I encountered a street work by artist NohJColey, NohJ for short, in Williamsburg last week. Like all strong street art pieces, it forced me to stop and look closely. The attention to detail, its use of diverse textures and materials and its complex method of storytelling, which is more impressionistic than narrative, made me immediately respond to it, similar to poetry. I stopped to visually measure every inch of the object, a figure with puppet-like arms placed low to the ground in a neglected corner of the city frequented by street artists.
The wires incorporated into the art work confused me until a friend explained they were meant to be played with. When I saw how the arms moved to evoke a motion of prayer — or was it a plea? — I was really interested in its meaning, which seemed to elude me though I started to realized I was gleaning fragments of the “story” the longer I spent with it.
I scrambled to explain the work to others and settled on the term “kinetic street art” to define it, even though the label of kinetic art often evokes images of metal minimalist sculpture. Here the term felt fitting as the motion of the arms are crucial to understanding the subject of the work: the ultimate vulnerability of the young man who is submitting to something greater.
For over a week, I’ve walked by this fantastically detailed piece covered with images of cops, police tape, thugs and other things, and saw it bathed in direct light in the morning, or kneeling in the shadows in the afternoon. But one night as I was running home in the rain I remember glancing over to see it behind sheets of rain. It was striking in its loneliness, almost human in its silhouette and lit only by the muffled street lights. It was as if I was looking at a scene from a graphic novel where the world around the figure was brushed into blurred and abstract patterns of indistinct lines and forms. It felt like the final act of a very modern tragedy.
I reached out to the artist to ask about this work, which is part of a series he recently started on the streets of north Brooklyn and revolves around people and their vices. The first vice was an addictive shopping habit, the second the need to use insane amounts of drugs, and this latest is a commentary on the “HOODwinked” lifestyle.
NohJ responded via email:
The piece was initially supposed to be about a person who was a womanizer, but then there was a murder. The subject of this piece was explaining to me how the person that was murdered was unjustly murdered. I had to explain to him that when you live a particular lifestyle there are certain repercussions that come with it. The person that was murdered lived the “HOODwinked” lifestyle.
The piece isn’t necessarily about the NYPD, but the NYPD does play a significant role in this person’s life. It’s basically about an individual who finally realizes that the life he has been pursuing has been caused by falsehoods. What the viewer is witnessing is the moment in which the figure begs god for forgiveness. His upper torso is a police stand off, where the culprit is handcuffed to a hand that is pouring out a red bandanna (the bloods gang) into a coffin. The coffin sits on top of a scale that is surrounded by drug addicts being watched by a police officer.