West Chelsea Street Art: alive and ungentrified

Street/fine artist Anthony Lister puts a creepy face on Billy Marks dive Bar  

ASK ANYONE who lives (as opposed to absentee-invests) in artsy West Chelsea and they'll tell you it's becoming "artless." All but the bluest of blue chip galleries are fleeing to (slightly) more affordable zip codes, no thanks to rampant "condo-mania."  Three of my favorites - Lori Bookstein Fine Art, Alexander and Bonin and Andrew Edlin, which formed an artsy little men-art a trois on 10th Ave have been swept away by the winds of gentrification.

So it I was thrilled to discover that street artists are alive and doodling, pasting, spraying and "throwing up" (in a good way - I'll explain later) in the nabe, on a tour hosted by "recovering street artist," Patrick Waldo.

Recovering from what, Patrick? A fall from a ladder at 2am while tagging an Absolut billboard? 

"I got caught," said the impossibly tall, millennial-apparent Waldo. He's got all the right creds to be leading this tour:  a couple of arrests for graffiti-ing (check), stints of community service as punishment (check), and impressively, his signature doodle (most probably) ripped off and t-shirted by the likes of fashion juggernaut Zara (a big fat check, though unfortunately, not the kind that pays the rent). 

In a bit of a one-eighty, Patrick is now studying historic preservation at Pratt as well as co-chairing Save Chelsea, a local advocacy group that fights to preserve historic neighborhood sites. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done:  Save Chelsea recently lost a spirited battle to save the oldest house in the neighborhood from "glassification" (ie turning into a mass of polished concrete, steel, glass, carrara marble, giant fiddle-leaf figs in urns and Barcelona chairs). 

A moment's silence for the oldest house in Chelsea, please. 

Now, let's get walking and gawking... 

Patrick uses his iPad to show us the extended oeuvre of street artists in Chelsea
Starting at 29th street (and working our way south)

First gawk was at the large, creepy face decorating the Billy Marks dive bar by Australian street artist Anthony Lister, who sells to serious collectors around the world. According to Patrick, far from seeing street art as a scourge, some business owners welcome of a bit of creative bling on their buildings to keep things interesting. Sometime the artist is commissioned, sometimes the commission is merely permission. 

"Selling art frees these artists to do what they really want," said Patrick, "like going back onto the street and improving their craft."

The next stop was the instantly recognizable, (to me) balloon-heads of Kenny Scharf painted on a warehouse roller door.  Another street artist done good, Scharf sells his canvases for tens of thousands right behind those roller doors.

Another street artist done good: Kenny Scharf adorns the roller door of a gallery 
"He hasn't quite reached the same recognition - or prices - as his former roomate Keith Haring - probably because he isn't dead yet," said Patrick, showing us a photo of a technicolor room in Brooklyn the pair created and partied hard in with other artists back in the day.

Throwing up in the street 

"Throwing up" or "filling in" is the street art term for painting over and otherwise obscuring another street artists's work.  In the example below, Kenny Scharf's balloon heads have been painted over by a big, fat silver "throw up" ... it does have a purple lining, though:
Kenny Scharf obscured by a "throw-up"or "fill in" - when an artist obscures the work of another 
Why do artists throw up on other artists? To grab the limelight (or rather, streetlight) of course. "And sometimes they don't even know who they are covering up," shrugged Patrick.

A Wing and a prayer (for the rest of us)

One truly delightful discovery was a delicate glass mosaic bird glued to walls and lamp posts by a female street artist called Wing, aka Whitney Bird. I can honestly say, if it weren't for our eagle-eyed guide, we would have walked right by them. On her website Wing writes, "anchoring delicate glass to various forms of urban deterioration is a manifestation of the tenuous state of relations between humans and the natural world."

Wing aka Whitney Bird makes delicate glass mosaics, mostly of birds
We spotted Wing in several spots, including this wrap-around 
More Wing (with mirrored pieces) fluttering outside the Comme de Garcon store on 22nd street
Next stop was a panoramic mural by Andy Golub who's apparently more associated with painting stark naked volunteers in the street. Ironically, as Patrick showed us on his iPad, it is often the volunteer who is arrested, not Golub:
A large mural on 25th St by Andy Golub, also known for using nude volunteers as a canvas
Look up and Read More 

Then Patrick told us to look up at a simple message, executed at a dizzying height, right at the top of a building. There was You Go Girl (often abbreviated to YGG) and Read More, a mysterious artist who promotes the idea of reading more.

