This weekend I had the opportunity to take a SideTour experience of 5Pointz Art Center, an outdoor art exhibit space in Long Island City, Queens where artists from around the world paint on the walls of a 200,000-square-foot factory building complex. Our guide was Meres One, a talented artist and the curator of 5pointz, which is nicknamed “The Institute of Higher Burnin.” Meres is an engaging guide, and has a way of making the artwork come alive as he shares stories of artists, often with themes of personal loss and overcoming obstacles such as medical illness that effected the creative process.
Throughout the 2-hour tour, Meres proudly talked us through the incredible range of subject matter, styles, and methods utilized at 5Pointz by artists from around the world. Meres makes an effort to allow different styles of art. We were shown examples of classic old school graffiti, “graphic design” graffiti, modern graffiti with clean shapes and lines, street art with distinct meaning or message, stencils, stickers and wheatpaste. They all come together to form a kind of collage which changes and evolves over time.
The loading dock feels like the heart of the art center. Despite the food carts and trucks coming in and out of the garage, there is a vibrant and exciting energy and during the summer they host many parties and events here. Next to the loading dock, there is a small, indoor gallery which at the time of our visit featured canvas paintings. As we discussed the art around the loading dock, Meres explained that some of the highest pieces were done with the help of a crane that was onsite during construction. The pieces across the top – from PC Kid to Dondi – are names of graffiti artists who have passed away. Artists are lost, and other artists step up – literally as high as they can go – to make art in their honor.
At 5Pointz, most of the pieces stay up for six months to two years. However, one piece by has been here a lot longer. In the photo below, under the window and next to “5PTZ dot COM”, the faded pink “Child” is actually older than 5Pointz itself. It dates back to the days of Phun Phactory, the non-profit which operated the site starting in 1993. In 2002, Meres took over and renamed it 5Pointz, suggesting a place where the five NYC boroughs come together as one. The Child piece was there at that time, and Meres has outlined it twice since then.
On a nearby wall is a newer, blue and green piece with a very moving history. Sey One, an artist who became wheelchair-bound due to an illness was hoisted up 2 stories by a team of other artists to do his highest piece ever. This may actually be the final piece of his lifetime, as he passed away in 2011. His work remains as a beautiful example of community support and teamwork through art-making.
As we moved away from the loading dock area, Meres explained how working with graffiti artists in an increasingly popular venue has unique challenges. For example, some artists choose not to come because they do not want to be photographed by the influx of tourists coming to take pictures. Ironically, there has also been a problem with vandalism. Inexperienced, unknown writers have vandalized several buildings across the street, making it harder for Meres and 5pointz to maintain critical positive relationships in the neighborhood with property owners and the authorities. Unauthorized graffiti also appears on designated mural walls.
The tour continued to see some amazing murals around the outside walls of the complex.
In Meres’ favorite mural, James Cochran used a spray paint pointillism technique to finish this portrait. Other recent works by the Australian artist include a famous mural of Usain Bolt to celebrate London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Look closely to see the hearts in the eyes, a signature feature of this artist.
Some murals have a personal theme or message. Meres collaborated with Demer and Shiro to make this medically themed mural for his mother when she was sick. Shiro is a Japanese artist who works as a nurse. It says “Get Well Soon” on the right near the artists’ signatures.
Other artists express a more collective message. This work by legendary artist Lady Pink represents the harm we are doing to Mother Nature as we drill for oil and pollute the earth.
Below Lady Pink’s work is Danielle Mastrion’s 15 foot tribute mural to the late MCA of the Beastie Boys.
Pablo Mustafa works at PS1, which is right across the street. Rumor has it that he was disgruntled at work and asked Meres to tag it with “PS1” to look like vandals did it. PS1 hasn’t said anything about the piece, to date.
At the end of the tour, Meres gave a live demonstration of how he creates his own aerosol art, making it look deceptively easy. We also got to stop by the roof to see more incredible art set against breathtaking views of the city. Unfortunately, publishing photos from the roof is prohibited, so I am unable to post them. You will just have to take the tour to see for yourself! If you are into street art, graffiti, or hip-hop culture, your eyes will be happy. It was a very special experience for me.
You’ll need to get to 5pointz soon, for this tour or for a self-guided visit because the future of 5Pointz is uncertain. In 2009, NYC Buildings department ordered the largest building closed after a stairway collapsed, seriously injuring an artist. Now there is a dispute over what to do with the complex. The owner announced plans to redevelop the property and build high-rise residential towers. Meres has publicized his desire to convert the building into a graffiti museum and possibly open a school for aspiring aerosol artists. During our tour, he seemed cautiously optimistic, acknowledging that the future is uncertain, but also mentioning that he has been in talks with the Long Island City council to expand to another site.
Graffiti and street art is transient by nature. Pieces go up, they live their life for a certain amount of time, and then they get covered by something new, erased, or just fade away. There is something poignant about transient art taking over a building that may be transient itself. That’s what makes a visit 5Pointz sad and hopeful at the same time, and certainly worth your while. Check out the next Sidetour to 5Pointz and read more coverage on Untapped about this spectacular building.
See more photography from Rachel Fawn Alban.