A century and a half ago the notorious Gas House District of New York got a new building. It was designed to house a new police station, as the neighborhood was desperate for some order. There was nothing particular about the building itself, it followed the common architectural rules of the age, with a simple eclectic facade and reduced ornaments in brownstone and iron work. This was the original 21st Precinct, finished in 1863, soon to become the symbol for violence, corruption and forced order in the gang occupied hood.
Hidden Layers of History
Not many people today know the rich history this building holds, nor how one of its firs Captains, Alexander S. Williams, was both revered and feared, as the most powerful man in the district, as he imposed a reign of terror and corruption among gangs and brothels. The 21st Precinct dynamic life did not end there, and in 1913, 9,500 arrests were made in the area, significantly surpassing the number of apprehensions of any other precinct in the city. After being ‘disowned’ by the NYPD, the building continued standing for 50 years, and its most recent function was a halfway house for LGBT teens, now entering the hall of fame of the history of street art. Old as it is, not architecturally significant enough to be restored, the house was bought and scheduled for demolition, but even the investor agreed that a place of such a vivid past should not go in silence. So, a graffiti show came as the perfect solution, the ephemeral spectacle honoring the past and the nature of the infamous structure, before it’s gone at the end of the month.
The artistic takeovers of buildings are not a novelty, and while some are complete, others are illicit, secretive and partial, as some artists decide to only pay homage to important landmarks they are inspired by.
Exhibition at the Precinct
Organized by Outlaw Arts and curated by Robert Aloia, a large group of about 50 international street artists from the city and the country, but also Japan and Australia, was invited to paint the precinct completely on the interior, while the exterior facade was not to be changed. The provocation of the strong satirical undertone of the whole event is hard to overlook, since graffiti is still considered an offense in NY, while one of the creatives painting here was actually arrested in a Brooklyn borough prior to the painting event. Knowing that the main gallery area was once actually a holding cell gives the event an even stronger note of irony.
Swan Song Sang by Offenders
The artistic response has proven to be amazing, as they completely altered the walls of the place, with more than one suggestive mural commenting on the status of street artists in the eye of the law. Among the participating artists, there are some of the most and wider. The full roster of participating artists includes Adam Dare, Al Diaz, Amanda Marie, ASVP, Bad Pedestrian, Ben Angotti , Bill Claps, Bishop203, Bunny M., Cash4, Chris RWK, Chris Soria, Coby Kennedy, Curtis Kulig, D. Gaja, Danielle Mastrion, Dasic, Dizmology, Duel, ELLE, Erasmo, Esteban del Valle, Faust, Ghost, GIZ, Hellbent, Hue, Icy & Sot, Iena Cruz, Jesper Haynes, Justin Carty, Ket, Lexi Bella, Li-Hall, Lorenzo Masnah, Matt Siren, Mr. Toll, N. Carlos Jay, Nepo, Nick Tengri, Pesu, Phil, Pixote, RAE, Rambo, Ricardo Cabret, SAE, Savior Elmundo, Shery-o & The Yok, Shiro, Tone Tank, URNY, Vexta, and X-O. Judith Supine, for example, has made a melting black wax sculpture she lit on fire and filmed withering away and changing. Al Diaz payed an homage to his once street buddy SAMO, while Swedish photographer Jesper Haynes made a ‘dark room’ presenting images from Reagan era in the city.
When and Where
The exhibition is entitled 21st Precinct and it represents an eclectic mix of artistic media and expressions, having old school graffiti approach in focus. Colorful in every sense, the show is actually a final flip-off by the artists to the authorities, until their quintessentially ephemeral creations are forever destroyed to make way for a new luxury condominiums.
The 21st Precinct can be viewed for the last time [literally – LAST TIME] this coming weekend, August 23 – 24, 2014, on the original location at 327 East 22nd Street, from 6pm.
All images – Courtesy of BSA.