side: all that red brick. “Blue is a nice color to play off the brick tones,” Richey said. “Also, something just said that corner needed bright blues.”
And where did the idea for the red lips come from? “Simple,” Richey explained. “Space NK is a beauty company, and I thought that the lips would play well with that.”
To Richey, the essential difference between public art and art meant for galleries has to do with audience. “Public art encounters all walks of life,” Richey said. “Gallery work tends to have a trained audience.”
On a deeper level, Richey believes that public art plays an essential role not only in the lives of the people who encounter it but also in the larger society. According to Richey, “Art plays a key role in any society—without art, you do not have a proper functioning society. So public art beautifies a city and has a deeper role in its functionality.”
The Colors of Cuba
Another colorful example of a local business and an artist coming together to beautify the neighborhood is Cubana Social’s mural on North 6th Street in Williamsburg. Created by Molly Rose Freeman, an Atlanta-based multimedia artist, this floral design features a color palette that has special resonance with Cuban culture. And that Cuban culture is vitally important to Cubana Social’s mission—more than just a restaurant that serves Cuban food and drinks, Cubana Social strives to serve as a cultural center.
As Maggie Ginestra, the front-of-house manager at Cubana Social, said, “We feel that Cubana Social is a public space where people can feel safe and free to celebrate with their communities, and we work hard at our hospitality to uphold that.”
When Ginestra met with Freeman to discuss plans for the mural, she had just returned from a trip to Cuba with Christina Bouza, the founder and creative visionary behind Cubana Social. Freeman described the meeting: “We sat together and looked at pictures from her trip, and the thing that had really enchanted her there were all the shades of teal. That became the dominant color scheme for the mural, so we could bring in that beautiful layering of color. We also looked at some of the tile and iron work she’d seen, and I was really inspired by their patterns and how they looked like so many of the tropical flowers that grow in Cuba. So I developed shapes that fused together the geometric structure of the patterns with the organic blooms of hibiscus and bougainvillea and mariposa lily.”
The work Freeman created out of Cuban imagery and colors achieves a rather extraordinary effect: It looks totally exotic and yet all at once totally at home on a Brooklyn street. Freeman explained this by pointing to the colorful nature of the neighborhood: ”The area of Williamsburg where Cubana Social is located is incredibly alive with color, so I felt free to go bright and bold.”
Gates of Eden
Most neighborhood beautification focuses on projects that are meant to be enjoyed during the day, but in the city that never sleeps, the appearance of a neighborhood after dark is just as important. One of the ubiquitous nighttime sights in New York City are the metal gates that businesses pull down over their storefronts after hours. On the Lower East Side, some of these gates were covered with unwanted graffiti, while others were covered with commissioned murals.
In the summer of 2014, Natalie Raben of the Lower East Side Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to improving neighborhood life, decided to do something about this disparity. In January 2015, artists began turning the gates into works of art and the Lower East Side into a giant street-art gallery. This past September, the 100th gate of the 100 Gates Project was painted, and the site of the final mural was perhaps the most iconic business on the Lower East Side—Katz’s Delicatessen.
The 100 Gates Project elevates the creativity of NYC neighborhoods and lifts the spirits of its inhabitants, one security-gate mural at a time.
Part of Raben’s job was matching businesses to artists, and she and her assistants spent months taking artists’ portfolios around to Lower East Side business owners.
“Some artists have very specific styles,” she said. “It was important that businesses were happy, so they got to pick who they wanted to work with.”
This painstaking process yielded many perfect matches. One of these perfect matches was artist Ida Noelle and the Sill, a plant shop on Hester Street. The work that Noelle created for the Sill stands out from the 99 other colorful gates because she used only black and white for the mural.
Noelle said, “It is already such a colorful and vibrant neighborhood that making something too ‘loud’ or colorful would just clutter the landscape. I decided to go with the idea that less is more and stuck to using only black and white to make the design stand out.”
The design Noelle highlighted with her use of black and white is also simple, but deceptively so—when the Sill’s gate is pulled down at night, cacti and other succulents seem to grow, glowing and white, out of the sidewalk; white hanging plants appear to be hung from the brick of the apartment above the shop.
This use of negative space is haunting, but Noelle’s vision of the Sill is anything but. As she said, “I felt the Sill was a perfect match for my work because I love painting plants and nature, and they sell plants. Their motto is ‘plants make people happy,’ and that echoes with the kind of work that I want to make and the idea of natural beauty bringing life back to a city. In a sense they sell plants to make people happy, and I paint plants to make people happy.”
“Make people happy.” It’s a simple phrase, but it’s exactly the effect Natalie Raben hoped to achieve with her 100 Gates Project. It’s also the effect that all street art can create—happy people and happy neighborhoods.