The East Village is one of the most visually distinct neighborhoods in New York City, and for the past 35 years, James “Jim” Power’s famous Mosaic Trail has twisted through the middle of it like a colorful ribbon made of tile. His efforts have made him a beloved neighborhood character, more mascot than fixture, and at age 73 — with wispy white hair tucked beneath a Vietnam Veteran cap, a slight but hardy frame, and faded red scooter he uses to navigate the street — he feels no desire to slow down. But he feared the coronavirus pandemic would force the issue.
“I actually didn’t think I would survive this,” he said. “So I tried to get a few things together. I ended up going out, and was more determined to fix up what’s there.”
What’s there is the Mosaic Trail, a series of light poles and stoplights, wrapped in tile, stretching from Broadway down St. Marks, through Tompkins Square Park, and over to Avenue B. On most poles, Power embeds text and symbolic references to nearby establishments. St. Marks Wine and Liquor is honored with a red-and-white tile design, punctuated by a silver bottle protruding from the base of the pole. Up the street, on Astor Place, another pole immortalizes the names of police officers, killed in the line of duty, dating back to 1971. Nearby, Patti Smith’s name descends, dotingly, in red. East Village icons end up on Power’s poles, too.
While Covid-19 and a vicious political climate have turned daily life into a scramble, the Mosaic Man — a nickname designated by a Village Voice writer in 1988 — has given the neighborhood, through his artwork, a grounding, scintillating reminder of historical continuity. Every day, untold numbers of New Yorkers pass his poles, and he believes those who take notice reap benefits.
“Having this out here, it makes people tranquil,” he said.
Power, who spent two years as a soldier in Vietnam, understands better than most the value of mental calm.
Born in Waterford, Ireland, he moved to New York City with his family at age 13, and lived here until his service began in 1968. He worked as a radio operator and helicopter door gunner — the life expectancy of the latter role being, in his own words, “about 15 minutes.” The experience lingered with him.
“I came out of the service, and the beginning of some disturbing troubles started to appear. I mean right away,” he said. “They’ve somewhat stayed with me for quite a while.”
In the mid-70s, during a stint building stone walls in California, he estimates he personally hauled several hundred tons of rock. Over the years, the exhausting physical labor of masonry, carpentry, and his unique form of mosaic artwork has proved an invaluable sleep aid.
He lived briefly in New York in the 1970s, and returned to the city for a second time in 1981, to an apartment on 6th Street and Second Avenue, across from the Fillmore East. He recalls a stretch of jagged, concrete design work near the iconic music venue’s entrance.
“Immediately I was like, this is the way the city should look,” he said.
Several years later, in 1985, he began work on the Mosaic Trail while also employed as a union carpenter. He soon quit to focus almost exclusively on the Trail, supporting himself, in part, by making mosaics for private individuals and neighborhood businesses. But he eventually found himself unable to pay rent, and for 13 years, unsteady income and difficulty managing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder forced him onto the street.
“Winter, spring, summer, fall,” he said. “It was a challenge at the time. When I think back, right now, I can’t imagine someone outside that long.”
Despite experiencing homelessness — in 2014, he finally found local affordable housing — he continued to develop the Trail. Bella Tile, a recently shuttered business, was the primary source of his materials. He also received donations from admirers in the neighborhood. In recent years, New York City’s Public Design Commission, he says, has helped in various ways.
From the outset, Power envisioned a string of 80 light poles, inspired by Jules Vern’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Despite near-constant work, he still has around 40 to go. In the East Village, his mosaics decorate walls, entryways, awnings and doors. They appear at Khyber Pass on St. Marks, School for The Dogs, Ray’s Candy Store, Tompkins Square Bagels, Short Stories Cafe and Bar, and Dr. Brendan’s Mac Repair — the list goes on.
Brendan McElroy, founder of Dr. Brendan’s Mac Repair and the adjacent JUICE gallery — recently rebranded as Public Access — featured Power’s mosaics in a February group show, just before the coronavirus shut down the city.
“He did a series of cityscapes, like skyline mosaics,” he said. “The whole East Village scene was present.”
McElroy first met Power a decade ago. He had seen him in the neighborhood, but they became familiar when Power brought McElroy his computer for repairs.
“He’s sort of a staple of the East Village,” McElroy said. “If you walk around, his art is everywhere.”
On a recent Sunday, on the corner of First Avenue and St. Marks Place, Power knelt beside a traffic island, a blue mask covering his face. He was installing mosaics that read “SLOW DOWN” and “YOUR LIFE MATTERS” — a message to cyclists whizzing by — onto the curb. During the early months of the pandemic, he continued to work, even while the city reeled.
“I can’t get enough of it,” he explained. “I thought, Well, 73 years — I’ve lived more than most people, I’ve got nothing to complain about, except that my trail isn’t done.”
Over the course of an hour, he was greeted by at least a dozen people from the neighborhood. With most, he was on intimate terms. This included a man wearing pink pants and a black tank top. When their conversation ended, Power turned back to his work.
“I love this neighborhood, man,” he said.
The man in the black tank top must have heard him.
“You make it beautiful, sir!” He shouted over his shoulder. “You make it beautiful!’