By Brian J Pape, AIA
A phenomenon of the pandemic, or a response to vandalism?
We are hard-pressed to decipher between them as we passed the boarded up business windows throughout the city.
First, the COVID-19 virus spreads throughout the world; governments began to lock down their cities in efforts to contain the spread and save lives. My city too was now locked down, and at first, it was just locked doors and gates.
Then, with the tragic death of George Floyd at the knees of police, many people were inspired to demand social justice. They held many rallies and went out to protest, peacefully. Unfortunately, some people took advantage of those crowds and used violence as a form of expression.
Soon many businesses were vandalized and looted, and they were worried when the next protest would be, and what might happen; they wanted to be ready, so they used plywood to board up their business windows. Block after block, all you could see was plywood; the streets looked like they were ready for a hurricane.
During this time, we began to see, on the plywood, some graffiti and some drawings. As the days went on, the art became more elaborate and bold.
I made an acquaintance with a photojournalist who is inspired to document and share what is happening around us, including at this time of a pandemic. I soon learned that she had talked to the street artists and photographed their art.
Here are excerpts from my interviews with Christiana Cintron.
“I took photos of the workers putting up the plywood. I photographed drawings in my part of town. I was casually telling a friend about the artwork, and she told me that her neighborhood of Soho was covered up in drawings. When we parted, I decided to take a walk over there, in spite of being tired, and the 90-degree hot humid weather.
Block after block, the artists had made the most beautiful guerilla artwork, non-commissioned artwork, works of expression. It was truly amazing.”
“As I photographed these artworks, I knew that I was doing something very important, because who knew how long they would even be there? At times other guerilla artists will draw on top of someone else’s drawing, never mind also that the business owners themselves would remove the plywood. Unfortunately, all that great art is gone, except for the photos I and other people took to document a time when many talented artists came out to express their values, their beliefs in social justice and equality—that they told the world “we are here.” These artists used the plywood as their CANVAS, as a means of social justice expression. They took to the streets, to change the world.”
The time came when businesses felt it was safe to remove the plywood and once again open their doors. No one had been paid or commissioned to enliven our barren street walls during the lock-down; perhaps no one got to preserve the artwork. But we who stayed in the city got to enjoy our own outdoor art galleries for many months.
Christiana Cintron is working on a photo book of her work. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “Green” Architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and is a journalist for architecture subjects.