“Wake up, New York! Are we kidding? I will be the #1 tourist attraction in this place, and that includes the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty,” boasts Jim Power — a/k/a, New York’s Mosaic Man (so dubbed in a 1988 Voice article) — who has been affixing colorful tiles to East Village light posts for 26 years. Power, 62, is a Vietnam veteran who has been homeless on and off for decades and now lives in transitional city housing in Harlem, a far commute from his downtown canvas. He has bad vision, a sense that’s failing behind thick glasses, and a worse hip; he hesitates with pain as he stands up from a chair. Yet, or perhaps because of, his physical frailties, his fervor for building and refurbishing his mosaics has continued unabated. “When I got into this, I was immortal all a sudden,” he says. This stuff will be around for a long time.”
Like the stories he tells to anyone who has the time to sit down and listen, his mosaics have varying themes. Some spell out the names or slogans of businesses, like the poles and planters near Crif Dogs; some honor the NYPD and FDNY and commemorate 9/11 and the blackout; others denote Village landmarks, spelling out Astor Place and St. Mark’s Place. One light post at Astor Place reads: “All the colors make it more beautiful, not just some of the colors. Wake up, America.”
Though quietly recognizable to anyone who has spent time in the area, the mosaics have yet to make Power famous to anyone but longtime Village locals. He’s never made any significant money for his public work, though he had had some recognition: City Lore, an organization that supports New York’s cultural heritage, honored Power in its 2004 People’s Hall of Fame, and photos of his work have been published in various New York City guide books. He has also created the occasional “private” mosaic for pay — for example, at Coffee Shop in Union Square, China Club in Midtown West, and at downtown speakeasy PDT — but his primary interest is in improving and expanding his public works. “The bottom line is, this is one of the greatest public projects that was ever in the city of New York,” he says.
In the late 1980s, Power set out to make the Village an arts destination with a trail of 80 light post mosaics. At various times, he had a few people helping him, some of whom were on mind-altering drugs and some of whom ended up in jail. “I had a pretty wild crew,” Power says, but he kept working, most of the time by himself.
At the height of the project, he was up to 70 light posts. Fifty were removed under the Giuliani administration for being a form of graffiti, he says. Having weathered the last two decades, several of his remaining mosaics are now in disrepair. There was even a point in 2007 when Power began tearing down his own work, frustrated that he didn’t have the money to restore the poles, or even a consistent place to live. (He’s still bitter that the city spent millions on the New York City Waterfalls — created by a Dane, Olafur Eliasson, two years ago — while ignoring Power’s homegrown works.)
But even when Power complains about the city’s public art choices or, more extremely, when he tells stories about intimidating drug addicts by spinning a hammer in his hand and screaming threats, he has a spirit of the positive about him that underscores the harshness of what he’s saying. “I could be falling off a cliff and have a sense of humor. It’s unfortunate,” he says.
Power believes that part of the reason he’s had trouble getting funding is because he is unable to complete the formal application process. He can read and write, but not well enough to write a coherent letter: “I would say it definitely stopped me…I don’t read and write on a writer’s level at all. In fact, I spell words the way I pronounce them, and I don’t pronounce them right.” In the past, he has called the Public Art Fund and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to get support, but nothing has come of it.
Still, tearing down three of his damaged posts in 2007 was an out-of-character blip for him, a “deliberate act of desperation,” he says. Most recently, Power has been securing posts that need restoration with clear tape and drawing attention to his cause with chalk notices on East Village sidewalks, as reported earlier this month by EV Grieve.
Power has also teamed up with Al Bonsignore, a 23-year-old apprentice/patron, to carry on his mission. Two months ago, the older man was walking along First Avenue when Bonsignore recognized his mosaic cane and approached him. Bonsignore, a native New Yorker who has admired the posts since childhood, hit it off with the artist, and the two began an unlikely but serendipitous working relationship. “Yeah, he’s hooked; he’s done; he’s finished. That’s it — Mosaic Man,” Power says, jokingly bequeathing his nickname to his protégé.
