He’s Painting the Streets Red. And Yellow. And Blue.
Posted July 27, 2018 1:28 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — In the early 20th century, Doyers Street was stained red.
Chinatown gangs regularly battled along the Manhattan alley. The narrow dogleg, running from Pell Street to the Bowery, was so violent it earned a nickname: the Bloody Angle.
Now, a century later, a Chinese artist has turned the 200-foot stretch of asphalt into a mural.
Chen Dongfan created the work, called “The Song of Dragon and Flowers,” through the Department of Transportation’s seasonal street program, which creates temporary art-filled spaces for pedestrians.
“The portrait is of the past and the present of Doyers Street,” Chen, who speaks Madarin, said through an interpreter last week. “When I paint a person’s portrait, I use the brush stroke to capture the internal spirit of that person. So as I was painting a portrait of the whole street, I wondered if I could capture the spirit of the street and Chinatown within my strokes.”
For eight days straight, Chen tuned out the world and worked, using acrylic paint and long calligraphy brushes. Jazz, Beethoven and electronic dance music kept him company in his ears. He finished on Friday.
Some are already making special trips to see the installation. “This street has so much character with all the small buildings, it’s very quiet and secluded,” said Edmund Lo, who came from midtown. “It’s beautiful, I think it’s great.”
The street will be a pedestrian plaza, with no daytime vehicular traffic, through Nov. 1.
Earlier, the project had received some criticism. Doyers Street is lined with beauty salons, restaurants and gift stores, and the installation snarled foot traffic and made garbage removal difficult.
Halfway through the painting, someone spilled oil at the base of the mural.
The transportation department coordinated with the Chinatown Partnership, the neighborhood’s business improvement group, to conduct outreach.
But Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dim sum restaurant that opened in 1920, said the group could have done a better job.
“Selfishly, it is a huge inconvenience to my business, what with scheduling deliveries and trash pickup,” Tang said in an email, noting that the confusion had subsided and trucks were now allowed at night.
New York City has built more than 70 pedestrian plazas in the last 10 years, and is adding more through its seasonal street program with the idea of activating public spaces in a vibrant way during the warmer months.
Alana Morales, deputy press secretary for the Department of Transportation, said Doyers Street was the “ideal location for an asphalt mural given the size and scale of the street.” A second seasonal mural is in the Garment District.
Doyers Street certainly provides a unique frame. Small businesses like Tasty Hand Pulled Noodle and the Ting Yu Hong Co. gift shop conjure another time. And recent arrivals like Chinese Tuxedo, a fusion restaurant in a cavernous old Chinese theater, bring modern sophistication.
The side of a building on Doyers and Pell that was once used as a bulletin board for news from back home is now a coveted space for rotating graffiti artists. Photographers, both professional and the frequent selfie taker, stage shots in front of the wall.
Doyers Street gave Chen one of his first impressions of New York when he visited the city for the first time in 2011. He and his wife Inna Xu moved to Williamsburg in 2014.
Chen said he was hesitant to apply for the project because of shows coming up in Europe, but then took a walk on Doyers to “get a feeling of Chinatown,” he said.
“I felt like I wanted to do something for my people and for the city,” he said.
That evening he went home and worked on a sketch.
“I had this vision: 100 years ago, Doyers Street had blood on the street,” he said, “and every morning people needed to clean the blood from the alley. But 100 years later, this bloody alley is covered by a beautiful mural,” he said.
Chen, who has created murals in public spaces around the world, was selected from a group of 11 applicants through a public request for proposal.
This month, he started painting. After putting down four layers of white acrylic paint, Chen began applying his kaleidoscope design. He kept his paints on a cart that he pushed back and forth between the Bowery and Pell Street.
Chen put final touches and his signature on the mural over the weekend and life began to return to normal on Doyers Street. Children danced on the flowers Chen had painted; delivery carts made their drops; young people posed for photos; a large group waited for a table outside of Nom Wah.
And the neighbors approved of the result. Bai Huang has owned Baishi Beauty Salon on Doyers for 35 years. Even as the city changed and rents increased, she said, she kept her prices steady at $8 a cut. She applauded Chen’s work.
“I think it’s very good for the business, it’s a very colorful street, and I think New York has never had this kind of thing,” she said. “It’s magic.”