Territorial Disputes: New Alphabet City Mural Ignites Controversy

December 4, 2014 | Prachi Gupta

With its bright blue background and intricately patterned letters of the alphabet, the mural that stretches around the corner of Avenue C and Sixth Street in New York’s East Village is visually arresting. But the painting, which just began last week, has quickly become a symbol of controversy — one that illuminates the clash between the old and new New York and the boundaries of corporate and community space. The outdoor space, it turns out, has a long history, and its detached, apolitical imagery is exactly why local residents are upset.

The wall belongs to building tenant RCN, but muralist Chico, who moved (repeatedly) from the LES to Florida a few years ago, asserts that he’s painted it for the past 25 years. Though he used to have a positive working relationship with RCN, a spokesperson for the cable provider told DNAinfo in 2010 that things soured after he painted unauthorized pro-Obama imagery. The company did not approve of the politicized messaging and vowed, “We’re not interested in doing business with him again.” RCN had the wall painted, and it’s been run amuck by graffiti tags ever since.

Then, in 2013, Chico proposed a mural that would celebrate 15 LES community leaders in that space. The project gained the support of local community organizers, activists, and even Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who were hopeful that RCN would give the project its blessing. But when the non-community sanctioned mural appeared recently, Chico’s supporters realized that their project had been overlooked.

Is it a case of, as The Villager characterizes, “RCN whitewashing Loisaida culture and history?” or is it that RCN just had too much bad blood with Chico? Creative agency Green Villain ultimately got the permission to paint the wall, and it’s true that the firm, from New Jersey, doesn’t have Chico’s community ties. But Green Villain isn’t painting the wall. The agency finds “graffiti-ridden properties and then approach[es] owners to create free public art on them,” according to founder Greg Edgell, and for this mural, it contacted members of New York graffiti collective Smart Crew and street art duo Sheryo and The Yok. Smart Crew has done many community based projects, including the creation of neighborhood-specific murals, among other interesting projects.

Green Villain or RCN didn’t impose any guidelines on their work, says The Yok. Free to design whatever they wanted, and already known their unique lettering style, the artists took a literal approach:

The mural represents Alphabet City in a more literal way, we painted all 26 letters of the alphabet that wrapped around the block on Ave C. Some of the letters are inspired from the community some are inspired by NYC as a whole, some are the artists personal work twisted into letter form. We painted with Victor Ving, ELMO, SNOEMAN, Steiner, Roachi and Sheryo

“When we got to the wall it was a beautiful ocean blue color all shinny and ready to roll, previous to that, I saw it was covered end to end in wonderful graffiti sprays by local neighborhood dudes,” said The Yok.

Ving told ANIMAL via email that when The Yok and Sherko approached him for the project, he had no idea that Green Villain had organized it, or that the wall had a history with Chico. While Ving appreciates Chico’s legacy and understands some of the community’s bitterness, he also sees the changing of the guard as inevitable. “In my opinion, I think that it’s private property and the landlord ultimately has the right to choose what they want on their wall,” Ving said. As an artist, he accepts that his art is impermanent.

“In my experience, artwork on walls get lost everyday to the buff, advertisements, other artists, etc. Nothing lasts forever and I’m sure someone is going to end up going over this mural as well,” he said.

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)