By Sally Deering
International street artists like “Big Foot,” “Kid Zoom,” Jason Maloney and Ron English travel the globe creating art on the urban landscape. The artists – all world renown – paint murals on big concrete canvases like bridges, embankment walls and building facades that draw tourists, bring ka-ching to a city’s coffers and transform dilapidated structures into works of art. And because they’re painted on concrete walls, the artists’ works can’t be bought or sold or compete with the gallery sales of their paintings, so they do it all for free.
The Jersey City Street Art Initiative is like many public art happenings taking place in cities around the world. English, a Jersey City resident, worked with several street artists on a “Separation Wall” in Palestine and just returned from Miami, Florida where he was invited by real estate mogul Tony Goldwyn to create murals in a neighborhood of broken-down buildings to help transform it into a hip and happening hub of homes and restaurants. (Back in the day, Goldwyn initiated the transformation of Soho in New York City from a neighborhood of abandoned warehouses into a hip and thriving upscale arts district.)
“In Miami, that whole neighborhood is being filled with murals by most of the famous street artists on the planet and now they have all these galleries there and really nice restaurants,” English says. “We did murals on a Separation Wall in Palestine and people flew in from Tokyo and Switzerland to see the murals we worked on. Then I go back to Jersey City and wonder why we can’t get something going on here. If we had a big mural project we could attract tons of tourists and catch a boon to the economy.”
English took his idea to Greg Brickey, art curator at the Jersey City Office of Cultural Affairs (and also an artist) and Bob Antonicello, Executive Director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency who embraced the opportunity to transform some of Jersey City’s blight spots into works of art. Since the Initiative began more than a year ago, several murals have already gone up. On the brick façade of the Hudson County Art Supply building on Newark Avenue and Coles Street, English, Big Foot and Jason Maloney created a whimsical mural depicting a wide-eyed child in shorts and T-shirt emblazoned with an upside-down peace sign. Several artists including
Christian Santiago and Megan Gulick of Jersey City are painting a block-long concrete wall between Oakland and Baldwin facing the General pencil factory. And Big Foot, who English describes as “Rembrandt with a spray can,” has been working on a section of an embankment wall on Baldwin Avenue near Journal Square. Plans are also in the works for a temporary wall gallery in the east plaza of the Powerhouse station in downtown Jersey City.
“There’s an explosion of street art here,” Brickey says. “Every two weeks another piece goes up. We’re not focusing on one area. We’re looking for spots where the work will fit into the environment and become part of the environment rather than disrupt what’s happening. The plan is really to let it happen in the most organic way possible.”
On a walk in the Heights section of Jersey City, you’ll come across a mural of bright colored fish, ducks and bunnies on the side of Daisy’s Cleaners, a 20-foot-by-25-foot brick wall on the corner of South Street and Central Avenue. The mural is by Megan Gulick, a local artist who is also one of the artists painting the block-long mural on Baldwin.
“I like painting big and I thought it would be fun,” Gulick says. “I’m more of an illustrative painter and most of my work has been indoors and I want my stuff to be bigger and I don’t care if they sell. I also want to give back to my community.”
Gulick says she enjoyed painting the mural on Central Avenue because it got her in touch with the people in the Heights neighborhood.
“I met a lot of great people in the Heights, some special little kids,” Gulick says. “One little girl gave me a bracelet and I gave her a little fish painting. There’s definitely a community there and I’ve gotten some honest responses to the mural. It’s a very colorful, bright happy piece and a tribute to the Heights.”
As Executive Director of Jersey City’s Redevelopment Agency, Antonicello sees the Jersey City Art Initiative following in the footsteps of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project, where street artists paint murals featuring the likenesses of real people who live and work in Philly’s neighborhoods. The mural painted at the Hub, an intersection on Martin Luther King Drive in the Greenville section of Jersey City was a neighborhood-based project painted by street artists, local children and teachers from Snyder High School.
“We call these types of projects soft redevelopment,” Antonicello says. “It’s not bricks and mortar, but just as important because it sends a positive message to the people who work and live in that neighborhood.”
Jersey City stands right across the Hudson River from New York City, the art capital of the world where internationally-acclaimed artists display their works in museums and galleries and outside in parks and on the city’s streets. According to Antonicello, approximately 30,000 artists (in the visual and performing arts) claim art or art-related work as a large source of their personal income. They make Jersey City their home, in part, because of its proximity to New York. At least that’s how it starts. Then, as the artists settle in they begin to fall in love with the place, make friends with their neighbors, raise families and get involved in their community.
“We’re lucky in Jersey City to have this community of artists here,” Antonicello says. “They are the invisible hand bringing art to the people. Not everyone can go to a gallery or museum, but if you’re walking down Central Avenue to the Brennan Court House, take a moment when you’re on Baldwin Avenue and look up at the wall. You’re going to be somewhat stunned, 140-yards of top-notch street art in what was a pretty ugly spot.”
The Jersey City Street Art Initiative is not city funded or federally funded, but accepts private donations that Antonicello says are easily offered by members of the community. When Antonicello approaches local real estate developers for donations, he never gets ‘no’ for an answer, he says, and so far the Initiative has raised $18,000, much of it used for summer job salaries for the kids involved in the Hub mural and stipends for the artists along with paint supplies. Other donations roll in too, like 20-gallons of primer they just received.
The mission of the Jersey City Street Art Initiative is to bring art into local neighborhoods in locations that will have the most impact on the community.
Public art has always been a part of human history,” Antonicello says. “In Jersey City, we don’t have commissioned outdoor art, so how do we fill that need? We choose good walls, good canvases in highly visible locations where a statement can be made, where people can be uplifted and with the help of artists like Ron English, we’re presenting a high-level of art to the people. We’re not rendering any opinion that people will like everything they see, that’s the nature of art. Leondardo Da Vinci was an artist and so is Kid Zoom and so are the kids who painted the mural at the Hub, in their own right. For the folks going into the Hub, all those kids were Leonardo Da Vincis.”
For more information, go to www.thejcra.org
Here are some more photos of Wall Art captured by our photographer Newsboi around Hudson County. These photo’s may not represent wall art affliated with the Jersey City Arts Intiative.