The Art Gallery in the Streets: A Look at the Lower East Side Murals
By Andrea Bolivar and Olivia Sullivan
The June midday sun blazed down on Tristan Eaton, his stubbly face flushed with sweat. He shook a can of hot pink spray paint and pressed down on the nozzle. Elevated 15 feet into the air on a red scissor lift, he created a swirl of juicy strawberries, glistening snake bodies and gray women. The word “Intermission” written in bold, white cursive stretched across the canvas, the side of a building on the Bowery.
“Absolutely beautiful! Absolutely stunning!” cheered a middle-aged woman, wearing a fatigued jacket, her short dreadlocks bouncing with enthusiasm.
“It’s my design. I’m painting it top to bottom,” a proud Eaton bellowed back.
The work of Eaton, 40, a fixture on the ever-growing Lower East Side mural scene, can be found as far flung as Boras, Sweden and Newcastle, Australia. His latest project is this Houston Bowery Wall, a revolving outdoors gallery space which showcases a different artist every few months. He says of this piece, “It’s going to be an intermission; a break from the horror.”
This wall is just one of dozens of murals in this gritty, arty quartier. It’s hard to walk a block in the half-square-mile neighborhood without stumbling on, say, a painting of black-and-white angel wings, a six-foot-tall bowl of noodles, or a line of dancing skeletons.
On brick walls, sides of dilapidated buildings and rusty roll-down gates, famous muralists such as The DR¡F, Yoon Hyup, and Sonni have left their mark on the Lower East Side. Even Banksy, arguably the world’s most famous street artist, traveled from England to join the crowd. He preceded Eaton at the Bowery Street Mural with a portrait of Zehra Dogan, a Turkish-Kurdish artist and journalist who was imprisoned for a painting. Set against a white backdrop, her face peeked through four parallel lines that symbolized her days in jail.
The wealthy benefactors of this open air gallery don’t always share the progressive politics of the artists themselves. Big mainstream companies, such as Coach, rag & bone, and Goldman Properties have commissioned artists to create compelling and larger-than-life works of art.
According to its website, a real estate and hospitality company, Goldman Properties, owns the Houston Bowery Wall, and decided in the late 1970s to “bring art and beauty to the public on a grand scale.” The company, founded by Tony Goldman, an American real estate developer, chooses a different street artist every four months to paint a new mural.
Rag & bone, a chic clothing store a few steps away from the Houston Bowery Wall, partnered with Alex Proba, a designer, to decorate the shop’s exterior walls with abstract and brightly colored splotches and circles. Likewise, Coach commissioned The DR¡F, an expressionist artist based in the East Village, to paint murals of bunnies with the luxury clothing chain’s logo.
Countless more established artists have teamed up with flourishing businesses to take their work to the streets.
Support of muralists is deep rooted here among more humble souls as well. Jose Lugo, a transit inspector who has spent all of his 59 years in New York City, contemplated street art during a smoke break. “I see them, I look at them, I admire them because it takes a lot of work, you know. It’s not easy,” he said, standing against a wall of the Essex Street Market, where a vast mural of palm trees and oranges draws customers.
Randall Rosa, 27 agrees. His brother is The DR¡F.
“There needs to be more art, if anything. It helps the community, it diversifies it in a lot of different ways, and I think it’s a great addition to the neighborhood,” said Rosa.
He pointed dismissively to a dirty, red wall where someone had tried, with limited success, to paint over graffiti. “Instead of something that’s, like, across the street right now, something that’s wack, you’d rather see something that’s really beautiful and took a lot of time.”
Photos by Olivia Sullivan