Graf Life

An impromptu museum pops up as street artists seize a building they once illegally tagged

Maybe it all began in the Reagan years with a political snarl or a declaration of love. Whatever they were, those first strokes of paint on the Neo-Renaissance building at 11 Spring Street initiated the creation, haphazard and illegal, of a shrine to self-expression. In mid-December, after twenty years or so of constant chaos, the shrine finally came to an official end—but not before becoming, for three remarkable days, a temporary museum.

The building, originally designed in the 1880s to house carriages and their horses, had for many years appeared abandoned, except at night, when its windows mysteriously displayed candle-like lights. There were rumors of an eccentric inventor, of ghosts, of David Bowie. The exterior, never cleaned, gradually became a kind of wailing wall, a requisite stop not only for graffiti writers but also for a burgeoning number of street artists, a group that steadfastly shuns the gallery system. By the mid '90s, figures, faces, letters, cartoons, stickers, wheat-pasted posters, and even attached sculpture formed a wild patchwork mural that would literally change each night—a strange and colorful irreverence that established the Candle Building (as it had come to be known) as an internationally-known landmark.

Then, about three years ago, the candles disappeared. John T. Simpson, the building's owner and only resident, gaunt and stooped, emerged one day and strolled into Honeybee Robotics, a neighborhood firm, to announce that he was giving away some equipment. James Powderly, a former employee, followed Simpson back into his immense dim rooms. "The place looked like something from a Terry Gilliam movie," Powderly says. Shelf after cluttered shelf, on all five floors, held gadgets for old-fashioned electromechanical automation, which Simpson had installed everywhere. You could push buttons to lower pots and pans, raise the blinds, open the shower curtain, swivel the soap dish. The legend of the inventor had been true all along. Shortly after, Simpson pocketed five million and disappeared, some say to Sicily. The new owner, Rupert Murdoch's son Lachlan, began renovating the interior for a private residence. But after a business dispute with Dad, Lachlan quit the company and returned to his native Australia, putting the place on the market.

Meanwhile, the building's facade, thick with paint, had become a veritable who's who of street-art notoriety. Hard to miss, it caught the eye of Caroline Cummings, a young student of art history and a new partner in her father's Palm Beach development company. With veteran designer Bill Elias, Cummings was looking to make her first plunge into Manhattan real estate. "I couldn't get it out of my head," says Cummings, 26, a candid, easy-going woman who defies all the developer stereotypes you can conjure. "I fell in love with these artists—this whole idea of art for the people, of self-promotion. I thought their work was very tongue-in-cheek, witty, and beautiful. More than anything, I wanted to meet them."

After she and Elias snapped up the place for more than twice what Murdoch paid, announcing their intent to build chic condos, Cummings approached the Wooster Collective, an organization run by Marc and Sara Schiller that celebrates the "ephemeral" art of the street. Together they cooked up an ambitious plan that straddled the worlds of art and real estate, of street cred and big money. Suspending renovations until January, they would turn all five floors into a giant gallery for a public three-day exhibition—as short-lived as most street art--—to honor the building's cultural stature before the power wash wiped it clean.

Schiller beamed out alerts, and the artists, many with monikers and secret identities, began arriving from around the world like Super Friends called upon to demonstrate their special powers. There was Skewville, the beefy identical twins who brandish silencer-equipped nail guns to attach their text-sculptures to walls; Jasmine Zimmerman, creator of giant rubber-band webs; Michael DeFeo, purveyor of iconic flowers; Prune, accompanied by her Chimera baby (half-human, half-dog); Gaetane, assembler of the life-size jigsaw puzzle; Zys, calligraphy master from Tokyo. The "old timers" came, too: John Fekner, stenciler of the city's abandoned buildings in the '70s, and former subway graffiti writers Cycle, the elegant Lady Pink, and the infamous Stay High, now 56, who had emerged after a long absence to sketch, one more time, his joint-smoking figure.

Cummings and Elias footed the bill for supplies and some travel, flying in artists from London, Paris, and Milan. In a weeks-long artistic frenzy, relative unknowns worked side by side with (as Michael DeFeo put it) "some really big dudes," those who'd been crowned by museums and corporations, such as Shepard Fairey, WK, and Swoon. On all levels, the project had become an unusual collaboration of very different worlds.

When doors opened for the exhibit, it felt as if you were seeing, for the first time, the building's brain. The madness visible for so long on the outside now stretched upward five floors to form a dense and massive dreamscape. The artists' works, painted or pasted directly on the brick, created panoramas of color, figures, and abstraction. Black-and-white Schiele-like characters wandered between blocky yellow letters spelling BLAH. The menacing skull of Che Guevara watched a peg-legged cartoon crow spit pink lightning. Zimmerman's rubber bands ran through the place like neurons. And if you ventured into the basement bathroom, you could even find a memory of Simpson, a button activated toilet-paper dispenser.

A few pieces mildly commented on the deal makers—Jace's giant mousetrap baited with bags of money, D*Face's super-sized dollar bill, cleverly altered to mock, and a mannequin executive half-risen into the ceiling, his soles (souls) painted with gold dollar signs—but at an opening night party, the artists were all jubilant, packing the joint without a hint of mourning. WK summed up the general feeling: "A city changes, but there's always a new neighborhood."

As for the developers, they seemed both relieved and astonished. In a pale blue cocktail dress, Cummings was beaming, having admitted earlier to being "starstruck." Elias promised that everything would be thoroughly documented—not only photographed but collected in a book (published, he quickly added, for neither profit nor promotion). And Cummings was considering commissioning work for the lobby or even the condos themselves; already she'd talked to WK about some possibilities. A staircase in her own apartment, too, would be getting the rubber-band treatment from Zimmerman.

With plans to clean the facade still months away, a million-dollar question (give or take another ten) must wait for an answer: will paint and posters appear on the walls again? Schiller, a marketing executive whose instincts lie in the positive spin, downplays the possibility: "I don't think the artists will go back and hit a building just because the address is 11 Spring." Cummings, who considered but decided against providing a special art wall as too "impractical" (i.e. messy), is matter-of-fact. "We can't physically stop them," she says, and then notes, if condo sales go well, the problem won't be hers for too long. For its part, the city is stepping up the pressure; a new law, officially on the books in January, requires owners to remove graffiti or face fines. Another one, still only a resolution, proposes to make graffiti a felony.

As an artist who's tagged the walls for the last fourteen years, Michael DeFeo first suggests, dolefully, that the art's return "would depend on what the new surface is like," but then brightens when he remembers another place just a few blocks away, the Candy Factory on Wooster Street. "That's been continually bombed," he exclaims, and you sense that, despite the new laws, he and his comrades may soon be establishing a new shrine.

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