The bustling and crowded New York many of us know is no more, as most of the city remain sheltered at home. Yet while many of us are working from home, a number of artists have taken to the streets to both document the new normal and showcase new projects. Renown photographers James and Karla Murray have been posting videos their YouTube channel of walks through New York’s empty streets alongside their dog Hudson. The latest video, “Graffiti & Empty Streets” shows just that, with artist Steve “ESPO” Powers working on a mural on boarded up windows in Soho.
James and Karla began their YouTube channel to “help raise awareness of the importance of small independently-owned businesses and the unique character these shops add to the streets and neighborhoods of New York City.” Now during New York’s lockdown, they have used their expertise in photography to document the New York neighborhoods they know so well, like the East Village where they make their home, SoHo, and the Bowery.
“We felt it was important to document this historic time as we have never seen the City so eerily empty and with so many beloved small shops, restaurants and bars closed and in some cases boarded up, which stands in direct contrast to the vibrant City we have documented and championed in the past,” the Murrays told us.
In their recent video “NEW YORK LOCKDOWN: GRAFFITI & EMPTY STREETS IN BOWERY, LITTLE ITALY & SOHO,” James and Karla journey up and down the near-empty streets of Lower Manhattan, recording closed restaurants and shops as well as a long line to obtain free food at the Bowery Mission and many homeless people sleeping on the streets. Towards the video’s beginning, a man gives another man sitting on a crate a haircut on the sidewalk, and towards the middle of the video, the camera depicts dozens of closed storefronts in Little Italy, normally one of the most touristy areas of the city.
Perhaps the most promising aspects of their latest video is the emphasis on graffiti, which adds color to the otherwise uneventful streets. From a heart containing the words “I CHOOSE LOVE” spray-painted flowers, the video showcases efforts by recent artists to unite New Yorkers through their art.
One such artist is contemporary artist Stephen Powers, also known as ESPO, who is currently working on a new street mural installation called “Life Drawing in Quarantime.” In the video, James and Karla visit ESPO as he was spray painting boarded-up luxury clothing store windows in SoHo. “We have known ESPO since the 1990s and have always admired his witty manipulation of words, letters and simple characters using social commentary in a way which evokes emotion,” the Murrays said.
On the windows, ESPO depicted a bench underwater with the word “IDLE” on it, as well as smaller messages like calendar pages with the caption “The month of Forevuary 2020.” In another window, he depicted a frazzled globe with legs alongside the caption “GIMME SHELTER” above a roll of toilet paper. James and Karla recorded ESPO in the process of creating his newest installation, as well as him feeding their dog.
“This city is built to be rebuilt, every generation uses the rubble of the last generation to make the city a little better, a little bigger every epoch,” ESPO wrote in a recent Instagram post showcasing his newest works. “These are not the end times but the begin times. Today we wait for the all clear, and Someday we will build a Newnew York City. Soon Forward!”
ESPO has created a number of mural projects for New York including Coney Island’s “Waterboard Thrill Ride” and “R.E.D” for Pier 40, as well as a series of “Love Letters” for Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Syracuse. His works have appeared at the SFMOMA, Brooklyn Museum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. ESPO has a storefront space in Brooklyn near the Barclays Center.
Although it may take a few months or even years for New York to return to its busy self, perhaps the art of ESPO and the videos of James and Karla will bring about hope and optimism for New Yorkers.