Transforming Streets into Galleries

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A grant to the Lower East Side BID will pay for artists to turn security gates into paintings


  • Artist Jeessica Blowers at work on her mural of downtown artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Lower East Side The metal gates that cover storefronts at night often serve as blank slates for graffiti, but a pair of local artists wants to make them over into legitimate commissioned art spaces.

The city just awarded a Neighborhood Challenge Grant of $30,000 to the Lower East Side Business Improvement District (BID) to provide materials for artists to turn the metal gates that protect storefronts at night into public murals.

Called the “100 Gates Project,” it’s spearheaded by local skateboarder Billy Rohan and his girlfriend, the artist Jessica Blowers. They approached a few businesses last year about painting their metal gates but decided to expand their idea even bigger when they met Stanley George, the owner and pharmacist at Stanley’s Pharmacy, who had been looking for someone to paint his gate.

George and Blowers went back and forth about design ideas. “He wanted something to uplift the community,” Blowers said. “So when the gates are down people feel good instead of seeing all the graffiti on there.”

“It had to be all about bringing nature to the city,” George wrote. “That’s what our interior is about, so the exterior had to echo that vibe.”

So Blowers came up with the idea of painting cherry blossoms from the park in the spring. George liked the painting, but he went home that night and couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t right for the brand, he realized. His store was colored orange to symbolize health. So he had Blowers come back the next day and redo it, but this time as an orange tree.

A small crowd stopped in the street to watch Blowers work and George was so pleased he came back that night with his wife to look at it again.

“Stanley’s such a positive guy,” Rohan said. “He was like, ‘This could transform the whole city. This would be great for the neighborhood. He kind of inspired the whole thing.”

Although other businesses were interested, they were often reluctant to shell out the $300 it would cost for the paint. The new funding should provide plenty of metal canvas for the dozens of artists that Rohan said are interested in painting.

They believe this will make the Lower East Side an even bigger attraction for artists and art-lovers. One of Blowers first gate-murals was a portrait of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, near a park where Basquiat once lived. Not all of the work will have such a literal connection to the community. But Rohan and Blowers believe that by letting each mural be the expression of a unique artist’s vision, rather than a commissioned work by a business, the collective street gallery will represent the eclectic artistic sensibility of the Lower East Side.

The process of how businesses and artists will get matched up is still being worked out, according to Tim Laughlin, the executive director of the Lower East Side BID. “Everything will be unique and different, and that is very emblematic of what happens here on the Lower East Side,” Laughlin said.

Everyone is hoping that the murals will have a secondary benefit: deter taggers from vandalizing the storefronts with graffiti.

“In the graffiti world they want fame, that’s why they’re putting their name up everywhere,” Rohan said. “If you put that up over someone’s mural, that’s like saying you’re a dick, that’s the wrong kind of fame. Why do you want to be that kid that goes over someone else’s work?”

He’s seen the same thing work with skateboarding, a world he’s more familiar with. Business owners often got mad at kids for skateboarding in their neighborhoods. But when a skate-park went up, the kids suddenly had a place to express themselves. He’s hoping this project will encourage some street artists to participate rather than vandalize.

“I’m really still surprised that there still isn’t a place where kids can just go paint in the whole city in all five boroughs,” Rohan said. “You see that sort of thing a lot in Switzerland and France.”

Blowers and Rohan plan to start commissioning the first murals in April, when the weather warms up, and finish by the end of June.

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