"Both these are done with a roller while leaning over the top of the building," said Patrick.

Look up: Street artists You Go Girl and Read More use rollers to write their messages along the top of buildings - where cops never look. 
Graffiti vs Street

Which brings us to the distinction between graffiti artists and street artists. According to Patrick, graffiti artists sneak out while everyone's asleep and do a hit and run with their spray can or brush.  In contrast, street artists often prep their piece in the comfort of their studio, and then venture out to paste it up.

"The graffiti artists consider themselves the read deal compared to street artists," says Patrick, which leads to some of the aforementioned throw ups - that is, painting or spraying over other people's work.

Under the radar

There are some sneaky ways to get your art on the street without attracting the attention of the "vandal squad," ie the police. 

"One way is to carry a shopping bag with your stencil cut in the bottom," said Patrick. You kneel down pretending to fish for something in your bag, then psssssht your spray can and off you go -  no one is the wiser." This Trump face was possibly executed in this manner: 

A lot of "dump Trump" themed art is appearing on the streets
Talking heads and biking butts

The famous David Byrne, a serious New York biking icon, and has cemented himself even further into the NYC street scene via these whimsical bike racks scattered around town. Byrne apparently scribbled his ideas on a napkin while at dinner with the former Dept of Transport Commissioner, Janet Sadik-Khan, who, just like she did with bike lanes, made it happen.

The famous David Byrne designed a series of sculptural bike racks - which have also been tagged and stickered. 
Above and below: Patrick shows us some of the other Byrne bike racks

The Stikman's shtick + friends

Stikman is a mysterious little skeletal figure that's often seen on crosswalks. He's been appearing all over the the world for around 20 years, and recently switched to other media, like wood.

Above and below: The Stikman has been putting his little reflective man all over the world for years

The Stikman executes his art in other mediums

Paul Richard is another artist done very well for himself. Collected by the likes of Elton John, Larry Ellison and Christina Aguilera, he still finds time to drip some artful paint on concrete canvases in Chelsea.

"Again, having success enables a street artist to fund some of their more more subversive works - like street art," said Patrick.
A drip paining by Paul Richard.

Possibly the most elaborate work of the tour was a giant mural by the masterful Pixel Pancho looming above the empty, languishing Empire Diner. A closer look at the top of mural reveals a nod to HG Contemporary - perhaps his gallery or sponsor.

"Quite often a paint company, or maybe even the owner of the building will sponsor an artist mural to get more eyeballs on it," said Patrick. "It's a great way to market a property, as well as build the artist's reputation."

Pixel Pancho painted this massive work near 21st St "which can bring eyeballs to a property that's for sale."

The signatures at the top suggest the mural was commissioned by local gallery HG Contemporary

Love Me,  love my wallet

Scribbled on a lamp post, a simple doodle proclaimed "Love Me." The aforementioned fashion juggernaut Urban Outfitters, known as the purveyor of "homeless chic" commissioned artist Curtis Kulig to bless a whole line of Love Me merchandise. Apparently, this didn't go down well with some street art aficionados, perhaps because the artist made a bit of coin. Which brings to mind Gore Vidal: "Every time a friend succeeds I die a little..."

 Love Me by Curtis King netted the artist a big deal with Urban Outfitters. 
Beuys the treehugger

The tour took an ecological turn with the late Joseph Beuys' installation, 7000 Oaks. In 1982, as a participant to the 5-yearly Documenta 7 art event held in Germany,  he proposed planting 7000  of oak trees accompanied by a large vertical basalt rock, each approximate 4 feet high. Wikipedia sheds light on Beuys' motivation:

“I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places.... ” (Joseph Beuys in conversation with Richard Demarco, 1982)
Above and below: Joseph Beuys designed this street installation such that 7000 rocks were "planted" beside 7000 trees all over the world.  
Apparently, some people viewed Beuys' work  as "parking lot destroyers" and "a motorcyclist died" - presumably colliding into one of the rocks. But gradually they softened - unlike the hunk of basalt.

EKG: putting the pulse back into the city

In contrast to the elaborate murals of Pixel Pancho and Andy Golub,  EKG "somewhere between a street artist and graffiti artist" doodles a bright orange heartbeat symbol on doors, garbage bins, walls - generally below eye level.

"Each time you encounter one of his tags, you get a sense that we are all somehow connected through the city. EKG reminds us all that it is our collective energy — the people — that brings life to NYC"  says StreetMuseumofArt.org.

