SoHo has been a ghost town for weeks, as wealthy residents fled amid the coronavirus pandemic. Storefronts have been boarded up, and if it wasn’t for the still visible Chanel and Prada signs, the eerily quiet streets could make visitors think they’d time traveled to the ‘70s.
Companies treated the plywood frantically installed over their windows as armor — protection for their property during the uprisings against police brutality and anti-Black racism. Artists turned these surfaces into canvases, transforming the eery, beige-lined doorways into an open air gallery for landscapes, portraits, and text. For the first time in decades, Soho is teeming with art.
A kneeling Colin Kaepernick watches over Spring Street asking, “do you understand now?” On one corner, a giant Superman wears a mask, while another wall is adorned by portraits of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Layleen Polanco, and the countless Black and brown people murdered by police and the prison system.
“No single person really started the larger movement,” explained Tristan Reginato of SoHo Social Impact, one of many groups and individual artists involved in this outpouring of public art. “After the NYC curfew was lifted, various people in SoHo painted a few boards, which gradually grew into our movement.” SoHo Social Impact itself was started by Reginato, who grew up in Harlem, but whose father lived in SoHo when it was still an artist’s haven. He had help from a number of others, including Keiji Drysdale, and Selima Selaun, owner of Selima Optique (an eyeglass boutique with locations in SoHo), who helped with getting permission from store owners.
Bethany Halbreich, who runs an art organization called Paint the World, helped secure a paint donation, and invited artist friends to use it. Other artists simply claimed a canvas and jumped in.
Like any social movement, there are disagreements in messaging and tactics. Neon and pastel pleas for us to “love each other” and “stay safe” face off against demands to “kill all cops.”
In a work by the artist Sule, a man watches over Broome Street wearing a black mask with, orange letters in a font styled after “No Trespassing” signs; instead it reads, “my color is not a crime.” Many of the portraits by other artists feature masks bearing messages; a harsh truth inscribed on the mask of another male figure states, “my execution might be televised.”
“Some stores reacted positively, giving us permission to do our murals and encouraging us (some even provided water and rags),” Reginato explained over email to Hyperallergic, adding, “Unfortunately this wasn’t universal, as some stores painted over our murals, and in some cases took down the boards and tried to sell them.”
As the city reopens, the future of these artworks remains in limbo, as stores begin to open and the plywood comes down. For SoHo Social Impact, at least one thing remains certain: “We were asked to do a few murals to endorse the luxury brands of Soho, but we denied all offers.”
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
So good to see stores and business linking up with artists to say something worthwhile! 💪🏾✊🏾 Seeing bold, new ART on this site too btw:
These artworks deserve preservation as they are artistically and historically significant, perhaps Museum of the City of New York or the Smithsonian that recently saved the artworks done on the Whitehouse barricades.
The image in the article says, “ do you understand yet?” a subtle but important distinction. I hope some of these artworks will be preserved, and all recorded for posterity. This is is a monumental moment in our history and needs to be in the history books.
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