Curator of an urban canvas
The Gatekeeper of New York's 'graffiti mecca,' 'Meres' decides who paints – and how long it stays.
Rembrandt has strange neighbors here: a cartoonish, gun-toting kid in baggy clothes, a psychedelic face melting into a wall, a bare-shouldered samurai girl with vampire teeth. Perhaps the Shakespeare look-alike would comfort the Dutch master – except the bard's image turns out to be a devilish red mask.Skip to next paragraph
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Welcome to what some consider the world's "graffiti mecca," where aerosol artists – their preferred term – come from all over the globe to paint the walls of this 200,000-square-foot warehouse in Queens. As the No. 7 subway thunders by 20 feet overhead, tourists and locals stroll around, sometimes for hours, cameras in hand and mouths agape. 5 Pointz, named for New York's five boroughs, is the biggest space in the city where aerosol artists can paint legally – as long as they pass muster with veteran graffiti artist Jonathan Cohen. Think of him as the volunteer curator of an outdoor art gallery, one where paint comes in spray cans, the canvas is cement, and artists are more likely to be blasting hip-hop then Haydn.
On any given day, someone is usually painting. But on the weekends, 5 Pointz buzzes. Twenty or more artists, dressed in baggy jeans and T-shirts, spray walls and crevices of the giant U-shaped building that houses artists' studios and garment manufacturers. They bring supplies, snacks, even their kids. If they're not painting, they're talking, getting acquainted with new talent or artists they've admired for decades.
Want to paint? Get permission. Dozens of spray-painted signs say to e-mail "Meres" – Mr. Cohen's "tag," or signature – for a permit. He asks artists he's not familiar with to show him sketches or photos of their work and, for big murals, a layout. He tells artists that he expects a lot from them and reminds them of how many people will see their work – and he prides himself on the results. "I could sell ice to an Eskimo," he says, smiling. Cohen believes that since he took over in 2002 from another volunteer supervisor, the quality of work has vastly improved. The warehouse owner, meanwhile, gets his building freshly painted daily – for free.
There's an egalitarian ethic here ... kind of.
"Anyone can paint," says Cohen. But not everyone's art stays up for long. Some works last 12 hours; other pieces remain for two years. The determining formula is "skill level times effort times concept."
This algebra of aesthetics is far removed from the simple awe of Cohen's early encounters with aerosol art. He still recalls books of subway graffiti and seeing a graffitied Smurf on a wall as a child. His reaction? "Yo, that's fresh!"
But his adoptive parents weren't wild about his new hobby. "'This is crap,'" Cohen recalls his father saying, while his mother pleaded with him, "'Just don't get arrested."
By age 17, he had sold a few paintings and dropped out of school. He later attended a GED program in the Bronx for young people passionate about aerosol art, and then enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he studied on-and-off for eight years while working full-time as a Manhattan bike messenger. He never graduated.
These days, the thin-faced, hazel-eyed Cohen is always on call, which may explain why his five o'clock shadow is closer to 10 o'clock. When he's not answering his cellphone or making sure the building isn't tagged illegally, he gives tours to interested onlookers. And every Sunday afternoon he teaches aerosol art to a class of 10 kids – after they earn their keep with two hours of scraping walls, painting them, and picking up trash.