New York City: Street-Art in the East Village & Lower East Side

The Lower East Side of Manhattan is one of the oldest and most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the city, with Irish, Germans, Italians, Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish communities all having a sizeable population and presence in the area over the course of the last century. In the past few decades the area has seen a tremendous amount of change.

In the 1960s, the north-western part of the Lower East Side started attracting artists, musicians, and hippies, and was the centre of the punk-rock movement in the 70’s. As the area developed a more distinct and art-based community it became known as the East Village. Due to it’s close proximity, a trickle down effect started happening into the Lower East Side and over the course of the past 10 years, both neighbourhoods have undergone a rapid gentrification process. What was once home to immigrant, lower working-class citizens crammed into tiny apartments, has now become an area with trendy cafes, boutique shops, and multi-million dollar apartments.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this change started to occur, but the catalyst can be attributed to the street-art that populates the neighbourhoods.

Matt Levy, a tour guide from Levy’s Unique New York, took me on a one-on-one tour of the East Village and parts of the Lower East Side, explaining the history and how street-art shaped it into the area it is today.

I met Matt on the corner of Bowery and Houston in front of the Tony Goldman Wall, also known as the Bowery Mural. In 2008, Goldman and Jeffery Deitch started a project that would give contemporary street-based artists from around the world a chance to display their works on the large canvas-like wall. It’s become a landmark spot since the project launched with very notable street-artists contributing their work, rotating on a seasonal basis. Standing in front of the mosaic-like installation by a Japanese artist named Aiko, our tour began.

The Tony Goldman Wall featuring Japanese artist Aiko’s latest piece.

Now I have to admit, I have a very limited knowledge of “street-art” and for the most part would classify drawings on walls, shop doors, boarded up buildings, garbage cans, etc as graffiti. While this isn’t necessarily untrue, there is a very big difference between graffiti and street-art, and with Matt’s help I learned to distinguish the two.

Graffiti is inward thinking. It’s ego-driven. It’s all about the artist and about him or her getting their name out there. Street-art is outward thinking. It’s about the piece, not the artist. There’s a theme, a story, a picture. It’s about celebrating and enhancing the vibrancy of an area. “Street-art is graffiti with a college degree”, as Matt so cleverly stated.

Left: artist Katsu’s “tag” done with acid on a shop window. Right: a repurposed shipping container.

What I loved most about this tour was that I was an active participant in it. It felt like a scavenger hunt for street-art. While some of the works were easy to spot, others required a bit of patience and a keen eye. Some were tucked down alleyways, stuck on the side of a light post, pasted overhead on scaffolding, or even glued onto door fronts. The longer we walked around, the more I was noticing things for myself. What I once would have walked past and given no thought to, now had me stopping to take a closer look.

A self-described Urban Historian, Matt was a fantastic tour guide. His wealth of knowledge was astounding and his passion for the subject matter was infectious. He could easily teach courses on street-art and its effects on urbanization at a college or university level. With the aid of his iPad and hard copy photographs, Matt would compliment his detailed explanations with historical imagery or additional shots of work by an artist he was talking about.  I found this to be immensely helpful both in relating to and understanding the changes and impact of the street-art scene.

The other thing I loved about this tour was that it wasn’t a tour so to speak. Since it was just the two of us, it felt more like we were exploring the neighbourhood together. We had discussions, I asked a lot of questions, and even Matt was discovering pieces he hadn’t seen before. In fact, he was most excited about checking out a new piece done in part by a well-known street-artist named Veng at Avenue D and 5th Street. Together we were experiencing the piece for the first time.

Matt is just one of the tour guides at Levy’s Unique New York, “New York’s first family of tour guides”. Managed by a father-son team of fourth generation New Yorkers, they provide group and private tours all over the city on unique and diverse subjects such as a Sandwich Tour of Hell’s Kitchen, Bohemian and Beat Poets of Greenwich Village, and Bike Brooklyn Beer Blitz. All tours can be customized to fit your interests and needs. And if Matt’s enthusiasm and character are indicative of the rest of the family, then I can’t wait for my next trip to New York so I can check out some of their other tours.

The goal of this tour is to get people to look in different directions. After our 2-hour tour wrapped up and we said our goodbyes, I suddenly found myself looking at the streets in a completely different way. It was like someone had switched my view from black and white into colour and I was really starting to see things for the first time.

Interested in seeing more images from my tour? Check out this Photo Essay of Street Art in the East Village and the Lower East Side.

A big thank you to Matt and Levy’s Unique New York for providing me with this incredible tour! If you’re in New York City, be sure to check out one of the many tours they offer. You won’t be disappointed.

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