The city appears to be serving in a reenactment of New York in the 1980s, with disease-stricken streets filled with young activists and decorated in colorful, empowering artwork.
With COVID-19 putting many New Yorkers’ lives on hold, the city that never sleeps had seemingly gone dormant. That is, until artists took to the street to give neighborhoods a familiar splash of color. While some have called for its removal, many have welcomed public art with open arms.
In the past few months, New York’s art scene has exploded – with a significant increase in protest art, graffiti, and more. Newcomers have resparked classic graffiti designs, tagging storefronts and hiding their identities with masks. For years, this art form has been wrongly associated with crime and economic upheaval, as mentioned by various political figures including Governor Andrew Cuomo, who calls for the city to be cleaned and stripped of this “decay.”
However, many artists and those involved with the industry have commented on the strength portrayed through this surge. Lewis Miller, for instance, argues that “there is something spontaneous about true graffiti, about going and making a statement…it’s just [something] only New York can do.”
Miller, also known as the Botanical Banksy, has been carrying out his “flower flashes” for about four years. He adorns the city in jaw-dropping botanical installations, targeting construction spaces, garbage cans, and classic New York monuments. Behind these pieces, Miller “intentionally put[s] together two different elements that don’t necessarily work – flowers and the city” in an attempt to accentuate the juxtapositions of New York’s bright art scene and the city’s hectic, man-made features.
Recently, Miller decorated a lamppost outside of New York Presbyterian Hospital. He usually carries out his flashes in the middle of the night and without asking the institution or the administrators beforehand so he was eventually told to take the piece down. Nonetheless, Miller and his team later proceeded to hand out these flowers to passing health care workers. The work served as a grand “thank you” to essential workers, and when initially asked about his intentions behind creating the flower flashes, he expressed his desire to find a unique creative outlet while simultaneously spreading his passion to as many people as possible.
The art scene has also erupted with hundreds of protest pieces, calling for budget reform regarding the NYPD as well as for justice for those killed in vicious hate crimes. While some statues have been vandalized, there are many beautiful pieces showing up all around the city. Soho has been recognized for its art scene for several decades but its culture has expanded during the ongoing pandemic with boarded-up storefronts being repurposed as art spaces.
Protest pieces are incredibly significant to communities of color because they amplify voices speaking from years of mistreatment and discrimination. These works can serve as a form of self expression for minorities, what with graffiti heavily originating in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods.
Graffiti began after the death of Charlie Parker, an influential leading figure in the jazz community. He was known as the “Bird” and in the mid 1950s, New York City was adorned with the words “Bird Lives.” About a decade later, graffiti culture blew up in the city and artists were more frequently recognized for their art pieces in Washington Heights, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side.
Cire One Loc, a Brooklyn-Based graffiti artist, started writing in 1986-1989 and re-emerged over twenty years later, in 2011, alongside the Look Out Crew, a group of artists with a mission statement of spreading “tru-school authentic NYC Graffiti art and Hip Hop Culture to the masses.”
According to Cire One Loc, the art scene has changed a lot in the last few decades because of the way this art form has been perceived over time.
Nevertheless, he also notes that the spirit of illegal graffiti is still the same and makes the argument that, no matter what, “it gives a voice and a presence to the nameless people of the city.”
Recently, New York City’s graffiti removal program was defunded, with Mayor Bill DeBlasio arguing that its funding would be more impactful when redirected toward other issues and programs. However, Ben Kallos, the New York City Council Member representing the Upper East Side, has publicly disagreed with the budget and made it a mission to clean up the city, himself.
Kallos partnered with an organization known as the Wildcat Service Corporation, a work program for formerly convicted unemployed persons, and is currently using his own discretionary funding to take down street art. Although his primary focus is on educational programs and safely reopening schools during the COVID-19 era, he argues that there should still be a few thousand dollars dedicated to graffiti removal, considering the city has a hefty budget of $86 billion.
Josh Jamieson, his Director of Communications, was able to speak on Kallos’ behalf and when questioned about the effect removal might have on voices of color, Jamieson stated that he doesn’t believe it would be limiting freedom of speech for minorities because there are other methods of empowering these communities, such as investing spending on school and food programs.
Kallos and Jamieson, however, also spoke on the matter of protest art as a form of self expression: “I don’t even think the people who tag vacant buildings and bridges are saying anything in these tags that would be worth describing as freedom of expression.” They argues that “[artists] not making particular points” aside from using derogatory statements – like ACAB, an acronym for All Cops Are Bad – against police officers.
Many politically informed artists use these visuals as a way of instigating social change, and even though art is constantly up for interpretation, it’s difficult to deny its importance in provoking conversation. Street art is usually associated with graffiti and vandalism when, in reality, there are various forms currently decorating the city that encourage positive reform. Miller’s flower flashes are a good example of an art form that revolves around conversation, but in the political sphere, there are other creators who formulate discussions based on controversial works. Jackie Chang is one of these artists.
Chang is a well known public commissioned artist and community activist. She is a director in various arts organizations including Groundswell, BRIC, and RecessArt, an art program originally initiated as an alternative to incarceration.
With the country being carried out by a predominantly white, cis-het, patriarchal society, it’s important to ensure that minorities have a platform to speak out and express their opinions. Chang states that art is “our place. A fine line [in helping to] break down that system. [It’s how] we can be heard from within.”
Kallos and Jamieson directed artists to Chashama, an art organization that repurposes unused property into creative art spaces, in an attempt to get people off the streets. While this may be helpful for some creators, Chang makes an interesting point about previously working in galleries and finding that there is something very different from the gallery system and public art.
Chang even argues that while there is validity in both street art and commissioned art, what’s invalid is how it’s selected – “who gets to be the gatekeeper?”
Art, wherever it’s displayed and however it’s displayed, is not dirty. New York City’s street art is a symbol of our culture, of that melting pot that we all get to experience on a day-to-day basis. It is expressive and loud and when compared to the past; it should not be associated with economic upheaval but with creative growth and social justice. Street art is an homage to the city that never sleeps and that contribution can never be properly erased.
More quotes from Miller, Chang, and Loc can be found here.