Curator of an urban canvas
The Gatekeeper of New York's 'graffiti mecca,' 'Meres' decides who paints – and how long it stays.
(Page 2 of 2)
Listen in on the class, and you'd swear you were hearing a foreign language. Some translations, then: a "tag" is an artist's basic signature; a "piece" is a signature with a detailed font and colors; and a "production" or "mural" is a scene with a concept.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
On a recent muggy Friday afternoon at 5 Pointz, this dialect was in full force as old-school graffiti artists reminisced. Louie Gasparro (aka KR1), who has made aerosol art since 1977 as an 11-year-old tagging trains and alleys, remembers when he could tell what borough he was in by the graffiti style. Now, he says, styles from all over the world fuse into one another.
"Back in the day, you couldn't do elaborate pieces like this," says Mr. Gasparro in a thick New York accent, pointing to works that took weeks to create. As graffiti has become more accepted at places like 5 Pointz, he says, it's improved because artists can paint without the fear of being fined or chased by police. Instead of minutes, they can dedicate days, weeks, or months to a single work. But 5 Pointz is the exception, not the rule. "There should be more places like this," says Gasparro.
"It's another world away from the world," says Cohen.
Yet part of the appeal of 5 Pointz is its lack of isolation: The fact that this world is clearly visible from the subway ensures a steady flow of curious eyes. And there's another magnet nearby. P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, is across the street. When people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, unexpectedly see 5 Pointz on the way to or from the museum, they are inexorably drawn to it by a mixed sense of enchantment and disbelief. A common reaction of passersby, says Cohen, is, "'Wow! Did you do all this with a can?'"
"It brings an audience that wouldn't be coming around here otherwise," he explains.
Last December, Cohen got a call from someone representing Joss Stone, the popular R&B singer. Ms. Stone wanted to use 5 Pointz as the backdrop for the music video of her song "Tell Me 'Bout It." Cohen had no idea who she was, but after talking to her, he gave her crew the go-ahead. He even did a mural of Stone's face for the video, in which he appears at the end.
Cohen also flew to Los Angeles to paint Stone's body for the cover of her latest album, "Introducing Joss Stone." He had never used powdery body paint before or painted anyone's entire body, but "I'll never turn down a job," he says.
This motto has led him to accept corporate work, too – an opportunity that might not have been conceivable in the early days of aerosol art. On that same muggy Friday that the old-school artists were painting at 5 Pointz, Cohen was in Brooklyn working on a mural that advertises iced tea. He does corporate gigs purely for the money, he says, but dismisses any talk of "selling out."
"I couldn't work a regular job and work 5 Pointz," he says. When he's not at a gig, he's volunteering his time there, and although he gets paid for commercial use of 5 Pointz for film or photography, he says he annually spends $10,000 of his own money on the building.
"He spends his life there and he doesn't get much for it," said Ms. Stone, the R&B artist. "It's all about the love for the art."
Money aside, Cohen has big dreams for 5 Pointz. He wants to open an aerosol art clothing and supply store, a museum, and an art school. Money considered, he realizes these dreams will cost a lot. "I take it year by year," he says.