In these troubled times, street art is more vital than ever. We rely on muralists and taggers to give voice to the issues of the common people, and to share their ideas in ways that feel accessible to us all. They work in the medium of the moment, creating beauty in the unlikeliest spaces and challenging us to think deeply about the world. One artist, one message, has the power to uplift people. In short: Art matters.
This is clearly evident in the newly released book, Eleven Spring: A Celebration Of Street Art — which tells the story of taggers, muralists, and paste-up makers taking over a building in 2006, in Manhattan’s Nolita. The collective included now famous names like JR and longtime art world star Shepard Fairey. It was a celebration of the space and the evolution of the neighborhood and, in a testament to the fleeting nature of street art, was all but erased the day after the installation ended.
We sat down with one of the books creators, Sara Schiller, to discuss why this moment in time was important and what it says about ever-changing nature of NYC.
What’s the elevator pitch of Eleven Spring: A Celebration of Street Art?
“Eleven Spring” celebrates the tenth anniversary of a project that we did in, obviously, ten years ago in 2006, where we took a building, Eleven Spring, that had been one of the cornerstones of the outdoor graffiti and street art galleries for many, many years and was being turned over into condos with gentrification that you can’t stop. The building’s owner gave us the keys and we went in and had 100 artists from around the world paint on the inside, and then we opened it up to three days for the public for free, with no branding or any support, to come in and see the space, and take pictures of it. To touch it and to write on the walls themselves.
At that point in time in 2006, you still couldn’t take a photo of a piece of art in the MOMA or a museum or anything. We really made the art, which had been on the outside of the building, and we really honored that and allowed the city to say goodbye to the building, but also allowed the city to celebrate the creativity and inspiration that comes from living here. We had a lot of people tell us that since September 11th that they hadn’t remembered a reason why they lived here and that this project and seeing the art reminds them of why they live in New York City. This is the kind of thing that happens spontaneously.
That’s the kind of stuff that makes New York, New York when you think about it.
What artists did you have on the bill? Who contributed to Eleven Spring?
I think what’s interesting at the time is many of these artists were probably not as well known, so the well-known artist at the time was Shepard Fairey. Black Lorete from Paris, from France. Other artists that we had, or have, that emerged over the last ten years is JR, Mya. We’ve had Dan Wits, we’ve had Iko. Invader was there…
A good variety. We had some classic graffiti artists like Lady Pink and Wooster Collective. Classic street artists who do stencils. Then we had some pure fine artists like Prune, who I would argue doesn’t really do that much street work.
By rallying these artists and by utilizing the space, was there a common thread that you asked them to do or did you just ask them to come in and create something?
Each artist was given a certain amount of wall space and they could really do anything that they wanted. I think the artists, many of them, because remember this was ten years ago, probably did what I would consider is their classic style today. You would recognize them today by what they put up on the walls then. They also really utilized the interior, so they painted and used the windows as part of their pieces. They painted and utilized the stairs. There were elevators we painted over, there were big, old, mechanical heater systems that hang down. The square boxes.
They really tapped into the physicality of the space. It wasn’t a gallery, white-wall mural project. There were lots of bumps and things along the way that they interacted with.
Is the book a collection of what was created 11 years ago or is it a story of how it came to be?
It’s both. It starts with talking about the building itself, the horse stables and the history of the neighborhood. You get a feeling for the gentrification that’s happened in Nolita and the importance the building has to a community over time. Then just talking about the process of getting all the artists in and we organized it at that point by floor. The artists went up as they came in. We started from the bottom and went up, ending at the top with this amazing barnstormers, the barnstormers did the entire top floor in one piece for the collective.
Did any of the artists contribute their version of the story?
Then both JR and Shepherd talk about what it was like, they both write essays and they talk about what it was like during that time at the show. We end the book with looking at the outside of the building and how that’s evolved over time and tapping into the feeling of the people who were watching this exhibit, so to speak, and interacting with it.
At one point during the seven weeks, we had a graffiti crew come in and they painted the whole outside of the building in silver paint, the DYM crew. They were a neighborhood graffiti crew that was pretty strong and once they painted the whole outside of the building silver, it was the morning that we opened up the show to the public, so it created a silver backdrop for people who were waiting in line and experiencing the show, to actually write on the walls themselves.
Then we handed out markers and so everyone … People who were not street artists were writing on the outside of the wall during the show and just the everyday person was given permission to interact with the building. There’s something really powerful about writing on walls.
I think many of us today after the election feel even more … It’s even more important, this freedom of speech and the ability to have some control over your public space.
You mentioned gentrification a couple times, was the idea behind the project to combat gentrification or just bring an eye to it, or where did you stand on that topic?
We believe that gentrification is sort of the life of a city. We’re not against it.
I think that we believe that it’s really this process of different groups mixing that creates the opportunity for messages to get seen and heard. As these neighborhoods were changing, you still had outposts of street art and graffiti that the people who were gentrifying the neighborhood would still come upon and see and interact with. The artist really chose the location very purposefully to connect with the stores or the buildings that were around the pieces.
Okay, so rather than viewing gentrification as one group being pushed out by another, you’re talking about it in the sense that it’s a clashing of cultures and a mixing of cultures in that way?
you know you’re not going to stop it, right? It will all come back again. We’ll cycle back around.
Is the building still there?
Oh yeah the building is there. We have a picture of it in its state today. It’s all white-washed on the outside. It’s a beautiful building. Condominiums.
When did that transition happen?
It started the day after we finished our show. They started the renovation.
That world moves fast, huh?
The woman who bought the building had an art history background, the developer, and she reached out to us because she wanted to honor the artists who’d been putting work up on the outside of the building before she went ahead and cleaned it.
She actually really respected the artists and respected the art. This was a way for her to in a sense give a little bit back to the community and the artists by allowing them inside the building, which no one had ever been in, and the building had such a crazy history. The owner had been a set designer or set maker for Broadway. He had all kinds of inventions in the space and he put candles in the windows at night.
The building had its own history and aura about it and she allowed the neighborhood to come and see the inside of the building before she turned it into condos. I think it was her attempt to at least try to give a little bit back knowing that the building was going to transform.
Street art, just by virtue of being street, is fleeting, right? It’s not meant to be there forever. It’s meant to be exposed to the elements and to change with the community to some degree. I think that that’s a beautiful, natural progression that that’s how it went.
Yeah. We don’t know what’s behinds the walls. I think we know a lot of it had been taken down by the process of construction, but we still believe there are pieces, perhaps parts of pieces that are covered up back there. Kind of like 100 years ago construction workers used to put newspapers in walls as a sign, “We were here, this was when it was built.”
The art is sitting back there for some future generation to unveil and discover.