The spirit of New Yorks’ 5 Pointz graffiti/street art holy place has popped up in the same Queens neighborhood where it was demolished in 2014, and since last summer more than 50 local and international aerosol artists have been hitting a new project “Top to Bottom“.
The choice of “Top to Bottom”, a graffiti term that recalls 1970s trains painted their entire height, is no mistake as creative director James P. Quinn reveres the classic style and histories of those original writers like internationally and institutionally celebrated artists Crash and Daze, who have collaborated on a mural here.
Additionally, in yet another sign that the celebration of art on the streets is ever more ecumenical, Quinn and his project lead Geoff Kuffner are bringing the newer street artists who are expanding and defining the current era for art in the streets like Case Ma’Claim and Rubin 415. Not surprisingly, both of these artists started in graffiti, as did nearly every name here.
“I felt like a comfortable amount of space should be allocated to certain styles,” says Quinn, as he describes the process of parceling out spots for the façade and roof of the 124,000-square-foot former warehouse. Truthfully, he tells us, not all the surfaces and shapes are attractive to graffiti artists, so a variety of styles is best.
“I tried to fit them in where I felt that graff writers could enjoy themselves and do something expansive. There are only a couple of spaces here that fit the epic, horizontally spaced forms of style writing. There are a lot of strange shapes to navigate as a painter here, rather than easy space to develop style as a writer.”
Quinn and Kuffner give a couple of visitors a tour around the entire block on a gray day where heavy fog hangs in the air obscuring the top half of Manhattan and they excitedly recall stories about the many installations in this first project of their newly formed Arts Org NYC. Using the word “garden” often, Quinn reiterates that this project for them is a “proof of concept” for bigger projects that will spread further through the city. “Ultimately I’m approaching it as a mural project,” says Quinn, who has organized mural programs a number of times since the 1990s. “It’s just a beginning.”
Street art has evolved into districts of murals in cities as a gentrification device in the last five years and despite the critique that it is often used for economic development, many urban art watchers would also agree that we’re in the middle of a renaissance of public/private art. Quinn says he wants to capture part of the public’s new interest and make it grow. “I’d like to leverage the current hype and acceptance of mural painting to open up doors to people – old women, young kids, everybody.”
The neighborhood itself feels like it is in transition but it is not clear where it is heading. With Silvercup Studios and the number 7 subway line nearby and MoMA PS1 within a 10 minute walk, a quick survey reveals mixed light industry, sweatshops, corner delis, and the occasional strip club. Below the off-ramp of the Queensboro Bridge, which sweeps past the “Top to Bottom” exhibition, you will see first and second generation immigrants from the areas’ latin and African communities walking by, and Quinn reminds you that the Queensbridge Projects where Hip-Hop storyteller NAS grew up is just a short walk from here.
Conversation turns to plans for more focused programming on the walls in Phase II, possible fine art shows with local gallery spaces, and ultimately a city-wide mural project that offers art and art-making to greater audiences, including school kids.
“I do feel like murals get focused in certain locations but I feel like the entire city as a whole is still suffering. Huge demographics aren’t getting the painting,” he says, invoking the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. “I feel like my ‘I Have a Dream’ speech about this project is that I hope it gets to the point where 10 year-olds can have as much access to a neighborhood as developers.”
Does he think that projects like this are pawns for business interests to draw investments into the neighborhood and push poorer populations out? “You can debate whether or not we are opening the way for more shiny condos… but that shit is happening whether we do this or not. For me the importance is keeping us here; So we’re not totally pushed out 30-45 minutes away from here”
Because of its proximity to the now destroyed 5 Pointz, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of urban artists painted a much larger block repeatedly for two decades, we ask Quinn if he’s concerned with comparisons.
“I’ve always managed other projects like this in my own style and my own way. There are comparable aspects and I have nothing but a huge sensitivity and respect for Meres and 5 Pointz,” he says, referring to the artist and de facto director of the hallowed spot. “It’s comparable only because it’s a building and it’s in Long Island City. But this is only a jump-off. I want to do way more projects like this across the city.”
As the business partners walk past new pieces by DMote, Li-Hill, Icy & Sot, and Jick, the topic of the historically strained relationship between graffiti writers and street artists appears to be addressed head-on by the project by the inclusion of all manner of painter. The guys say that it is less of an issue than some people would have you think. As a long-time artist and muralist and curator of projects like this, Quinn says he’s over the supposed rivalry of the two camps, and sees mainly just one camp these days.
“I don’t know what the fans of graffiti or Street Art have any problem with. To me it’s all awesome.”
Erasmo (photo © Jaime Rojo) For more about ArtsOrg please go to www.artsorg.nyc. #ArtsOrgNYC and @artsorg on Instagram
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