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It has become a staple of the street art and graffiti scene that an organizer occupies an abandoned or soon-to-be-redeveloped building, invites artists there, and makes sure they fill the space with colorful works that contain topical jokes, insider gags, and photogenic corners. The next step involves luring art fans with the promise of a party and then stepping back to watch them descend on the site and fill their social media feeds with images that ignite an online deluge of sharing, liking, and commenting.
For the last few weeks, over 65 street artists and graffiti writers have been busy transforming the interior of a four-story building in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood into exactly that type of urban art oasis.
Rob Aloia of Outlaw Arts has pulled together artists including Sheryo and The Yok, Faust, MrToll, Rae, Ghost, Tone Tank, Ket, and Pixote to saturate the once infamous 21st Precinct with colorful and quirky installations of all kinds. Closed in 1914, the police station has had many lives over the past century, but its former existence as an NYPD hub is the type of historical footnote that makes a show like 21st Precinct into an alluring media sensation.
Overall, the building-wide exhibition is overstimulating and unfocused. Few of the pieces directly addressed the setting, and even those that do (tackling drugs, gun culture, or mugshots) never go far beyond the surface.
There are some global politics, courtesy Alan Ket, of course, who’s filled one room with the names of Palestinian dead from the recent Gaza attacks. The most provocative room is staged by Cash4, Matt Siren, and Smells (there may have been others), who filled their space with scrawls of gentriffiti, a hilariously self-aware portmanteau that pokes fun at the art as much as the developer for homogenizing the city. Rae also has a strangely appealing bedroom installation of dreamy figures floating in the night sky around a paint-stained bed.
21st Precinct is an artistic melee, so large powerful letters (“Flight” and “Fight”) by Faust are placed adjacent to less interesting work, while MrToll’s hallucinatory sculptures float on walls in a way that’s far more intimate than most of the slapdash aerosol pieces nearby.
The thrill of these expectedly chaotic shows is that they turn large urban spaces into massive sketchbooks. Some ideas work, but most look incomplete or half-baked. There’s something about this vein of graffiti and street art culture — exemplified by 21st Precinct —that’s stuck on the romantic myth of art as a fun (mostly male) free-for-all. It’s seductive to think that art works that way, but more often than not it benefits from strong curation.
21st Precinct continues at 327 East 22nd Street (Gramercy, Manhattan) on August 23 and 24, 1–6pm.