Art for the Public

They say the best things in life are free.

In a community where many of its native residents suffer from a variety of economic and social issues, Spanish Harlem prides itself on its art and culture, to be celebrated by everyone in the community.

There are many characteristics of Spanish Harlem that set this soulful community aside from the rest of the city and world, one of them being the street art that can found all throughout the area, Many neighborhoods in New York, especially in Manhattan, associate street art with vandalism, troublemakers, and destruction of property. Spanish Harlem’s history of expression and artistic liberty is clear and can be seen by anyone visiting the area. Most other conventional neighborhoods, especially those on the island of Manhattan designate a specific place for art and music, and cannot exist outside those confines. Art is rarely found on the street in areas such as Downtown Manhattan, but especially street art, otherwise known as graffiti

Spanish Harlem’s vast collection of street art can be found practically on every other block, displayed for the entire community’s enjoyment. The art that can be found is quantitatively extensive, as well as qualitatively. There isn’t one style that is more prominent than the next. Not only are the pieces that are up aesthetically pleasing, but they reflect on deeper values expressed through the artist’s work. Different themes are explored through street art, such as social issues (ie. class warfare), religion, gentrification, unity in the neighborhood, Spanish history, as well as pieces that were done just to be aesthetically pleasing.

East Harlem Cafe, a recent addition to the community within Spanish Harlem and said to have the neighborhood’s best coffee is an avid supporter of the local arts. Denise Ortiz, 24, the manager of the bustling café and student at Fashion Institute of Technology often hosts the variety of different art shows, open mic nights, and poetry slams at the café. Earlier in 2014, East Harlem Café hosted a party with several artists doing a live painting for the audience. “I’m trying to be an artist myself. So I know how hard it is in the real world to be taken seriously sometimes, especially if you’re doing street art. There aren’t a lot of places that are available to the public to do a street art mural. That used to be 5pointz, but they painted over everything this year.” 5pointz, known as the graffiti mecca of New York City, was the only space that offered a public space (as opposed to private property) to practice and exhibit graffiti and street art pieces without being charged for vandalism. “That’s the cool thing about Spanish Harlem. We have the Graffiti Hall of Fame, and street art is more accepted here because there’s a lot of buildings with a mural or mosaic. I think it makes the neighborhood look nicer and makes everyone feel a lot more welcome and free to express yourself.” Ortiz has been a resident of Spanish Harlem for 12 years.

Graffiti Hall of Fame, 106th and Park in Spanish Harlem.

Graffiti Hall of Fame, E106th and Park Helen Ho.

The brick wall outside the café is adorned with colorful  mosaics, and decided to leave up a graffitied piece of Pedro Pietri, a piece by De La Vega, that was there before the cafe opened its doors in early 2010.

Source: Helen Ho

Well known local Puerto Rican street artist Jimmy De La Vega was born in 1975 in East Harlem. Best known for his murals and street aphorisms, he rose to become the most well known street artist in Spanish Harlem. His work is distinguished by his style in spray painting, as well as his widely recognized tags, his most famous and most frequently seen one being “Become Your Dream”, followed by a signature of his name, or his iconic goldfish line drawing. His work appears on many walls throughout Manhattan, that have stood there and have been enjoyed for many years, but De La Vega is known mainly for the frequent “pieces” that are found on surfaces that last for a very brief time, almost always a piece of furniture (such as a dresser, mattress, mirror) tossed to the side of the street. These pieces are fleeting, and can only be seen in a matter of hours or one day, but his art is so well recognized that it almost always guarantees a blast on social media forums by people passing by. De La Vega is a significant member of the original Spanish Harlem community, achieving fame and recognition when gentrification was merely a seedling of an idea, long before the wine bars, farmers markets, and mass reconstruction of the neighborhood began. As well as being recognized within the city for his art, De La Vega is also known amongst East Harlem residents for being a community activist for his charity work in Spanish Harlem. De La Vega created and auctioned off his renowned styled artwork made from simple free or cheap household surfaces and hardware, such as lampshades, bookshelves, and dressers and donated all proceeds to cleaning up and beautifying the community garden on 104th and Lexington avenue. De La Vega has become one of the most unsurpassed street artists in New York, inspiring and leading many to see a new, modern and unconventional medium of self-expression.

An ongoing issue that has been especially current in today’s headlines is the controversy of police officers targeting certain demographics of people over others. The stop-and-frisk policy has received a lot of criticism over African-Americans more affected by this policy than any other race. Over the last year, an increasing amount of art reflecting the anger coming from groups of people at the inequality of the justice system have been popping up in Spanish Harlem. Today, there can be many posters seen that say “Stop police violence”, “End Stop-and Frisk”. “People are angry”, says Ortiz. “They’re [the community] showing everyone that they want to stop being treated differently than everyone else just because of their race”. The politics being reflected in the art in this community allows its people to express their contempt and gives them a voice that can be seen and heard. IMG_3506

IMG_3523 Political unrest in the community of Spanish Harlem is expressed via publicly displayed posters. Source: Helen Ho


By using street art, they are making unfair policies in the society a real issue, which would otherwise be hard to do through other forms of art that is found in museums for example. Christina Mesa, 32, an educator at the El Museo de Barrio believes art is important regardless of where it is displayed, what medium it was done on. As long as the artist had the intention to share a message through means other than text, that is how we communicate with other people as social creatures. “People don’t think of street art as the same thing as the art you see in museums. There’s a lot of art that speaks for the people living here”.

See pictures of some street art around my neighborhood here!

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