A simple EKG tag in which the 50 something artist aims to put the "heart" back into NYC
Invading West Chelsea

And so to one of the most famous street artists of all time, Space-Invader, aka simply Invader. No introduction needed, especially if you're of a certain age ... Invader encourages you to make your own Invader-style mosaic on the FAQ of his website:

Is it possible to own a Space Invader? How do people acquire one of your works?
The most economical solution is to buy tiles and to create your own at home. It is not a very difficult assembly work and it is possible to find similar types of tiles I use.The second solution is to purchase an "invasion kit". It is a ready-to-use limited edition of a Space Invader. They are produced at the studio and sold in the Space Shop. It is at the same time a conceptual and functional object. Finally, for people who wants a unique art piece, they can seek for an Alias, which is the exact replica of the unique work in the street. There is one and only Alias for any past or present works present in the streets. Every Alias comes with a signed certificate of authenticity. Art Collectors should contact Over The Influence for any available pieces.
[There aren't any. I, somewhat eagerly, looked - CG]

In fact, I'm fully expecting Home Depot to come out with ready-to-stick tile packs just in time for Christmas:

Look up - you're about to be invaded...  green piece by Invader is made from Rubik's cubes.
 People have tried to chop bits of it off as souvenirs.

As Patrick shows on his iPad, Invader even strapped a rocket to a piece and sent it into deep space wearing a Go Pro.
The photos shows it made it pretty far. 
You can get this close to it if you have a ladder and the gall to souvenir a bit of this work for yourself.

Invader invades the NYC Dept of Sanitation - I passed by this every morning and night on my daily commute. 
A few more finds follow:

Big brands are always ripe for streetartification...

City kitty, featuring cats and flowers with eyeballs

A striking blue pagoda by Shin Shin

And while we're at it, check out the Dan Flavin installation in the building over the road (colored fluorescent tubes)

The recovering street artist revealed

Patrick saved the best for last - his own street art contribution. He led us down to 22nd street and 11th Ave in a chill wind that suddenly became arctic. There, to his dismay, he discovered that the poster he'd tagged the night before (just for our tour) had already been ripped half off the wall... 

One of Patrick's very own works, mounted the day before, were already vandalized by someone the next day
However, were were in luck: just a few paces back back down the street, he found the rest of his work blowing around on the sidewalk. His art? Scrawling the word "Moustache" above the upper lip of faces in advertising posters.
But just up the road we found it! 
He showed us articles where his escapades - and brushes with the "vandalism police" -  have been written up in the media circa 2012. Google "moustache man patrick waldo" to read several articles. Here's one and here's another.

Being arrested back in 2010 gives Patrick some serious street cred! 

Patrick's signature tag is  the word "Moustache" on advertising posters. 

There's that moustache
"I became obsessed," he said of his "moustache" phase, which was rapidly mimicked by others and shared on social media around the world. As I mentioned before, at one point it the word appeared on a t-shirt by fashion giant Zara. On calling them out, Patrick received a bunch of legalese absolving the company of any wrongdoing, but they pulled the t-shirt from the shelves anyway - and sent Patrick a few.

"I am now the owner of about a dozen Moustache t-shirts ... in women's sizes," he said.

Fashion juggernaut Zara appears to have stolen his idea and put Moustache on t-shirts. 
As the late fall darkness fell like an axe, we decided to simply google the nearby One World, One Voice mural by Brazilian twins Os Gemeos and head for a smashed avocado toast and chai latte at Underline coffee (this is Chelsea, remember).

One the way we spotted a hooded figure embedded in a box on a signpost - invoking a wave of nostalgia. It was reminiscent of the dioramas of my childhood - the microworlds I created in shoeboxes at primary school (you too?). This one was by an artist called Phil, whose name was painted on the figure's pink scarf. Peering into the box revealed a contribution by another street artist - the aforementioned Stikman.

Would Patrick get back his nerve and scribble "Moustache" on the upper lip of the hooded figure?

Nope. As co-president of Save Chelsea, Patrick is now focussed on preserving the canvases under the art: the buildings, walls and streetscapes of historic Chelsea.

Patrick spots a traffic-lamp installation, with a number of contributors. 
A shot of this piece on a sunnier day

One World, One Voice mural by Brazilian twins Os Gemeos 

You can follow Patrick at: @MoustacheManNYC

Save Chelsea:  www.savechelseany.org - neighborhood preservation group led by co-presidents Laurence Frommer and Patrick Waldo

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This story was first published on November 17, 2017


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