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New York City in January looks like a smeared image of shades of gray, stuck in a perpetual gloaming. And the sky is a hazy shade of winter. The bare tree limbs look almost skeletal. People don't just walk. They trudge, heads tilted down, collars turned to the cold and damp.
This time of year, it pays to be careful. Dog owners can get lazy in winter. And when you pass a mountain of plastic garbage, it's prudent to be vigilant. The rats feasting on the refuse have an alarming habit of scurrying across the sidewalk just as you pass. In the doorways of some of the many stores and shops that didn't survive the Covid pandemic, homeless people lay bundled and sprawled.
I took a walk on a winter's day, east along 125th Street, Harlem's Main Street. I trudged. And then I saw it. My eyes were drawn to a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. I crossed the street to investigate. It was a wall of murals painted on wooden boards attached to a chain-link fence wrapped around an empty lot overgrown with weeds. Several of them bore the words Uptown Grand Central. What was this?
I walked along 125th, down Park Avenue and then along 124th Street. There were dozens of murals. On the other side of Park Avenue, there were more. They resembled graffiti but not exactly. Many of them bore inspirational messages: Be A Rainbow In Someone Else's Cloud. Hope. "The flower that blooms in adversity is most rare and Beautiful of all." I Am A Hero. Black Is Beautiful. One mural depicted a woman with an enormous Afro reading a James Baldwin novel.
I returned the next day to look at them again and to watch the passerby look at them. It's New York so a lot of people were oblivious, not others paused to gaze at them. The murals reminded me of the gorgeous murals of Coachella, California, but these had an urban feel. The colors were vibrant and energetic. The murals were strangely beautiful and beautifully strange.
Later, I would learn that these murals were commissioned by a non-profit neighborhood group that calls itself Uptown Grand Central, who invited dozens of artists to paint last summer. One of them was Jacqui Martinez, 34, an artist who painted -- "busted out," as she put it -- one of the murals in one frenetic day back in June while visiting.
"I started sketching it out and I imagined this crown of New York and the culture of people being very proud of being New Yorkers," she told me by phone from Puerto Rico where she moved now lives after living in East Harlem. "It's just like a funky, cool character. I just wanted to make sure people stopped and looked at it."
Martinez is a native Californian, born and raised in the Los Angeles area. She began drawing -- doodling, really -- at the age of 4 or 5.
"The minute I knew how to hold a pencil, I think that's always been a part of me," she said. "I was always fascinated with the crayons."
Martinez studied theater design and art education at the University of California at Santa Cruz, then moved to New York where she got a Masters in art education from New York University.
"I'm really inspired by artists like Justin Bua and Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali," she said. "I draw these funky caricatures and sometimes exaggerated expressions or body language with the inspiration of graffiti, too."
She said, "Growing up in L.A., listening to East Coast hip hop became part of me. I really romanticized this idea of New York and graffiti." The dual influences of that romanticized ideal of New York City and her admiration for graffiti can be seen in her painting on 125th.
Robin Alcantara is an artist and businessman. His business, called Blazay (pronounced blasé), employs a half dozen painters who do murals on the sides of buildings, walls, pretty much anywhere. They do work for a major Madison Avenue ad agency and pro bono projects of street art. One of the ones he is proudest of was one of firefighters who perished on 9/11 at an East Harlem fire station. He was invited by Uptown Grand Central to paint the first of the ones on 125th.
"We'd been trying to find a location to paint a mural for DMX (a popular rap musician who died of a drug overdose in April 2021) and that was the wall that popped up first," Alcantara said. "We didn't know what the mural would look like, which is funny. We just free-styled it on location, It wasn't very premeditated. We just showed up and that's what happened."
Alcantara did the portrait of DMX and another artist painted the background. They completed it in five days.
"What's great about street art is how much the community gets engaged," Alcantara told me, "There was one woman who came up to me while I was painting the DMX mural and just thanked me and (said), 'I don't have anything beautiful in my neighborhood to look at and you gave us this mural and thank you.'"
In the spring and early summer, all of the paintings will disappear. They will be covered with white paint to become the blank canvases for new artists.
"I've been a set designer for the theater," Martinez said. "At the end of the show, they start knocking down everything you've designed. I think that helped prep me to not get attached to my work. Just being grateful for the opportunity to paint, especially in street art. You have to be prepared for store owners to paint over what you just made. That comes with it. Be ready to let it go, you know?"
Alcantara, who has worked as a billboard painter, takes a similar view. For him, the impermanence even has a certain appeal.
"I've always been accustomed to painting a beautiful masterpiece and then painting it white," he said. "Surprisingly, I enjoy that aspect of it. I think it makes it more of a legacy." Unlike paintings that live forever, street art exists to be seen, savored, appreciated now, and then erased.
* I should point out that I "borrowed" the italicized lines in the first paragraph from two old Simon and Garfunkel songs, A Hazy Shade of Winter and The Sound of Silence. And, of course, "I went for a walk on a winter's day" is an homage to California Dreamin' (On Such A Winter's Day) by The Mamas and the Papas.