After a “nasty accident with a plate glass window” Beriah Wall tells ANIMAL that he “became interested in insignificance. How small and worthless could an object be and still communicate?” The 67-year-old artist has been making his signature clay coins since 1977, creating hundreds of unique issues, leaving them all over the city and earning him a New York Times profile in 2010. The coins are small, minimal and free to take, but they’re meaningful to those who happen upon the ubiquitous art objects, hidden in plain sight. In an unlikely pairing, Beriah Wall teamed up with the Smart Crew collective. We documented the collaboration.
Wall was introduced to DCEVE by his daughter Emma when he painted the “Redhook” postcard mural on his studio gate. “Every time I left his studio, my pockets were full of coins,” DCEVE recalls. “Once I started to leave some of his coins around, I could see how it was very similar to tagging or putting up stickers.”
“Frankly, I’m just happy to hang with some young artists,” Wall says. “I have no problem hanging with outlaws. An image is an image is an image. If it lasts, it is good.”
Making the coins usually takes Wall three to five hours of carving and two to three days of drying before firing up the clay and turning it to stone. After he paints them, they go everywhere. “I can’t really say I tried to methodically cover New York with coins,” he admits. “I always left home with a pocket full. I was more interested in sending bagfuls with friends who travelled to far off places. Leaving them around anonymously makes the perfect neutral art exchange.”
ANIMAL followed DCEVE and fellow Smart Crew member Jeffrey Gamblero aka KORN, through Chinatown, Greenpoint, DUMBO, Astoria, and Roosevelt Island as they left Smart-die coins on window ledges, wall slits, perched at the edges of fences, and at the bases of street sign poles.
Smart Crew’s mural on Beriah Wall’s studio gate.
“A graffiti writer’s landscape/vision is usually looking at vertical surfaces to get up on, where in this case, we were scoping out flat, horizontal neglected areas to leave the coins,” says DCEVE. But was it street art? “The term ‘street art’ is pretty ambiguous these days. Some consider street art anything done with the medium of spray paint or visual art done without permission… I would consider his tokens a form of public/street art.”
KORN particularly enjoyed handing out coins to strangers in the street. “To me, that’s the most fun part of the project,” he says. “It’s great connecting with new people by giving them handmade art on the street.” To those that hold on to them, the coins hold a special currency. “They may not have value within our governmental laws, but they have value to collectors who appreciate them.”
Wall enjoyed collaborating with the “outlaws,” despite the totally non-illicit nature of his public art practice. There are, after all, no laws against the leaving clay coins in the street. “I think it’s cooler than graffiti,” Wall says. “It moves, it’s mobile, it can last.”
(Video/Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)