Artists follow me

16 May

I taught this past semester at Brooklyn College, and on my next to last day I had the kind of remarkable cosmic experience that seems to irregularly punctuate my life.  As it happens, I overslept and had to drive in from New Jersey for only the second time, which unfortunately is the fastest and perhaps cheapest way to commute, even as it is environmentally unsustainable and prevents me from getting any work done (other than audio books).  I park on the street near campus and as I was driving around looking for parking, I saw a delivery truck with wonderful deeply colored graffiti on the back.  I made a mental note where it was to go back and photograph it, so I quickly found a parking space, dumped the car, and backtracked to go take pictures.  As luck would have it, the truck had moved up the block, as it was delivering phone books (they still have them?) and so it was perfectly positioned on a side street corner and I was able to take pictures of all three sides.  The delivery guy didn’t mind even though his boss was in the driver’s seat in the cabin.

After I finished I turned and walked toward the college. Half a block away I hear someone behind me ask, “Do you like graffiti?” Up pulls a pizza delivery guy on a bicycle. He had seen me taking photos and tells me his friends had just painted that truck, right after they got out of jail for painting graffiti. He added – and I have to check this – that it’s now a felony and they will no longer send graffiti artists to Spofford (which it turns out has been closed since 2011), but now they are put right “in The Boat” – when I looked puzzled he clarified, “Riker’s Island,” where they will be held for a month. That’s why he’s given up graffiti, it’s not worth the risks, and he was leaving New York to join the Coast Guard soon. He also added the guys who had painted the truck I photographed had also done the tattoos on his arm.

Now I see there actually is a prison barge that’s part of the Riker’s Island prison complex. Another amazing thing I’ve learned about New York City this semester.

I told him I had been talking about graffiti artists in my class, and we had gone to several programs at City Lore on street art, including their current exhibit on subway graffiti of the 1970s. He hadn’t heard of City Lore so I wrote their address down on my card and told him to pay them a visit.

Then after class, I decided to go to Brighton Beach since it was my last free night in Brooklyn with a 7-day unlimited MetroCard. I went to an Uygur restaurant I had been meaning to visit for the past year. When I walked in I was clearly the only non-Uygur/Uzbek/Russian person in the place. (I am trying to protect confidentiality here, so I will leave out the identifying details for now.) But when I asked one young man in the restaurant if he was studying here, he said he was here in this country for exhibitions. “Of what?” I asked, imagining sports, actually. He said, “Of my painting.” It turns out he is a traditional artist from Uzbekistan who first started learning from his uncle and then getting training in school. He paints on wood, leather, and silk paper, and he showed me photos of his work on his cell phone. It is incredible work with a level of professionalism, especially the decorative paintings on wood, that I had not expected. His English wasn’t very good, so when I tried to explain my degree is in folklore (after unsuccessfully trying anthropology and ethnology, which I thought he might have been able to recognize the words for) he had to look on his phone translator app. He’ll be in a show next week so I’m going to go and see all his work for sale.

OK, so the first guy just happened to see me while he was delivering a pizza, taking pictures of graffiti on a rental truck that his friends had painted. It’s understandable, given that amazing good luck, that he would know I am interested in art – and more power to him for coming up to me and asking about my photography. But how did the second artist that night know? What signals do I give off that, like some kind of dog whistle even I don’t know I possess, people are still drawn to come up to me and tell me their life stories. I’ve noticed this ever since I was about 22. I know wherever I am people ask me for directions. And I know statistically that there are many more artists out there than meet the eye, so it should be no surprise that I run into some from time to time given that I am more likely to speak to strangers than many other people.

But still. New York remains a city of artists. Some come to follow their dreams. Some are criminalized.

I also just learned that if there were a 2% dedicated tax on art auctions they could double the budget of the National Endowment of the Arts in just two days in New York City.

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