The Children’s Place on 125th Street has a ladder. A few months ago they asked Picasso to use it and paint their gate — the Picasso of Harlem, that is. The two men share a propensity for berets, beautiful women, and multiple names, but unlike the original Picasso, this one is over six feet tall, black, and an early riser.
It is 6am on a Wednesday, and the 90-year-old Picasso of Harlem is strolling down 125th Street with bulk headphones and an old iPod, singing along to Nat King Cole. The artist painted a portrait of Cole once that he delivered in person, but you probably wouldn’t know that unless you asked.
The Picasso of Harlem was born in Panama in 1928 as Franco Gaskin. He acquired the nickname “Franco the Great” thanks to a stint as a magician, before moving to Harlem in 1958. For 10 years he made a living selling paintings and creating murals for restaurants, clubs, businesses, and private homes in downtown Manhattan.
“I’d never known what it was to work in Harlem,” says Gaskin. “At the time kids were graffiting everything, even the cemetery and churches. So [a storeowner] asked me to paint this gate. I’d never done a gate before, but that was OK. I like a challenge.”
The request came in 1978 and birthed (via the press) Gaskin’s final name, the Picasso of Harlem. The steel gate in question is one of many that guard sleeping storefronts along 125th Street. Storeowners installed them in response to riots following Martin Luther King’s death. That first gate Gaskin painted was across from the Apollo Theater.
“I painted a blossom tree with the belief that I’d be successful in Harlem,” he explains. “It’s my philosophy: I must learn to bloom exactly where I’m planted.”
In the years to come Gaskin painted over 200 gates along Harlem’s main thoroughfare. He was never paid for it — he didn’t want to be — but he did benefit. Gaskin was invited to work in Japan, Italy, England, France, Sweden, Austria, China, Africa, and Brazil. Collectors and museums bought and showed his art. Millionaires hired him to paint the insides of their mansions. He even got a letter from Washington asking to put one of his murals on a stamp.
But as the world entered the 21st century, Gaskin and his gates began to fade from 125th Street. The gate the postal service wanted to memorialize was taken down before he sent in the paperwork required to have it put on a stamp. Gaskin was kept busy in other parts of the city and abroad. Today just some 22 of Gaskin’s gates are still there. In the past five years, the only work he’s done along the strip that made him so famous is paint the inside of a DSW shoe store. Gaskin refers to the time away as “a few-year long day off.”
In reality, old age set in and resources dried up. Gaskin’s arthritis makes it hard for him to do all it takes to paint a gate: carrying the equipment, sanding, outlining, and working with brushes of various sizes. Additionally, he lacks the necessities to carry out commissioned work, things like a ladder or a power washer. So when Children’s Place asked Gaskin to paint their gate and offered the use of their ladder, he agreed. Upon inspecting the space Gaskin noticed the gate next door, which belongs to either “Cell City of Harlem” or “Gold of Harlem” — the signage is unclear — and decided to paint both. Just like that, the Picasso of Harlem was back.
“There is some magnet pulling me. I get out there and start painting and forget about everything,” says Gaskin. “Their business begins when the gate comes up, mine begins when the gate goes down.”
When we meet, Gaskin has finished covering the gold store’s gate with an eye-popping sunset and is working on Children’s Place. Always tailoring his murals to the stores they belong to, he’s chosen to depict children skipping from winter to summer.
Watching him work, it’s apparent that he’s in pain. He exhales sharply every time he stands up, and his hands clench as he precariously holds a razor to slice away unneeded portions of his self-made stencils. Gaskin draws the images in his murals first at his studio on St. Nicholas Avenue. He then perforates the edges, tapes the mock-ups to the gate, and dusts the paper with charcoal powder to leave behind lines that guide his brush.
This early part of his process is something Gaskin claims he has never let anyone write about or photograph until now. Call it a vestige of Franco the Great (another of his nicknames) not wanting to reveal his tricks. The child he’s outlined is the only Caucasian figure among eight other dancing kids.
“I’ve got to include a white kid,” he laughs. “The neighborhood is changing.”
These changes, primarily development and gentrification, mean more than new figures in Gaskin’s art — they may be the extinction of it. Developers unknowingly remove and throw away Gaskin’s gates when storefronts change hands. A 2012 city ordinance requires new business use see-through gates, minimizing the number of solid steel canvases.
In 2011 Gaskin and long-time friend Dana Harper, a retired cop who met the artist when he was a rookie on his lunch break, began “Save the Gates of Harlem,” affectionately known as Team Franco. They work with business owners to save Gaskin’s gates.
“We have to work something out to preserve them, have them put on display,” says Harper. “The gates are part of Harlem’s history. So many pieces of Harlem’s history have been thrown away and now that’s happening to his work too.”
The development company Forest City Ratner has stepped in and promised to save at least eight of Gaskin’s gates and find a place to display them. Team Franco is also in preliminary talks with the Parks Department to have some of the gates Gaskin has already painted decorate the new Triboro plaza, though Harper admits they’re still waiting on a follow-up meeting.
“Things change; you cannot expect things to stay the same forever,” says Gaskin. “The gates were there for a good time and served a good purpose. Nothing stays the same forever.”
Things may not stay the same forever, but for Gaskin some don’t change. He still sets up a table every Sunday on 125th Street — now a regular stop for Japanese and European tour buses — to sell merchandise. He still wears the same uniform: blue overalls covered in patches and paint. He uses the same table someone once offered him $5,000 for. And now, he is back to waking up before most of Harlem does to help make it just a bit more beautiful.
On this particular morning, an elderly man yells to Gaskin as he pushes his cart, “Going to make history today, Franco?” Gaskin smiles. He has made history, but perhaps more important to him is what he’s making now.
“I continue to paint in Harlem. It is my job,” says Gaskin. “I function day by day. I’m thankful I got up this morning to create and I look forward to tomorrow — not next week, just tomorrow.”