Street artist and Lower East Side native Joseph Meloy is on a mission. He’s been pounding the pavement of the LES and Alphabet City this summer, suitcase of spray paint in hand, hoping to drum up business and add some color to the streets where he grew up. Meloy is one of many artists who’ve painted a security shutter for the 100 Gates Project, culminating September 12 with a gallery show and party at Avant Garde Vape Lounge and Gallery. But he has also set off on his own door-to-door endeavor, adding little bursts of shapes and color to the neighborhood’s dull storefronts.
He has a distinctive style – each painting is a little different, but it’s always abstract with a bright color palette. He calls his work “post graffiti” art and coined the term “vandal expressionism” to best describe what he does. Sometimes the murals owe a bit of their visual interest to whatever interesting thing might be happening in the nearby window. Meloy said the trading cards are part of what makes the below painting, at Daylight Grocery on Canal Street, one of his favorites. He also said the playful nature of the store made him think of striped candies and Super Mario Brothers.
Keep an eye open as you walk the streets of New York and you’re likely to see two distinct Meloy designs — the spray painting, of course, but also a sneaky graphic called the “Primate,” a mascot of sorts that Meloy designed with the repetition of Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” in mind. Though it may be hard to believe, the face wasn’t even supposed to be a monkey, necessarily, until someone on social media dubbed it “Primate.” Now stickers with its image can be seen all over town in its various incarnations: money hanging out of its mouth, eating a slice of pizza, dressed up as a jester and flipping the bird. And in murals like this one, on BillyMark’s West, at the corner of 29th Street and 9th Avenue.
It can be a challenge to get business owners on board. If he drops in and the owner or manager isn’t around he can pretty much forget about getting permission, but as evidenced by the number of murals he’s done recently, people do bite. “If the outside of a building is ugly and dark, I’ll tell them that it’s ugly,” he said, adding that a colorful exterior does tend to draw people in. “I’ve had people flat-out tell me, ‘We get more people in here now.'”
One of his most recent works is the exterior of the East Village Finest Deli on East 4th Street and Avenue B. He views the bodega and others like it as “anti 7-Elevens” and jumps at the chance to put his stamp on them, making them even more unique in an area where chains continue to creep in. “It’s very much a reflection of the vibe of New York City I grew up with, and growing up seeing all the bright colors of the ’80s and ’90s,” he said of his style.
He remembers having a conflicted response when he was young to the graffiti he saw on Madison Street, near his childhood home. “Just seeing them – the scale of them – it was graffiti, but even as a little kid I was thinking to myself, ‘This is too big to have just been done without any permission.’ And it just made me think, this is graffiti, but isn’t it art? It looks like art to me.”
Meloy’s affinity for art led him to a career in graphic design making movie posters; he loved arranging shapes to make them fit on the page. Soon he was playing around with removing the text completely and replacing the figures with abstract shapes, and his friends encouraged him to pursue painting. Years later, at age 33, he has a studio in Bushwick. He currently resides in Chelsea.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Meloy decided to try his hand at street art. “I was doing gallery art long before graffiti,” he explained. Inexperienced in the form, he started out using pens and markers to create very intricate, highly time-consuming murals before discovering the potential of spray paint. “I realized that with spray paint I could make bigger, brighter, faster, more explosive art,” he said. “I could really run wild.”
“Seeing people enjoy the work and appreciate the work definitely fuels the fire,” Meloy said, adding that there’s a thriving community of people obsessed with photographing street art. As if to prove his point, as we were walking down the sidewalk we bumped into Raquel Arnao, an avid street art fan who takes photos of her urban discoveries, often with her canine buddy posing in front of them, and posts them to Instagram.
Meloy is also the art curator for the LES music venue Arlene’s Grocery. To date, he’s curated shows featuring about 95 local artists. “It’s great,” he said. “It gives people a chance to show their work in a fun, down-to-earth environment.” He’s also turned the basement of Arlene’s into his own giant canvas with murals covering every available inch. It’s a bit of a time capsule, with some of the drawings done in his older, intricate style, while other walls are spray painted with the larger abstract shapes that have come to characterize his more recent work. One thing they all have in common is their high-energy, fun, childlike quality. “I have no interest in doing the same work anyone else does, or being the next Pollock,” he said. “I want to be the first Joseph Meloy.”