When news broke in May 2012 that Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch had passed, New York City was moved. And if New York was moved, so was Danielle Mastrion.
The painter and street artist was set to debut her first major public mural that week for the third cycle of the Centre-Fuge Public Art Project on the Lower East Side, when the tragic news caused her to quickly scrap her original idea in favor of a Beastie tribute. Midway through production (as she was using brushes, and not aerosol spray, because, you know, this Parsons-trained fine artist isn’t going to veer away from her style just to fit in for her premiere), an omen appeared.
“As I was painting it, Mike D walked by! I was literally working on his face,” she recalls with excitement. The Beastie Boys’ co-founder and drummer was en route to a nearby juice press and gave a nod of approval. “I was like, ‘That’s the best cosign ever!’ I could die happy now.”
A short time later, she went across town into Queens for a solo MCA mural on the legendary walls of 5 Pointz, the former mecca for street artists that was demolished last fall, marking her first outing with aerosol. “It was kind of like going balls to the wall, throw yourself into the fire, that the first aerosol piece I ever did was on such a graffiti institution,” she acknowledges.
This fearlessness and talented knack for vibrant colors eventually caught the attention of local activist LeRoy McCarthy, who reached out to Mastrion for an homage to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in the summer of 2014. The two have now paired up again for another music-based art project in Brooklyn. Slated to begin in mid-April, if all the permits permit, Mastrion will decorate the walls of the Clinton Hill Key Foods where a young Biggie Smalls once worked.
Mastrion is hyped, not just because she’ll get to combine her art with one of her all-time favorites. (Her karaoke go-to song is a split between Biggie’s “Juicy” and Salt ‘N Pepa’s “Shoop.”) This mural is an opportunity for her to convey one of her community’s heroes in an often overlooked light.
“It’s on the corner that he grew up in, and the people at the supermarket that are donating the wall knew him as Chris Wallace from the neighborhood,” she explains. “They didn’t know the whole rapper and that whole persona. So if I’m going to put a mural up on their building, I want it to be more like the kid from Brooklyn, where he got his start, where he got his dreams from, and that’s something I want to portray rather than what’s been done a million times. I want to focus on the kid-from-Brooklyn aspect of it. If they approach anyone else about this, they’re just going to do another face of Biggie in Brooklyn, and as a Brooklyn native I can’t let that happen.”
This isn’t Mastrion’s first time gracing a New York City wall with the face of the Notorious B.I.G. Previous works can be found in the Bushwick Collective, Art Basel, a storefront at the Bed-Stuy Fly, and more. But in the past few years she’s noticed a saturation of Biggie walls, some separated by a mere block or two.
“I heard from a lot of my friends, ‘Yo, enough with the Biggie murals already!’ ” she says. “It’s almost kind of like it’s been played out a little bit. So that’s why I wanted to be really careful about how this one was done and how it was going to be represented. I’ve been a Biggie fan since the time I was twelve years old, because I felt like, I’m from Brooklyn, and he repped Brooklyn so hard, and the neighborhood that he was from, and would make references to Brooklyn…At the time, before Brooklyn blew up, only people from Brooklyn would get [it]. I knew his records were listened to worldwide, but it would almost be like a little shout-out to all his Brooklyn people when he referenced a store from his corner or bodega where he got something. So if it’s in my hands, how can I represent what I love about Biggie and his lyrics and not just do a portrait that’s been done a million times? I wrapped my head around that.”
On the next page: “This is really dirty and disgusting, but on the other hand, I’m peeling off Lower East Side grit.”
Mastrion was born in Brooklyn in 1982, though she has described it as being born six years before Michael Jackson’s Bad tour. She can’t really remember a time in her life when she wasn’t drawing or painting. Whether it was her father returning home from work, the last day of school with a teacher, or a visit to the pediatrician, Matrion would gift them all her drawings. It was during high school when she began to hone her craft; she credits Edward R. Murrow High School teacher Carlos Rosado with teaching her everything. She holds a B.F.A. in illustration from Parsons School of Design, was Art Battles’ NYC Champion in 2012, and proudly claims to be able to memorize a song’s complete lyrics after hearing it only three times (a feat often challenged by her friends through the car radio). If she’s working in Manhattan, she’ll visit Scrap Yard for materials. If the job’s in Brooklyn, she’ll hit Low Brow Artique. Her favorite spray-paint brand is Montana Black.
The relationship Mastrion has with her city is deeply robust. She’ll light up if your phone number bears a 917 area code, and even a short, curved street bending within Greenwich Village can set her up for a series of fun historical facts. Though she considers traveling to be a big source of inspiration (on what she calls “spraycations”), Mastrion remains embedded in this art community and is well versed in its style.
“I can always tell when an artist is from New York, for the most part,” she says. “I’m not going to say every single time, but at least in the more urban art, street art, graffiti, fine art blend — I can always tell when someone is from New York. There’s just something in their work that I can see…there is a layering quality when I see people do cityscapes or graph pieces, something like that. Peeling back the layers, things have been painted over so many times and things have been rebuilt and built on top. That’s just something that goes across the board and the visual aesthetic of New York. That translates into people’s work.”
So how has this quality figured in to her work?
“When I got there, there were old layers of peeled-off posters that had been painted over, layers of posters which were peeling but half stuck on, glued on. Then at some point, some artist must have come and nailed wood. I didn’t realize until I arrived that all of these things…were sticking out from the wall,” Mastrion recalls of preparing to paint last summer’s Paul’s Boutique homage. “It took at least two hours to scrape that wall. And part of me was like, ‘This is kind of awesome. This is really dirty and disgusting, but on the other hand, I’m peeling off Lower East Side grit.’ There’s history to these chunks of paint I’m peeling off the wall. When I painted over it, they cast really weird shadows, depending on the time of day. So some people will say, ‘MCA’s face is really abstract. What is that? Is that a beard? Or a shadow from the mic?’ That’s not. That’s just something on the wall.”
Though she’s earned her notoriety through murals, tableaux, and portraits, Mastrion’s work typically reflects her surrounding New York milieu.
“I look at every wall and building like a canvas,” she says, peering across the street at a recently renovated apartment exterior. “When I look at buildings, I try to figure them out. Maybe that’s a coffee shop now, but what was there before? Is there an old sign somewhere or an old doorway they bricked up? When I look at walls and buildings, that’s what my mind breaks it down to. I’m always trying to look and see if I can paint it as a canvas or see the layers behind it and try to figure it out.”
And that’s what will keep Mastrion’s rendition of Christopher Wallace from becoming just another Biggie mural: layers of history, layers of local imprints, and layers of New York City.