The saints of the Village, painted on the streets of the Village
Harlem-based artist Tom Sanford installed his paintings on some scaffolding on East 4th Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery almost two weeks ago, so he’s glad to see they’re still there.
The works depict prominent downtowners like Allen Ginsberg (who lived on 12th Street); famous neighborhood crime-scene photojournalist Weegee; and CBGB's savior Joey Ramone, along with more recent hereoes of the neighborhood like Nuyorican Poets Cafe co-founder Miguel Piñero. His subjects' contributions were to a wide range of disciplines, and their territories stretch beyond the East Village proper and down into the Lower East Side and West Village. But Sanford wanted to see them together in one place.
“I made them with the understanding that they’re on the street,” he said of the panels, installed 14 feet above the sidewalk, not far from the experimental theater La Mama in one direction and the Ellen Stewart Theater in the other.
“I’d like to get them back," he said, "but I understand part of the bargain is that I might not.”
It's not that the authorities or property owners are likely to take them down, because this isn't an act of creative vandalism but part of a program, called ArtUp, created by the nonprofit Fourth Arts Block. The group, founded in 2001, is a sort-of block association for the specific pocket of East Village arts activity centered there. According to the group, more than a dozen arts groups, 10 cultural facilities and 17 performance and rehearsal venues line the block; an annual audience of 200,000 people is served on the block, as well as some 1,200 artists.
"FABnyc's ArtUp program reinvigorates spaces through public art and community partnerships," according to the group's website. "Since 2008, ArtUp has been transforming construction sites, scaffolding, and other underutilized space in the Lower East Side into street-side galleries."
But as formidable as the group's roster of activities and member institutions may be, they don't have their own police force, and it's always a possibility someone will simply take them down and trundle them home.
Yesterday morning, Sanford was standing across the street from where the works are installed, on scafoolding in front of a dormant rowhouse. All seven "saints" are drawn in Christian-iconography-influenced poses bearing personal symbols that resemble familiar iconography. Weegee holds a cigar and a camera, surrounded by police tape. Nearby, Charlie Parker resembles the Christ Pantocrator, substituting a saxophone for a bible and wearing a poppy to symbolize his addictions. Others include Piñero with a tattoo of the Nuyorican logo (he also gets a poppy for "biographical reasons” according to Sanford), and artist Martin Wong with brickwork symbolizing the elaborately textured architecture in many of his paintings.
“I think they’re very direct and readable paintings," Sanford said of his saints. "And they’re meant to be because they’re for a public audience. [I hope] people from the neighborhood know who at least a few of them are.”
He riffed on the area’s diverse art and culture scene, filled with a rich traditions of jazz and rock, beatniks and poets, writers and actors, but in the end he made the choices on who to feature based on his own predilections.
“It’s kind of like the cultural crucible of New York,” Sanford said. “And so it seemed to me that a cool thing to do would be to decide who my patron saints of the Lower East Side might be.”
Celebrities are a popular theme for Sanford, whose work mostly riffs on celebrity excess and lore, often mixed with imagery from religious iconography. He's remixed portraits of Mao Zedong and made a detailed painting of Dr. Dre getting stabbed at the 2004 Vibe Awards. In 2003, he tried to "become" Tupac Shakur—losing 30 pounds and working out, drinking Hennessy, and getting one of the rapper's tattoos ("2Pac") on his chest, all documented on a blog.
“Most of my work has something to do with history and celebrity and things like that, and sort of the deification of celebrity,” he said.
For Sanford, it’s a shift to have his work on the street, as opposed to in traditional galleries.
“I’m really not a street artist and so I’m very commodity oriented,” he said with a laugh. Working with help from fellow artist Graham Preston, Sanford worked in his studio to make gold-leafed backgrounds on the wood, and brought them downtown. He said when they were installing the work from the roof of a U-Haul truck, people shouted recollections of people like Joey Ramone and Piñero and added their two cents.
“Some elderly lady walked by and said, ‘Ginsberg looked much better than that,’” he said.
Central in the array is La MaMa theater founder Ellen Stewart, who died early last year. In her panel, she has her palm open as if to bless the neighborhood, while waving a cowbell, which she often used before the start of shows.
“A lot of this wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for her,” said curator Keith Schweitzer, who is in charge of programming the public art in the neighborhood. “She’s sitting there in the center and ringing her cowbell to kind of announce the show. I think that’s been a nice touch for a lot of people in the area.”
Sanford's art is the capstone on a neighborhood effort to enliven the streets with murals and art, and it stands out, even in a block-long cultural district encompassing theaters, workshops, and dance studios.
“From starting off with just one scaffolding bridge and a coffee shop to kind of creating art in every street going down the district, it’s been a good accomplishment for this season,” Schweitzer said.
Tamara Greenfield, executive director of the Fourth Arts Block, a non-profit that encompasses a dozen local cultural institutions, said she’s seen a lot of people stopping to look at the piece since it went up earlier this month. She said one of the exciting things is that “we have so many different kinds of sources to draw from, and histories that people equally know in this neighborhood, that it’s amazing. But very rarely do they all get grouped together.”
Sanford questioned the decision to refer to Weegee by his less-known actual name, Arthur Fellig, but Greenfield reassured him people would be willing to learn.
“Once people know who some of them are, they read it and then they’re like who’s the other, who’s that?”
“One friend of mine described it as a hipster I.Q. test,” Sanford said.
The saints have a clear legacy in the area's current landscape, but with gentrification picking up steam over recent decades, some of the neighborhood's squats and anarchic nature has waned.
“I think that the nature of the neighborhood has changed, but it’s how New York works. Because now, Bushwick is the Lower East Side, culturally or whatever—or some other neighborhood maybe—but I think there’s still a lot of cultural activity here.”
The pieces will stay up until September and the group is planning an artist’s reception and street party on June 26. (Sanford’s next work is a series of 100 devotional drawings of celebrities that die over the year, including Donna Summer and Ray Bradbury. So far, he’s 45 in.) He weatherproofed the pieces so they don't wear away over the summer.
“We just start painting with acrylic paint, and in the end, just cover it with acrylic goo, so they hopefully don’t buckle and warp and peel and crack before the end,” he said. “But we’ll see, you know, it’s kind of experimental.”
Whether the icons fade or disappear, they still stand out gracefully.