On a three-block stretch of 21st Street in Long Island City, New York City’s economic and artistic evolution plays out in miniature. Yellow cabs line up outside a medallion company, nestled among light manufacturing businesses, but turn your head and there’s the green gleam of CitiCorp headquarters, looming near towers filled with one-bedrooms that cost $4,000 a month. Most of the buildings in the area are painted in greys and browns. Not 43-01. This warehouse building is dressed in scenes of deer, flowers, brains, and bubble letters reminiscent of a 1980s subway car. The murals are part of the Top to Bottom Project, created by artist James P. Quinn and producer Geoff Kuffner.
The two have brought together 50 international artists — including Crash, Daze, Icy and Sot, and Magda Love — to cover the façade and roof of a 124,000-square-foot, block-spanning building. The project is impressive not only because of the diversity of artistic styles and techniques, but because it exists legally, on this scale, in this real estate climate, and in this neighborhood, where memories linger of the deeply loved (and mourned) 5Pointz.
From 1993 to 2013, 5Pointz was a graffiti and street art mecca, a series of evolving murals on the façade of another Long Island City building, by artists from New York to New Zealand. Overseen by curator and artist Meres One, the painting went on for 20 years, until the building was sold to a developer, who promptly whitewashed all of the murals, much to the anger and disappointment of street artists and fans all over the city.
Kuffner and Quinn hope their connection with the building’s owner and his appreciation for art will ensure that Top to Bottom exists for at least as long, if not longer than, 5Pointz. Kuffner first met the owner through a colleague while working with the see.me app, a platform that allows artists to create portfolios and connect with potential collaborators. The owner was interested in featuring murals to brighten the façade of his building.
Kuffner immediately thought of Quinn to be his collaborator: “James was an early curator and creator of street art in Williamsburg and definitely big inspiration for my love and appreciation of the form and movement.” The two met in the late ’90s, when they both had shows on WJMZ’s Jumpin’ the Turnstyles, a pirate radio station in Williamsburg that broadcast on topics ranging from community health news to hip-hop.
Both founders are well aware that murals are hot commodities for developers looking to cash in on the artistic cachet of the neighborhoods they build in. Still, Kuffner is adamant that “it’s not up to me to question the owner’s intentions, what’s in his heart.” The fact they have the walls is a gift in itself, and he’d rather be pragmatic than nostalgic. He hopes to encourage artists to negotiate for space and show building owners that “artists are their allies” — that art can be an “economic engine,” so that even as rents go up, the murals remain. Even if that means they become a selling point for wealthier future residents.
Quinn manages the creative side of the project by recruiting contributors, balancing his own curatorial vision with the artists’ ideas. Unlike 5Pointz, which had an application process and constantly rotating murals, the Top to Bottom pieces are static until further notice, and the artists were either chosen by Quinn or reached out to him when word of the project spread, to see if they could claim a spot. Kuffner handles logistics, acting as a liaison to the building owner and generally ensuring that everything runs smoothly behind the scenes so the artists can concentrate on their work.
Magda Love’s lush jungle plants, cradling a bright pink brain and heart, greet visitors at the entrance, while above, Binho Ribeiro’s blue owl keeps wide-eyed watch over the street. Around the corner, Case Ma’Claim showcases his command of photorealism. As Kuffner explained, Ma’Claim dusted many layers of aerosol to create his image of two hands threading a needle. The work is so detailed, viewers can see every fold and wrinkle of the hands, even the way the light touches down on the bones, whose shapes are visible just under the skin. Pioneers like Daze and Crash, who were “some of the first to bridge the street and the gallery,” as Kuffner describes them, have also contributed to the project, sharing space with other artists who had never done outdoor murals before.
On the roof, Icy and Sot painted a boy hugging the Chrysler Building so tightly he merges with it, like the building is a plant that’s growing right through him. Nearby, there’s a similar conjoining: Cern’s orange bird looks as if it got stuck inside a book, and its little orange feet are attempting to kick their way out.
The current murals are only the beginning of what Kuffner and Quinn hope to create together. There are still spaces available on the building, and more artists will paint once the weather warms up. At that point, Quinn will decide how long each existing mural will stay, and if and when new artists will get a turn.
In the meantime, there’s the Off the Wall exhibit at the World Trade Center Gallery, which includes work from 15 of the Top to Bottom artists. The project is fiscally sponsored by and accepting donations through Fractured Atlas, and with those donations, plus the sales from the gallery show, the team dreams of doing more walls, more gallery shows, and classes and workshops. Top to Bottom aims to be a catalyst for what Kuffner calls “a city-wide mural renaissance.”
The Top to Bottom Project is located at 43-01 21st Street in Long Island City (Queens). Off the Wall runs at the World Trade Center Gallery (120 Broadway, Financial District, Manhattan) through April 15.