BY SARAH FERGUSON | Is RCN whitewashing Loisaida culture and history? Celebrated street artist Antonio “Chico” Garcia and the community group Loisaida Inc. are crying foul after the company nixed their plan to create a mural celebrating L.E.S. “heroes” on the RCN cable building on Avenue C.
Chico says he’s been painting that particular wall for the last 25 years. But he ran afoul of the fiber-optic service provider (which leases the property) back in 2008, when he threw up an unauthorized endorsement of Barack Obama for president, with the phrase “America Make the Right Choice.” Obama was on the right in the mural, while his opponent, John McCain, was on the left, next to an exploding oil well.
After Obama won, Chico made the endorsement even more clear, changing it to read “America Made the Right Choice.”
Although it garnered plenty of news coverage, RCN execs didn’t appreciate the mural’s partisan sentiment and had the Obama mural painted over in 2010.
The blank wall quickly became an eyesore — covered in graffiti tags and grimy fliers. So last June, Chico came up with the idea for a new mural to memorialize 15 “pioneers” of art and activism on the Lower East Side.
“I wanted to paint the heroes that made Loisaida what it is today — the people who fought for this community,” Chico told The Villager.
Among the “heroes” to be featured were Nuyorican poets Bimbo Rivas and Pedro Pietri, Armando Perez of CHARAS, housing activists Mary Spink and Ernesto Martinez, and community organizer Doña Petra Santiago, who was known as the “first woman mayor of the Lower East Side” back in the 1960s.
“The concept was to make it a project with middle schoolers and other neighborhood youth, to help them learn about these people and their role in building our community,” explained Elizabeth Colon, a founder of Loisaida Inc., which sponsors the annual Loisaida Festival on Avenue C, and which honored Chico this year.
“On the Sixth St. side of the building, we were going to have the young people paint their visions and hopes for the future,” Colon added. Community Board 3, the Ninth Precinct and other community leaders pledged support.
After the Obama mural fiasco, RCN had said it wanted nothing more to do with Chico. (The company went so far as to try to have cops arrest Chico for removing billboards from the wall in 2008.) But Councilmember Rosie Mendez went to bat for the “heroes” project and Colon said RCN officials initially seemed receptive. Chico and Colon submitted sketches and bios of the proposed “pioneers” and lined up sponsors to pay for the project, which they planned to document online.
At one point, she said RCN even discussed paying for the mural. But officials at RCN also voiced concerns that the work might be too “political.” Hoping to ease those concerns, in August, Mendez wrote to RCN Vice President Bruce Abbott requesting a meeting to discuss the “relevance of the mural” and its “importance to the community.” She never heard back.
Instead, on Tuesday her office got word that a new group of artists was already painting the wall.
“We were shocked,” said Colon. “We have been waiting for a response from RCN for months. Why wouldn’t they even have the respect to communicate with the councilmember and all the people who worked on it.”
The new mural — a cartoonish alphabet design that plays on the area’s nickname, Alphabet City — is currently being painted by a pair of young Brooklyn artists known as The Yok and Sheryo, under the aegis of the Jersey City-based arts group Green Villain.
Founder Greg Edgell terms Green Villain a “creative marketing and design platform.”
“We seek out graffiti-ridden properties and then approach owners to create free public art on them,” he explained. In return, the artists get free exposure for their work (and the prospect of private commissions, for which Green Villain takes a cut.)
Property owners seem to like that deal. In just six months, Green Villain has completed 17 projects in New Jersey and Manhattan — including a vast Charlie Brown-themed mural by Jerkface overlooking a schoolyard on E. 12th St., and several other works gracing pulldown gates and walls on the L.E.S. and in Soho.
For the Avenue C site, Edgell said he approached RCN several months ago after seeing the tagged-up wall — “the worst we’ve ever worked on” — and got the go-ahead at the end of September. Although he’d been unaware of Chico’s proposal, Edgell said he had no qualms about edging out the iconic Lower East Side artist from his turf.
“I know the relevance and history of Chico,” Edgell said, pointing to a small Chico work on the side of a deli across the street from the RCN building. “I personally think this mural has a lot more energy and relevance for the younger generation.”
He gestured to one of the whimsical letters: “It’s like SpongeBob,” he said. “We had some kids from P.S. 64 come by after school and they loved it!”
Passersby who stopped to watch the artists working seemed pleased.
“It makes me smile and laugh,” remarked Robert Gower, who lives on E. Sixth St. “At least something is being done to clean it up,” added Gower, who was particularly grateful they’d painted over the “Kill Whitey” tags that had cropped up there recently.
A cyclist who stopped to take photos agreed: “It’s different than what Chico does. It makes a nice contrast.”
But Chico and other L.E.S. veterans say having the wall painted by a group of “strangers” feels like a slap in the face.
“Is that what they think the community is, ‘A, B, C, D’?” demanded Colon. “When we were talking about representing 50 or 60 years of Lower East Side history?”
RCN’s handling of the commission seems clumsy at best — particularly since the company backtracked at the last minute on a previous mural scheme pitched by the Lower East Side Girls Club to celebrate “Women Who Change the World.” (The Girls Club ended up painting that at the First St. Garden.)
Joseph Gonzalez, director of human resources for RCN, refused to discuss anything to do with the Chico proposal.
“Our entire plan was to help beautify the area and to make sure we had something that sets the right tone for the neighborhood,” he said.
“RCN is about helping build and create community,” Gonzalez added. “So this is a way of giving back to the community.”
But Chico said it feels more like taking.
“That wall belongs to the community,” he said. “He’s disrespecting us and also the community. If he didn’t like our design, he should have said give me something else. Don’t say yes, yes, yes and then go get someone else.”