Mid-Lockdown New York’s Artists Take Back the Streets
By Katie Cercone
As Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the May 25th police murder of George Floyd flared across the nation, with blockbuster images of looted Targets and shattered storefronts in their wake, Soho’s luxury brand retailers rested assured their fortresses of status-symbol high price tag rags stood protected. According to Elizabeth Peyton writing for the New York Times in the final days of March, luxury brands like Fendi and Chanel, “once-buzzing retail arteries,” boarded up their storefronts with massive cuts of plywood “in anticipation of riots and civil disobedience.”
If New Yorkers sheltered-in at the Covid-19 epicenter weren’t already on edge, amidst escalating media hysteria and a brutal economic fallout, the number of recent deaths of Black folks at the hands of the police force, more visible than ever before through the power of smartphones and social media, has catalyzed into a global reckoning. Whether qualified by the disproportionate number of people of color that have died from corona, suffered police violence or became unemployed as a result of the pandemic, the truth of 400 years of institutionalized racism in the United States has reared its ugly head in a massive way, signaling an urgent need for reform. Whether acted out through massive protests flooding the streets and overtaking roadways, artful interventions in public space or instagram live, the people are taking their power back.
As the days of lockdown waged on, for artists of New York City, the massive blank wood panels lining the streets of historic Soho became the ad hoc canvas par excellence. What began as a few brazen folks venturing out of their homes with surgical masks, hand sanitizer and paint, quickly grew to what eventually amounted to hundreds of participating artists and thousands of works lining the quaint, cobblestone streets of Manhattan’s quintessential fashion promenade. The natural outgrowth by word of mouth quickly mushroomed to include families, children, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, Blue Movement and Black Lives Matter activists holding court with paint and pomp in the New Soho.
Some artists took to painting massive compositions, thrilled at the prospect of an opulent canvas and rapt viewing audience. In other areas we see common protest slogans like “Say Their Names” scrawled in haste, followed by a list of recent victims of police brutality such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin… ending with “And too Many More.” Another painting features the faces of Floyd, Taylor and Arbery hovering against a stark yellow background. A COACH store looks more like Coachella, nearby a larger than life Floyd wheat-paste with a trippy neon background. A nearby tag reads “Vote Blue,” another urges viewers to sign one of the many petitions. In another storefront a black mermaid stands poised adjacent a poem by Audre Lorde, famous poet and civil rights activist. Enlarged black and white reproductions of first-responders are framed by plywood borders. Many professional visual and graffiti artists signed their works with IG handles, others hooked commissions from brands capitalizing on the New Soho hype.
Although the majority of protest actions have been peaceful, and it’s generally agreed that the looters are not tied to the greater protest movement, recent organizing on the luxury retail store lined streets of Soho sheds light on the quicksilver pulse of the collective consciousness. With the country’s economy in dire straits, and nearly 40 million Americans now on unemployment, the targeting of Manhattan’s luxury mall feels like a natural result of the growing sense of inequality, including a deep-seated resentment against the 1%. In a vivid editorial showcasing images of luxury stores looted and vandalized during recent protests, complete with ‘eat the rich’ graffiti tags, Dominic-Madori Davis reports that while Americans face unprecedented rates of unemployment due to coronavirus-related layoffs, CNBC reported on May 21 that America’s billionaires had collectively become $434 billion richer.
For an article in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan reflects on the looting phenomenon as historically “a lashing-out against capitalism, the police, and other forces that are seen as perpetuating racism.” She quotes a 1968 study by Dynes and Quarantelli noting that vandalism during protests can be seen as a “bid for the redistribution of property.” Attacks are typically made on objects and buildings that are “symbolic of other values,” more likely “symbols of authority” than civilian homes. New York City protestors did target the Upper East Side home of Mayor Cuomo in a mass silent gathering strategically timed for eight minutes—the length of time it took to extinguish Floyd’s life. As protests erupt across the city, the stylistic actions in Soho remain oriented around mostly paint and plywood.
Long-time painter and art-organizer Scotto Mycklebust notes that the majority of the Soho guerrilla artists appear to be women. Meanwhile, there are a few key female movers and shakers within the neighborhood whom have quickly orchestrated efforts to not only preserve the works, but to invest in a location where they can be transported and stored for a possible future exhibition. One such woman, Miriam Novella, not only spearheaded the transportation and preservation of the works, now in danger of being removed or trashed as the city enters phase 3, was also notable for mobilizing some of the first groups of artists to come paint. Groups such as Artpot, Inc., a start-up connecting artists with collectors, have gone as far as to create an outdoor virtual tour scanning of Greene Street from Spring to Grand St.
Must we not forget that Soho was—before escalating rents and aggressive gentrification pushed most artists to the far reaching outer boroughs—once the heart and center of the Art world. With New York City’s official reopening now well underway, and stores rolling out the red carpet to welcome potential consumers back, including some that have already capitalized on the grassroots art movement through ephemeral commissions to artists, it appears as though the New Soho is in danger of being rendered obsolete. With artworks commenting on the protests for Black lives, the pandemic, and the state of the world in general, these radical interventions in public space deserve to be archived for future generations.
Katie Cercone aka “High Prieztezz Or Nah” is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, scribe, yogi and spiritual gangsta. Cercone has been included in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Bronx Museum, Whitney Museum, Dallas Contemporary and C24 Gallery. She has published critical writing in ART PAPERS, White Hot, Posture, Brooklyn Rail, Hysteria, Bitch Magazine, Art511, Utne Reader and N.Paradoxa. She is co-leader of the queer, transnational feminist collective Go! Push Pops and creative director of ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS Urban Mystery Skool. Cercone was a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow for the U.S.-Japan Exchange Program in Tokyo. Follow her on instagram @0r__ nah_spiriturlgangsta and learn more at KatieCercone.com