A month after meeting Power, Bonsignore invited him to work out of the basement of the East 5th Street building owned by his father, John Bonsignore, who runs a plumbing business in Murray Hill and co-owns West Village Bar Little Branch with Milk & Honey mixologist, Sasha Petraske. In return, Power is teaching his craft to Bonsignore, who helps manage the East 5th Street building, and the two are developing plans for future projects and ventures that grow loftier and more intricate by the day.
“It’s great for me,” says Bonsignore. “It just feels right. It’s a great de-stressor; it’s a great way to be creative, and it’s just fun.” (Bonsignore also grows medical marijuana in California.) “Growing and mosaics have been my two main focuses right now — and music,” he says.
As such, the two are now working to finish the Filmore East post, a memorial of the old rock venue at 6th Street and Second Avenue that’s now, predictably, the home of a bank. Power started the piece in 1997, but “it was never finished. There was absolutely no money,” he says. Next to The Who’s logo on the pole, there’s a piece of wood from Pete Townsend’s smashed guitar.
Once the Filmore East light post is complete, the pair hopes to create a mosaic outside of the old CBGBs on Bowery. Bonsignore compares working with Power, whom he calls “a legend,” to working with Basquiat or Warhol. “It’s an honor,” he says. “I never dreamed that I would be involved in it.”
Bonsignore is also helping Power launch themosaicman.com, a website that promotes the mosaics as a tourist destination and will eventually include a map of Power’s work. They plan to create new light posts along with refurbishing the old to attract people to the “mosaic trail,” as Power calls it.
“We have the same vision and creativity,” Power says of Bonsignore. “I may have built the trail, but this guy helped to save it. This would be the top tour attraction in New York City!” he said repeatedly.
A local artist who stopped to chat with Power on 5th Street recently told him he needs one tourist before he can attract a million: “Have you ever heard of putting the cart before the horse?” the artist asked. Power was unfazed.
“When people see the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, they don’t go, ‘Wooow, what’s that?’ but that’s what this work gets all the time,” Power says. “People are gonna want to come and touch this stuff.”
In addition to their light posts, Power and Bonsignore are working on the East 5th Street building (watch for its quick background appearance in the trailer of the Julia Roberts’ new movie, Eat, Pray, Love) that houses their workshop. The building’s facade features an existing mosaic of pennies and marbles around the doorway believed to have been created by a previous tenant in 1975. Power and Bonsignore have added to the work, building a mirror mural in the half-circle space above the door and accenting the space with pennies to tie in the other artist’s motif.
Next, Power plans to add a tiled red-and-white barber’s pole in the side panel next to the door to draw attention to the building’s main floor, an old-fashioned Italian-style barber shop, Barbiere, which is run by Bonsignore’s friend. On the second floor, Bonsignore’s girlfriend is starting a vintage clothing shop, where she also hosts small events.
Underneath the barber shop, Power and Bonsignore, not surprisingly, have lofty plans for the currently bare-bones basement mosaic workshop: By the end of summer they want to convert the space into a gallery/shop where they will sell mosaic belt buckles similar to the ones they both wear. They are installing a mosaic countertop in the basement room and both joked separately that they would love to cover the entire space with mosaics. (Bella Tiles, Power’s longtime supply source, would surely approve.) Power excitedly calls the space “the smallest museum in America.”
Throughout all of these projects, Power has another partner, his eight-and-a-half-year-old dog, Jessie Jane, whom he calls his wife, manager, and boss. “My dog, now, is a wonderful creature. My dog likes comfort; my dog has manners; my dog is polite. I want to outlast my dog,” he says.
With his worsening vision, Power is afraid that soon he will no longer be able to see the small crevices between tiles while grouting, and that brings a sense of urgency to his projects. “If I tell you I invented the East Village, a lot of people would disagree, but they can’t prove it,” Power says. “Nobody put their stamp on this neighborhood like I have, and nobody will.”
His young protégé is equally passionate: “Keep it alive, man, keep the arts alive in the Village.”
To donate money to Power, go to PayPal.com, and enter either his e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) or PayPal username (jimpower)