With paint splattered on his jeans and bags beginning to form beneath his eyes, Thierry Guetta has hardly slept for over three days. Known to most as Mr. Brainwash — the 50-year-old, French-born street artist who served as the subject of Banksy’s 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop — Guetta has been busy putting the finishing touches on his latest project.
On Wednesday afternoon, after two weeks of frantic, insomnia-driven collage-work, he succeeded in completing a gargantuan 65-by-225-foot mural commemorating those affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Mounted on the wall of the Century 21 department store at 1972 Broadway in Lower Manhattan, just blocks away from where the twin towers once stood, the memorial is Guetta’s second attempt in two years to celebrate the resilience of post–9-11 New York through art.
“Last year, we were here during 9-11, and we had people [approach us] that had lost husbands; some people were coming and crying in our arms,” Guetta, who created the mural with the help of a small team of apprentices, tells the Voice. “They said, ‘Thank you.’ We did something that people felt good about, so why stop that? We don’t want to stop.”
Though Guetta was raised in Paris and has spent the past 35 years living and working in Los Angeles, last summer he was visiting New York City and found himself repeatedly pushing his flight back, changing his ticket more than a dozen times. He felt he wanted to be a New Yorker and, after visiting the 9-11 Memorial & Museum on Greenwich Street, decided to pay homage to an event that still looms exceptionally large in the city’s collective identity.
“It’s not where you’re from, it’s how you feel,” explains Guetta, who now splits his time between New York and L.A. “I feel that it was something important. It was not just about New York City, it’s about the world. The world was touched, the world was aware.”
Last year, Guetta’s mural featured a giant American flag painted beside the words “We love New York.” The far right corner of the building depicted a crouched fireman spraying the silhouette of a dripping heart with his hose. At the time, the mural was criticized for being sloppily executed and too reliant upon cultural clichés.
Here’s an interview the Voice did with Brainwash after he completed his mural last year:
But while today’s mural continues to miss much of the underlying pain and sadness that lingers in the city even fourteen years after the attack, the wall is, at the very least, more visually stunning this time around. Blotches of pastel colors speckle images of iconic New York people and places: Jackie Robinson; the Empire State Building; the city’s firefighters, police officers, and first responders. Some of the portraits are explicitly linked to events that took place on 9-11; others, not so much. (An image of Albert Einstein hoisting a picket sign that reads “Love is the answer” seems somewhat out of place.)
Though the mural itself — and its hashtag-able title, #NYCIsBeautiful — may feel a bit trite, ultimately it aims to accomplish something positive, existing downtown as a vibrant celebration of the city’s rich history and more recent rebirth. The fact that the piece sits on the side of the Century 21, a building that was decimated after the towers fell in 2001, is cause enough to rejoice.
“There was nothing here. It was like Vietnam,” remembers Isaac Gindi, co-owner and executive vice president of Century 21. He’s sitting in his office above the department store as Guetta strolls in and out, smoking cigarettes on an attached patio overlooking the city. “Everything was destroyed. There were no buildings, there were no sidewalks, there were no people.
“But we said, ‘We’re going to stay here, because we are committed to New York,’ ” he continues. “We’ve been here for 54 years, and we love this city. We’re not moving anywhere.”
Fourteen years ago, Gindi says, he watched in horror as the second plane hit; the store’s headquarters were so close to the World Trade Center that one of the plane’s engines landed on the building’s roof. Gindi struggled to rebuild the company in the wake of the tragedy, as customers became increasingly scarce downtown, and Century 21 was forced to seek a grant from then-mayor Rudy Giuliani in order to stay in business.
Today, Gindi has become something of an amateur art collector. An original Banksy piece hangs on the wall of his office, and he has forged an unlikely and lasting friendship with Guetta after commissioning a painting from him two years ago. Now, with a revitalized downtown and a mural painted triumphantly on his wall, Gindi says things have never been better.
“New Yorkers are proud looking at that mural, because we came back,” he explains. “We were the first ones here and we stuck it out, so that’s why we’re honored to have that mural on our building.”
But for Guetta, the piece ultimately seems to exist less as a work of art and more as a living remembrance. Next year he hopes to expand the project to include ten buildings throughout the city.
“Do you remember?” Guetta seeks to ask those strolling by his mural in the coming days. “Voilà.”