Dive bars, vintage boutiques, and locally owned restaurants have long occupied the East Village’s streets, but one feature of the neighborhood stands out – the art up on its walls. A highland cow for the Year of the Ox and two purple faces fashioned into the likeness of Kobe and Gianna are only some of the images painted on a variety of buildings, with new murals replacing them every few months.
This phenomenon has taken place largely in part due to East Village Walls, an Instagram-based project that creates murals with the intention of dressing up the community. The owner of the account, in street-art fashion, goes by Ben L.
Ben, a Lower East Side native, is a photographer who was drawn to street art in the early 2000s, and began documenting the works. As a member of the downtown community, Ben often interacted with store owners whose businesses had been tagged. “It’s not very pretty. It’s not very attractive in the area,” Ben says about the tags. “And someone said that it’d be nice if we could have some art up there like some of the other neighborhoods. And that’s how it all started.”
Now, Ben works with a small team to run the @eastvillagewalls account. While he is the main owner, others take videos and post stories of artists at work in order to keep followers informed and excited about potential new street art in the area. The Instagram account is also a major platform through which artists can apply to paint murals. Ben says he has been “inundated” with direct messages on the app from artists pitching their ideas. He selects who will receive a wall by considering who would be the best fit for the neighborhood, whose works would complement other walls in the area, and who is skilled enough for street art in general. Ben’s personal work as a photographer has led to additional connections to artists from Europe and Asia who enjoy painting smaller walls when they are in town.
Because he’s familiar with the area as a long-term resident, Ben is able to determine which artist’s style will fit well with a specific community. Take artist Urban Russian Doll, whose work includes an abundance of nature and animals. For her latest mural, a Sailor Moon-inspired nod to springtime that features the face of a girl with fox ears and pink hair, she was given a wall to paint in Chinatown.
“The neighbors really liked it,” Ben explains. “They love the flowers, they love the details. It’s just little things that they appreciate.”
Urban Russian Doll, a self-trained artist from Moscow now based in Chinatown, was connected to Ben by another art photographer. She says that Ben’s belief in her allowed her to thrive as a street artist. Last June, she was given the opportunity to paint her first mural on the corner of 1st Avenue and East 2nd Street, a girl with bright, blue eyes and streaks of various colors painted perpendicularly around her. At the top of the painting, in the middle of a crescent moon inspired by Sailor Moon, is Urban Russian Doll’s trademark phrase: “WHY WAIT? LOVE NOW.”
Urban Russian Doll describes the community’s culture as a supportive one in which strangers you have just met will provide you with what you need to succeed. “And Ben’s a magician who gives people opportunities like that,” Urban Russian Doll says. “Belief in people can give them opportunities.”
The work of the artists for East Village Walls comes from a budget that doesn’t exist – with some funding coming out of Ben’s salary from his work as a photographer, as well as an assortment of other jobs he picks up. “There’s no money, there’s not a ton of glory, and it’s all effort.”
Urban Russian Doll agrees that “it’s very hard work. It’s very rewarding emotionally if you’re in love with art. But it’s a lot of hard work. It’s not only fun. It’s lifting heavy stuff, being in the sun all day, inhaling toxins all day.”
While East Village Walls and the artists work to better the community, not everyone in the neighborhood has consistently supported their attempts to aestheticize the streets. Last year, some discomfort was expressed with the mural in memoriam of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. Although the school, MS 131, had commissioned the piece, a community member was against it due to accusations of sexual assault made against Kobe in the past.
The mural remained up after the intention behind it was explained, but it wasn’t the first time complaints had been made against street art. As it has gained popularity, the question has been raised of whether street art is correlated to gentrification. The displacement of local graffiti artists and the influx of “creative types” to areas boasting murals has caused some to wonder if the introduction of street art is a “solution” to graffiti. Some other organizations that create street art have worked to collaborate with local graffiti artists to allow them to coexist with muralists in the same space, but Ben explains that East Village Walls doesn’t yet have the capacity to do so.
“It took me a very long time to get people open to having something painted on the wall rather than just painting it black or grey or whatever, so I just want them comfortable with having something painted on a wall before I start having more writers and graf people doing stuff.”
Another artist who works with East Village Walls, SacSix, does not subscribe to a genre of street art or graffiti, but rather says that his art form of choice is “illegal street art” and that he “always liked the idea of people being so passionate about their art that they are willing to risk getting arrested.”
Two years ago, SacSix even started a series known as “The Most Illegal Art Show,” featuring art created only by active illegal street artists. His collaboration with East Village Walls sways from his preferences, as the organization offers legal walls to paint on.
“East Village Walls reached out to me,” SacSix said about his and Ben’s initial collaboration. “I knew the curator from frequenting all the street-art shows around the city. I always knew the curator to be someone who was truly passionate and supportive of the street art community.” His work with East Village Walls continues, as he happily supports the organization.
Graffiti artists have put up a few works in a more street-art style for East Village Walls, but it remains unclear whether more of them will work with the organization in the near future. In the meantime, there’s no shortage of artists that wish to paint meaningful art for the community.
After all, as Ben says, “It’s Manhattan – everyone wants to paint in the city.”