There’s a wall on Kenmare Street off Mulberry Street that’s so heavily bombed, it looks more like a section of the Berlin Wall in its last days than your typical NYC graffiti. The sheer amount of spray paint appears as if it took years to accumulate, with layers upon layers of tags and throw-ups applied by the hands of insidious vandals. In reality, the mural was painted with permission, over the course of a few hours — and it’s currently getting buffed for looking too illegal.
Artists MINT & SERF (collectively called MIRF) and PPP (the Peter Pan Posse) were asked to paint the wall last week as part of the L.I.S.A. Project, an organization that uses street art to help revitalize Little Italy and attract more than just tourists from the Midwest to the fabled neighborhood.
Hemal Sheth, owner of the magazine shop responsible for maintaining the wall, was told by the building’s landlord that older residents are complaining about the art and that it needs to be buffed. Sheth says he agrees, telling ANIMAL over the phone, “It makes my shop look like a junkyard.” The grittiness, however, is part of the concept.
“At this stage, I am not interested in a sense of perfection or precision, in fact just the opposite,” MINT explains. “In a way the chaos is the reflection of what graffiti is to me.” The mural is a continuation of MINT and SERF’s practice of bringing chaos back to graffiti art, as shown in their recent Support, Therapy and Instability book.
It’s not hard to understand why local seniors wouldn’t recognize the mural’s conceptual nuances when it looks like graffiti, just as many Chinatown residents likely have no idea they’re looking at a legal installation by Smart Crew on Allen Street.
When I headed down to the wall on Friday afternoon, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was sitting out front. “I like something like before, something a little more modern,” she said, referring to the more public-friendly, rainbow-hued mural painted by UK street artist SHOK1 months prior.
(Photos: L.I.S.A., MIRF, Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)
As is wont to happen, SHOK1’s mural was tagged by a virtually unknown writer. SHOK1 was out of the country and unable to fix his mural, so he asked L.I.S.A. to blotch it out in black. So, shortly after, L.I.S.A. asked SERF and MINT if they’d like to paint the wall. But unlike past murals, this one deviated from the group’s street art repertoire.
“This is more like from the 70s… It is too much, so I’m not too crazy about this,” the elderly woman went on. To her generation, such concentration of graffiti in one spot is associated with urban blight and lawlessness that accompanied the economic disparity of that decade in NYC history.
“I like the rainbow version that was previously there better, but this is okay,” said Omer Barnea, a young real estate broker smoking a cigarette outside his office near the mural. Though he preferred the previous work, but didn’t go so far as to condemn the new one either, concluding, “This is fun.”
The artists behind the piece aren’t too pleased with their art being removed so quickly. They even argue that what it needs is more tags.
“I honestly do not feel that it has enough graffiti,” SERF says. “I was looking forward to more writers to add to the wall over time, creating something authentic… I wanted to create a genuine NYC feeling. A wall that would wind up in the background of Law and Order.”
The wall is technically just outside of the historic district on Mulberry Street where the group typically operates. It was more of a bonus spot. It was understood that unlike the other walls, gates and doors L.I.S.A. curates, they had no real say in preventing this location from being buffed. It was established that this spot was temporary.
L.I.S.A. Project founder and curator Wayne Rada says, “But it wasn’t supposed to be that temporary.”
Now, the mural is getting buffed, but not entirely. In a way, ironically, part of it is being preserved behind a wood and glass magazine display case currently being erected over the wall. The surrounding margins will be painted over.
(Photo: Rey Rosa/L.I.S.A. Project)
Robert Ianniello Jr., owner of the famed (and at one time notorious) Umbertos Clam House and president of the Little Italy Merchants Association recognizes the important role street art is playing in the neighborhood and isn’t too happy about the decision to remove the art. Ianniello works closely with the L.I.S.A Project. His own eatery provided wall space for a minimalist Mona Lisa by artist Chris RWK.
“Listen, yeah — there’s a connection between bringing people down to have a cup of coffee or have something to eat,” Ianniello says, when asked whether the art was helping to generate more business on the block. “But that’s not the goal. The goal is to get art on the walls. To make it something more you can do in Little Italy besides eat. Something you can come and see.”
Ianniello was aware that the piece may be problematic, the minute it went up. “I wasn’t there for that, but when he sent me the picture I said, ‘that’s a graffiti piece,’” he recalls, laughing. “There’s no mistaking what that is.” However, Ianniello is concerned about how this outcome reflects on the project. He doesn’t want the artists to think they don’t have their back.
“If I don’t defend this, then maybe I don’t defend the next guy,” Ianniello says. “And then the artists are unsure about us. Maybe they say, ‘ya know what screw Little Italy, I’m not going to put something down there because if someone don’t like it they’re going to paint it over.’”
(Top photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)