The Art Gallery in the Streets: A Look at the Lower East Side Murals

By Andrea Bolivar and Olivia Sullivan

Audrey of Mulberry, painted in August of 2013 by Tristan Eaton, welcomes people to Little Italy.

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.

At the corner of Bowery Street and E. Houston Street, Tristan Eaton is on day six of painting his latest creation, “Intermission.” He plans to complete the nine-day project by July 1, 2018. “This isn’t a mural to rush, so I’m taking my time,” he said.

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 Elizabeth Street, nestled in Little Italy, Danny Minnick’s energetic piece, made in May of 2018, creates a talking point for passers by.

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.

On the west-facing wall outside rag & bone on E. Houston Street, Alex Proba’s design grabs the attention of customers from blocks away.

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.”

At 125 Chrystie Street, the location of Keith Haring’s old apartment, artist “Crash” collaborated with Coach in February 2018 to honor the prominent pop artist.
“The first big mural I did, I got eight people to donate $500 each to raise the money I needed to have the budget,” said Tristan Eaton about his mural, LIBERTY, completed in September, 2012. “I raised my own money to do a huge wall by myself. And then people started calling me once they saw it.”
Once an abstract mural of red wine bottles being drawn into rings of blue and green, Abigail Leora’s work for the 100 Gates Project in June of 2016, sponsored by Tiger Brewing Co., has since been graffitied over with an extraterrestrial spin.
Nestled in Little Italy, Beau Stanton painted this mural for the L.I.S.A. Project NYC, in 2013. The non-profit brings street artists together to support and expand the mural district.
Located in Manhattan’s Chinatown, this picture by Michel Velt, Loomit and BERT was painted for East Village Walls, an organization that aims “to make the streets a little nicer.”
In collaboration with Coach, The DR¡F brings together his signature character, “The Bunny,” with the classic Coach logo.
Jas Petersen, who goes by the street name Jas of Chicago, bestowed this piece “Fastgirls”, on the corner of Kenmare Street and Mott Street.
The legendary John Lennon and Yoko Ono command the spotlight in this piece by The DR¡F and MuckRock.
Graffiti artist Nicer, born Hector Nazario, works in a group called TATS Cru which consists of three muralists, transforming the Lower East Side into an artistic haven.

Photos by Olivia Sullivan