A view of Tom Sanford’s East 4th Street scaffolding mural (photo by Udom Surangsophon)

If you walked around the East Village nowadays, or the Lower East Side (as it was called pre-gentrification), you’d probably find it almost impossible to imagine that the area was once a hotbed of artistic and revolutionary fervor. Most of today’s urbanscape is dominated by luxury condos, pricey restaurants and buildings on the verge of renovation.

Tom Sanford and Graham Preston‘s latest project, “Saints of the Lower East Side” (2012), remembers “when,” or more precisely marches out some of the progressive history of an area that has been mostly reduced to cool tshirts from a bygone era.

For a few months, seven local cultural heroes (Martin WongJoey RamoneMiguel PiñeroEllen StewartCharlie ParkerArthur Fellig and Allen Ginsberg) will remind passersby that history was made here and it was awesome. Sandwiched between the Ellen Stewart Theater and the offices of La Mama etc., the spot is rich with local history and I have a feeling these large icon-like panels may just spark people’s interest into delving a little deeper into the history of this once cutting-edge neighborhood.

I spoke to Sanford about the project.

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Hrag Vartanian: What is it about these heros that inspires you?

Tom Sanford: Perhaps it is the Lower East Side that inspires me. When Keith Schweitzer asked to do this project I knew I wanted to do something that made sense in this location. I did not just want to make a Tom Sanford painting that could be shown anywhere, and just hang it on the street. I wanted to make a piece that honored its location.

I have always thought of the LES as a sort of cultural crucible, i guess that is how it is presented in fiction and the movies, so i thought about a way to show reverence for the artistic past of the neighborhood. I guess these artists most epitomize the LES for me. It is the legends of the Lower East Side that inspire me. I could have chosen to paint Johnny Thunder, John Sex, David Wojnarowicz, Ornette Coleman or so many others, but these are the seven that I chose, and seven fit the space.

HV: How did the project come about?

TS: I had met Keith Schweitzer a couple years back while I was painting a mural at the Invisible Dog over on Bergen street in Brooklyn. The mural I was painting was for a show that Manon Slome and No Longer Empty were putting on. I was painting a huge painting of the L&L Detective Agency from Jonathan Lethem‘s novel Motherless Brooklyn. I was doing this not only because I love the book and think that Lethem is a genius, but because all the work for the show was meant to be site specific. I remembered that the fictional L&L had been on the same block as the Invisible Dog, so I figured it would be cool to make a mural about the fictional history of the neighborhood.

Anyway, Keith dug that mural I guess and kept me in mind. He has been arranging legal walls for street artists and murals through his Murals around New York Project (MaNY), and although I am not a street artist, I guess Keith thought I could hold my own on the street. When he suggested I do a piece on East 4th street I loved the idea.

And speaking of the Invisible Dog mural and Jonathan Lethem, one subtle detail: On the frame of the Joey Ramone panel, one of the rock stickers I painted there says “SWM.” This is meant to stand for “Stately Wayne Manor,” a fictional punk band that plays CBGB in Lethem’s great novel “The Fortress of Solitude.” So again i am interested in merging fiction and legend in my recounting of history. And clearly I am hung up on Lethem, his work is profound.

HV: You seem to share some stylistic similarity to Martin Wong in your love of flat color and form. Does he influence you?

TS: I am not sure that I would say that Martin Wong is a conscious influence on my work; however he is an artist who’s work I have admired for years and I am sure his DNA has seeped into my painting style.

I make this distinction, because there are many artists that I often reference directly, form icon painters, renaissance masters, to the German Expressionist to contemporaries like Cheri Samba or Joe Coleman or Peter Saul, Ashley Bickerton, Barkley Hendricks or even Kehinde Wiley, whose work has all have all heavily influence my projects in one way or another.

But my influences are greater that just the work I directly reference. Stylistically my paintings are entirely made up of things that I have learned from looking at other artists work, and I think we learn from what we love. So I guess there is a little Martin Wong in my painting. I am very flattered for you to compare my work to his.

HV: Your work often goes for the jugular in terms of humor but this project feels different. Why?

TS: I think that different paintings are appropriate for different venues. I recently showed a painting of Whitney Houston smoking crack in a bathtub. I understand that this is in very bad taste. But I did this for an art gallery (LaMontagne), where only people who are interested in seeing my work need to go. This piece was to be displayed in the most public of forums, and so I wanted to make something that was to make people feel good about the neighborhood.

I am not trying to piss someone off on their walk to work. The mural was not commissioned, so I think of it as my gift to the LES, and I wanted to make my gift something that would make people happy. At least to the best of my ability.

HV: If you had to describe your work to someone who doesn’t know it, what would you say?

TS: I make paintings. On the whole I think they are challenging. They are often garish and in poor taste, but also hopefully beautiful and in some sense truthful. They certainly aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I work very hard to make them powerful images and well made paintings that evoke a reaction.

Tom Sanford’s scaffolding mural, Saints of the Lower East Side, will be on display on East 4th Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue, until September 5 in Manhattan’s East Village.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.