Musicians on subway platforms. Rock bands at Union Square. Painters and sculptors with showcases on every corner. The energy of art in New York City is undeniable and irresistible. It is what makes the city such an epicenter, and also what brings thousands of hopefuls here every year. The pretty young girl serving you dinner and drinks is probably an actress. The muscled sales clerk at Gap or Banana Republic is probably a model. The cliché of the starving artist in NY is everywhere, but what about the people who are actually doing their art all around you, spontaneously, without expectation or hesitation? I have been inspired, over the past two weeks, by the “guerrilla art” that I have come across in unexpected places. This is a city that is always moving, and likewise, I have stumbled across art that is moving too, in some very literal senses.
Take a trip down to Brooklyn (many Manhattan-ites scoff at the idea). Now here is the catch: turn right around and head back toward Manhattan via the Q Train. Once you’ve reached the DeKalb Ave stop, start paying attention. Immediately leaving the DeKalb station heading toward Canal street, there is a work of moving art. I don’t know how it was done, how it was mapped out, or who did it, but a mural was painted on a wall in the subway tunnel. The trick is, passengers on the train view it through a series of cement pillars as the train flies by. The combination of the perfectly planned mural, the pillars, and the speed of the train make for a moving picture. It is like a living, breathing flipbook of art that catches your eye with its bright colors and shapes. Almost before you can even grasp what you are seeing, it is gone again, but if you are looking for it (or even if you aren’t), it is a spectacular diamond in the rough — a gem in the midst of the grime of the New York transit system.
The Q train (my train, my love) was also the performance venue for another spectacular piece of art in motion (literally) that lifted my city-beaten soul on my way home the other day. Leave it to NYC to give you 40 lashes throughout the day, and then just as quickly turn things around with a one-minute dance extravaganza.
This clip is a video I took of three young guys who unassumingly walked to the back of my subway car, plopped down a boom box, and then let us have it. Break-dancing is one thing, but then there is break-dancing on a moving train. Train commuters can relate when I say it is difficult to even stand without holding onto one of the bars. But these guys danced, ran, flipped, spun, and monkey-rolled back and forth, up and down the length of the car, never even missing a beat. The third musketeer in this trio was a little guy — couldn’t have been more than 10 or 12 years old. The highlight was watching him tossed and flipped into the air, kicking off the ceiling of the car, and then landing right back down to continue the routine. My favorite moment, though, was after they were done. They passed a hat, gathered the meager donations of my fellow riders, and then popped open the train doors to step across to the next car and do it all again. Watching one of the older guys (20-something) take the hand of the young kid and gracefully help him across the wires between the moving cars was poetic in a sort of way. They not only had their dance routine down, they had their whole dance of logistics down. This was what they did; they worked the cars, passed the hat, and moved on to the next. They were artists in motion, performing in motion, doing whatever it took to spread their word.
Union Square can be a circus of artists on most days. You emerge from the subway and are immediately met with booth after booth of jewelry, paintings, photos, t-shirts — anything that is sellable and enticing to New Yorkers and tourists alike. And then there are the performance artists — the ones who are making art and gathering crowds while they do it. On a windy day last week, I was walking through this jungle when I saw a crowd gathered. Perhaps because I’m new, or perhaps because I feel a kindred soul, no matter what, my curiosity at these things always forces me to stop and join the spectators. On the ground was an intricate series of colorful rings and lines building outward — a solitary man, the builder. But as I stepped in closer, I realized the piece was made of sand. Colored bags of stand stood at the ready, and the man simply dipped his hand in, scooped up what he needed, and then sprinkled lines and formations in a totally free-form manner. There was no science or measurement to any of his execution, yet the result was seemingly perfect. As I continued watching, though, a restlessness grew over the crowd because it was, as I mentioned, windy that day. Sometimes an extra strong breeze would kick up, and everyone stiffened with anticipation of the inevitable. This masterpiece would, at some point, most assuredly blow away. The artist, though, never took a pause…he wasn’t there to create a lasting impression beyond the memory that his onlookers would walk away with.
I didn’t stick around long enough to see if the sand would be scattered to the winds, just like I didn’t follow the young break-dancers to the next train to try to recapture their performance, or go on foot to hunt down the mural behind the cement pillars in the DeKalb tunnel. The beauty of street (and subway) art in NY is exactly that — it lives where it lives. It is feeding off the energy of the city, it’s people, and fellow artists pounding the pavement. It also fills the cracks. With a few bucks and a trip to Target, my roommate and I bought cheap caulk to fill the holes and seams of our run-down apartment; likewise (and in a much more awe-inspiring way), these artist are taking pride in their home and filling some of the darker days with a little bit of light and beauty.
The city that never sleeps, this city of constant commotion and motion is also a city filled to the brim with spontaneous works of art. If you take the time to look around, you will be overwhelmed with the abundance of it…or you can let it catch you by surprise, which is sometimes even more lovely.