STREET ART IN NEW YORK
Murals by alumni graffiti artists Meres One, ChrisRWK, Sienide, and Zimad

From Bushwick to the Bowery, from Hunts Point to Greenpoint, New York City neighborhoods feature some of the most eye-popping murals in the world.

Street art arose from graffiti culture and now encompasses many kinds of outdoor paintings and sculptures, both legal and not—but the term connotes a certain level of aesthetic merit. Graffiti has traditionally been the bane of real-estate owners and city government, but some artists use their spray cans to beautify, rather than deface, exterior walls.

“Historically, property owners and developers have tended to consider graffiti a sign of decay that lowers property values,” urban anthropologist Elizabeth Greenspan wrote in a May 2014 article for The New Yorker website. “But that was before people started finding grittiness really cool.”

Nowadays, murals cover up graffiti-ridden walls and draw visitors to up-and-coming neighborhoods. Corporations hire street artists to add urban chic to store openings, condo developments, and office interiors. And they provide a creative outlet—and a steady income—for a tight-knit community of artists, including the FIT alumni whose (legal) work is displayed on these pages.

 

CHRIS “ROBOTS WILL KILL” CHILLEMI
Fine Arts ’98

When ChrisRWK was first taking his comic-inspired work around to galleries, he heard the same thing over and over: “Come back when you have more showing experience.” Since this door in the face left him no chance for a foot in the door, he and a friend launched RobotsWillKill.com, a website for both fine and graffiti artists to show their work. The name refers to the kind of repetitious, robotic life that could kill a person’s creativity. The site not only created a community for fledgling artists but also became ChrisRWK’s calling card and bolstered his career: he has shown work in galleries from New York to Belgium.

His street art shares themes and characters with his fine art. For the mural above, spray-painted on a Bushwick wall that Chris and his collaborators have painted and repainted for years, he depicted his signature robot, PoBoy (Prosthetic Organic Bot of Youth), as well as some wide-eyed kids who engage the viewer while repelling attempts to understand them.

The piece was an instant hit. The paint dried right before Hurricane Sandy shut down New York in October 2012, and even before public transportation was restored, pictures of the wall started popping up on Instagram.

 

JONATHAN “MERES” COHEN
Illustration

Of the alumni featured here, Meres is the most closely linked to traditional graffiti culture. In this subset of street art, practitioners “write”—i.e., spray-paint—more and more elaborate versions of their street name. They begin with a tag, or simple signature, and slowly learn to write “pieces,” larger works complete with backgrounds. “Wildstyle,” the highest achievement for graffiti artists, uses jagged, dimensional letters embellished with arrows and other extensions. By this point, the letters are inscrutable to most people, but the effect is mesmerizing.

Meres writes in wildstyle. He originally chose “Mere” as his name because he liked writing those letters, then added the “s” to make it more complicated. Now he’s Meres One “because I’m the only one!” he says.

He creates upwards of 100 pieces a year. His art has been shown on Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, in ads for Heineken and Fiat, and in the 2013 movie Now You See Me. He has also painted walls in hotels and restaurants, including a number of pieces for the N’vY Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, which he did with fellow alumnus Luis “Zimad” Lamboy, Textile/Surface Design ’87.

But Meres is most proud of being the founder and curator of 5Pointz, which was possibly the most recognizable street art gallery in the world before it was demolished in 2013. (See “The Rise and Fall of 5Pointz” at the end of this article.)

 

Sienide
Illustration MA ’09, BFA ’09

Sienide received his first commission, $500 to paint a video store in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx, when he was just 13. His street name is an acronym of Success Iz Everything Now I Deliver Ether, with “Iz” honoring the late Iz the Wiz, a legend in the graffiti world.

Decades later, he still paints murals, recently brightening up the walls of a post office, hospitals, courthouses, and the Children’s Aid Society, all in the Bronx. He often gets work by approaching the owners of heavily tagged walls with a digital mockup of how the wall would look once the graffiti has been covered by his art. More often than not, they give him the green light.  In this mural, on the rooftop of a hardware store in the Bronx, he depicted his musical heroes, including salsa star Ruben Blades, shown here. He sketched on paper, then spray-painted freehand on the wall.

“Street art should relay a message and inspire people,” he says. “I try to go out there and say something, contribute something to the world, make somebody feel something: anger, disgust, happiness, or sadness. If they don’t, I’m doing something wrong.”

 

Luis “Zimad” Lamboy
Textile/Surface Design ’87

LamboyZimad, who has been hired to paint all over the world, got the name Zimad when he was just 14. It references a graffiti writer he admired named Mad2.

Rather than sketch, he just lets the wall “dictate what it wants,” keeping in mind rules of balance and proportion. Animals and plants, particularly birds, bring life into the work. He also incorporates textures and patterns, using techniques he learned as a Textile/Surface Design student.

“I’m a gallery artist, graffiti artist, and street artist in one,” he says.

This trippy wall in Bushwick represents “an ancient alien creating nature on a fifth-dimensional plane.” The bird with a crown, based on Ancient Egyptian birdheaded gods, is one of his signature characters, and the mushrooms recall an Alice in Wonderland wall he did at 5Pointz, the graffiti hub in Long Island City that was torn down in 2013.

 

THE RISE AND FALL OF 5POINTZ

5Pointz, an abandoned factory in Long Island City covered in murals, was possibly the most famous outdoor gallery in the world. In 2013, when the building’s owner whitewashed it in preparation for tearing it down, New York lost one of its artistic treasures.

The building had been a graffiti mecca for decades.

In the ’90s, it was referred to as the Phun Phactory, a place where graffiti artists could practice legally. But as the neighborhood gentrified, the Wolkoff family, who owned the building, wanted to improve the quality of the work on display. In 2002, FIT alumnus  Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen, was brought in to curate the space, inviting artists from all over the world to cover the building in murals. He called it 5Pointz, marking it as a place where the five boroughs could come together.

“When we reached our peak,” Meres says, “every mural was museum quality. We got six to ten tour buses every day. 5Pointz was hands down the biggest tourist attraction in Queens.”
But in fall 2013, with real-estate values in Long Island City skyrocketing, the Wolkoffs announced plans to build apartment towers on the site. Before preservationists could rally, the walls had been painted white. “There was no warning, no chance to salvage something,” Meres laments. “There was so much history there.”

Despite the gallery’s demise, 5Pointz remains a cultural touchstone for New Yorkers and an Alamo for street artists. And Meres is proud of what he facilitated. “It was a place where anyone could paint,” he says. “If I died today, I’d be ecstatic that I left my mark.”

greyline2
Check out this time lapse video of Meres One painting a mural at 5Pointz.

greyline2Title photograph by Dani Reyes Mozeson, Illustration ’07