Welling Court is a ten-minute walk from the raised N and Q subway stop overlooking 30th avenue in Astoria. The street rises against Astoria’s flat topography to form a loop that snaps to a bend at its peak. Adjusting to this angled slope, chain link, barbed wire, gardens, and veladora candles form a twisted necklace strung among closed garages, homes and ill-fated businesses. On every wall are blasts of color reaching one, two or even three stories above the curb.
These murals vary in imagery and scale. Some are slabs of figures, block letters, and patterns that cover entire blocks in neon pinks and greens, bloody reds, painterly blues and golds. Others are delicate figures or illicit scenes hidden behind fences and gates. From the overtly political to the sexual, religious, or monstrous, the murals appear as if a kaleidoscopic backdrop were stretched against brick and cinder block.
Moving playfully and shamelessly is the best way to view the images. With my view obstructed by a truck, I crouch below its hood to study the three dwarfed geishas printed faintly on a two-foot-high retaining wall. One geisha covers her mouth in a whisper and I retract into the car’s undercarriage, a dangerous viewing spot for this field tripper who now scrambles to a standing position, where I am assaulted by a thirty-foot alien descending to earth above a stenciled boy set in a dreamscape of bubbles. I turn to walk quickly across the block toward rows of corn planted under a living room window. A mother and daughter emerge onto their raised stoop. They are off to the grocery store and ask me, “isn’t this nice?”
In 2010, Astoria resident Jonathan Ellis asked Ad Hoc Art founders Garrison and Alison Wallis Buxton to beautify the neighborhood. Today, Ad Hoc Art, a community organization that emerged out of Garrison Buxton’s printing studio Peripheral Media Projects, is a loose network of creatively-minded individuals dedicated to showing work often marginalized by the traditional art scene, tapping into the legacies of pop and underground art, activism, and graffiti. The Buxtons took charge, calling upon the international street art community to bring public art to an area lacking accessible and locally-oriented cultural programs funded by the city. “Bringing creativity and beauty to people directly is very fulfilling,” they explained to Brooklyn Street Art. “It is one of the most unfiltered ways to bring art to culture largely starved of non-corporate, non-advertising-generated media… Maybe it is all an illusion, but it is fulfilling to believe in the power of art to create, inspire, and plant seeds of observation as well as shared experience.” To celebrate these alternative models of community work and public art is reason enough to explore Welling Court. The fact that the area does not appear on Google Street View demands a visit.
Jamal Salaam Sinbay, who has lived near Welling Court for 35 years, believes that the murals and artists inspire the neighborhood’s poor. “This is beautiful,” he shouts, “This neighborhood is changing dramatically… With every reaction you get a change reaction [sic]. You know what I’m saying? And, with every change reaction you get positive and negative so you got to understand the poverty level in this community. That’s why it’s fluctuating. One minute it’s good, one minute it’s bad. People trying to produce to put back into the community, you know?” Reaching into his bag of fliers for the Universal Zulu Nation’s upcoming concerts, Salaam Sinbay says that the presence of outside artists and visitors like myself is exciting, and he hopes that more art comes to Astoria’s streets.
And, since 2010, artists have flocked to Welling Court.
In 2012, over 60 artists participated in the Welling Court Mural Project, now an annual event. The past three seasons showcased stars like Tristan Eaton, Stay High 149, Gaia, Sweet Toof, Michael de Feo, Lady Pink, and Stormie Mills, as well as upcomers Fumero, The Yok, Gilf!, Queen Andrea, and Sheryo. Hailing from Los Angeles, Sidney, Berlin, Baltimore, and Brooklyn, these artists arrive to celebrate the community and possibilities of street art. But their work also celebrates Welling Court itself, the streets of which now house an archive of an emerging street art canon. Tristan Eaton’s work sits in MoMA, Stay High 149 is one of the reclusive visionaries of the city’s early tagging movement, and Gaia was dubbed an “artist-of-the-moment” by The New York Times a few years ago. These artists represent the complexities and anxieties that have followed street art’s rise into the fine art world, which seeks to validate street art through shows, academy training, and high-priced gallery sales, commodifying an historically illicit, individualistic, and subversive mode of creative output. Artists JR and Shepard Fairey, for example, have capitalized on the growing interest in the medium by using their art to engage audiences in highly publicized efforts such as JR’s Inside Out Project and Shepard Fairey’s mascot for the 2008 Obama campaign. As these works gain recognition and attract viewers, we are left to wonder how the loss of street artist anonymity affects persona, authority, and roots in the public art sphere.
For Salaam Sinbay, however, the commercial and global realities of this new breed of “High Street Art” are not hypocritical. He sees the Welling Court Mural Project as an inspiration and enjoys the changes in his neighborhood. “Look,” he says, pointing to his tattoos, “I got art all over my arms. I’m into it. It’s the same as street art, it’s the same.” An artist’s hand is often a welcomed intervention, even if the street or body on which the mark is made belongs to someone else.
Neah and Jasmine, two visitors who sought out Welling Court for its murals, raise similar questions of place, authorship, and ownership, wondering about the control residents have over what’s painted on their homes. Nonetheless, Neah sees a local flair in the murals that is counter — or perhaps complementary — to the attitudes of Manhattan’s cultural houses. “Yes,” Neah concedes, “Welling Court is a curated destination. But street art does happen everywhere around New York. I don’t find street art as interesting in Manhattan because Manhattan already has a lot of money going into it and the buildings are already really well kept and there’s people there all the time. Whereas these are the places that really need public art and the street art feels more interesting.” Furthermore, there are larger issues that transcend the need for localized imagery, such as stigmas against certain body types and girls’ education, and Neah and Jasmine agree that these murals convey these stories in the streets.
Asked if her trip to Welling Court is worth the subway ride, Jasmine, a resident of Boston, smiles, happy to be in space that feels so celebratory and unassuming. “It feels more authentic here than in Manhattan. Anyone can come here. That makes this feel realer than an art institution.”
I continue on my walk from mural to mural. An hour passes and the colors soften in the late-afternoon glow electrified by car lights picking up sprays of gold, silver, and white. These streets without trees and crowds appear bare and bold, and so I walk east on 30th Avenue, stopping at the Crescent Corner Coffee Shop when post-field trip hunger sets in. Costas, the owner, has lived in Astoria for 35 years and works seven days a week to keep the café open and food costs low. We talk about our celebrity look-a-likes (apparently, I am an odd James Marsden, he is clearly Robert De Niro), his distrust of Bloomberg, and the 30 Rock episode recently filmed at his restaurant. Costas has never heard of the Welling Court murals, although Jorge, a waiter who eats a fried egg next to me, visits the murals frequently on food deliveries. “Look!,” he laughs, his iPhone jumping to my face, “Here are the artists!” Every year in June, Jorge goes to the Welling Court block party and poses with the new artists who come to mark his neighborhood. “I don’t stay at Welling Court for a long time,” he clarifies, “I go to see and then I go back. But I love it.”
Asked if he wants to paint the streets, Jorge laughs, “No!”
And as for Costas? “No, I don’t have time to go over there.”
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.