Playground Mob, The Musical
In the Fall of last year, famed British street artist Banksy arrived in New York to begin a monthlong residency on the streets and walls of the City, a project that he called “Better Out Than In.” Throughout the month of October, he led local enthusiasts and visitors alike on a massive scavenger hunt across the five boroughs in search of a new piece of original and usually illegal work each day. On the third day of what became quite a frenzied event, those of us here at Mapos arrived at the office to encounter an excited crowd on Delancey Street, around the corner from our office at 161 Bowery, all eager to see and document one of a set of three pieces that had gone up overnight.
Just the day before, the unassuming gray wall there had held the two simple words: “PLAYGROUND MOB.” But on that morning, below the enigmatic phrase, was a stylized addition. The tone of that quiet gray wall had changed overnight, and it now loudly proclaimed: "PLAYGROUND MOB The Musical!"
But Banky’s small addition to the neighborhood, no matter the crowds that it drew, is but one minor example of the art publicly displayed on the walls of the area. The buildings along the Bowery, and the streets throughout its surrounding neighborhoods, have long acted as a canvas for New York City’s street artists and graffiti writers, both notorious and notable alike. Just opposite this piece in fact, across Delancey Street, there is a nearly untouched piece from 2011 by the esteemed Kenny Scharf, longtime friend and associate of Keith Haring. This piece, generally only visible in the evening, covers the roll-down security gates of the Bowery Restaurant Supplies store there and was the centerpiece of his “Gates Project” of that year when he tagged many of these gates throughout the area with his signature style.
Likely inspired by Scharf’s “Gates Project,” over the past few years, a very similar initiative has been sponsored by the Bowery’s own New Museum which has partnered with the Art Production Fund to organize “After Hours: Murals on the Bowery.” Although, the City of New York is in the process of phasing out the solid roll-down security gates so commonly used by Kenny Scharf and countless other writers and artists before, they are still a common sight along the Bowery at night. In cooperation with many of the businesses and landlords along the Bowery, organizers have turned the street into a kind of gallery which only opens at night and features a diverse range of works by many different artists.
An example of a piece on a roll-down security gate can be seen on our own building at 161 Bowery, although it was sponsored by another group entirely. The piece currently featured on the building at our address is a piece by the artist Ben Eine and features a large colorful letter “E,” which demonstrates the style that Eine is known for. This piece, though, was sponsored by the wildly prolific Little Italy Street Art Project, or The L.I.S.A Project, an organization created by Wayne Rada and directed by he and RJ Rushmore with the mission to bring life back to Little Italy, which was becoming little more than a neighborhood for tourists to visit for its restaurants. This group has been hugely successful in connecting prominent artists and vacant walls throughout Little Italy and the surrounding neighborhoods over the past few years. In that time, The L.I.S.A Project has brought artists like Logan Hicks, SHOK-1, Ludo, Tristan Eaton, Invader, Meres One, and Buff Monster all to the area.
Illegal and unsanctioned works and tags still appear and disappear almost daily, but the neighborhood is home to an immense collection of commissioned street art all curated by local organizations and businesses who have sought to celebrate this cultural asset and not allow it to act as reminder of the crime and urban blight that the area was once known for. Of all of these, probably the most notable and established example is the Houston Bowery Wall, which is a massive wall owned by Tony Goldman of Goldman Properties and curated by Jeffrey Deitch. Since 2008, when Goldman first began commissioning artists to paint the wall, it has provided a surface for many of the world’s most celebrated and influential street artists, but its legacy goes back to 1982 when it was first selected by Keith Haring for one of his earliest large scale public murals in New York City. Since then, the wall has featured the elite likes of Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee, JR, Os Gemeos, and Kenny Scharf, just to name a few.
Just a few blocks West of the Houston Bowery Wall is a smaller similarly curated wall which has also recently brought some extremely talented artists to the neighborhood. At the corner of Elizabeth Street and Houston Street, on the exterior of the Rag & Bone shop there, is a wall known as the Houston/Project, that the business commissions a new piece for almost every month. This wall has recently featured artists such as Ludo, Erik den Breejen, Meres One, Yoon Hyup, and DALeast, just to name a few.
But, despite the well-organized success of such groups, street art and graffiti are still controversial, sometimes even when sponsored and curated. Just a few weeks ago, a piece that had gone up only weeks earlier on Kenmare Street by artist SHOK-1, a piece sponsored by a local business owner and The L.I.S.A Project, was tagged and subsequently buffed at the artist’s request. To replace the piece, The L.I.S.A Project called on the duo of MINT and SERF, collectively known as MIRF, who invited their friends of PPP, the Peter Pan Posse, to join them.
The result was a little unlike anything the group had brought to the neighborhood previously, and represented an interesting take on the concept of a sponsored piece of street art. As artist MINT explained to Animal New York in an article that describes the short life of the piece, “At this stage, I am not interested in a sense of perfection or precision, in fact just the opposite. In a way the chaos is the reflection of what graffiti is to me.” Partner SERF continued on to say, “I honestly do not feel that it has enough graffiti. 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.”
Unfortunately, this fresh, albeit nostalgic, approach was not well received. Within days, the piece was entirely covered or buffed and it appears that the wall will not soon be used for another piece. The owner of the store that provided the wall was not pleased with this second installment from The L.I.S.A. Project, stating to Animal New York, that “it makes my shop look like a junkyard.” And so, despite the positive intentions and a general acceptance of such efforts, there are still lines, and there is still an uncertainty about how far is too far. Nevertheless, legal or illegal, sponsored or not, street art and graffiti have been an important element of the aesthetic of the neighborhood for decades, and although it is a constantly evolving aesthetic, it is not one that is likely to disappear any time soon.
All photographs were taken by Justin Paul Ware in 2013 and 2014.