High school raises the roof with graffiti program


By Casey Samulski

“I think it’s almost a museum.”

With the pride of a new parent, Jesse Pais gestured expansively at the rooftop. Between the ramps and rails of skateboarders’ delight, a rainbow of expression was on view. Works by artists from as far away as Brazil, the Czech Republic and Japan and as close as the Lower East Side covered the brickwork of an era before the concept of spray paint existed.

It wasn’t MoMA, the Met or the Guggenheim — but the roof of Seward Park High School, and Pais is part curator and part dean for the incredible collection on display.

“The majority of the artists here are from the ’80s,” he explained, pointing out who’s who. Among some of the better-known names are Part, Wane, Revolt, Zephyr, Doc, Wolf, Team, Ewok and Trust Your Struggle. He knows because he grew up in the street art movement, not just as an admirer but a participant.

“I haven’t had any contact with it for 10 years,” he admitted shyly, but he also mentioned that he personally knew more than half of the artists he asked to be a part of Rooftop Legends, the transformation that brought these murals to life.

To Pais, what has been done on the roof is truly a service for the school, performed on what he called a “zero dollar budget.” All of the artists covered the costs themselves, which he gratefully acknowledged.

“The artists made it possible,” he said. Not that Pais wouldn’t like to put money into the project. “If we get funding, we could hit the tops of all the walls,” he explained. But for now the murals remain largely on the lower half of the roof.

Going onto the roof for the first time is a surreal experience, like being transplanted in time back to the era of the “Style Wars” documentary and the origins of hip-hop, breakdancing and graffiti culture. Murals of all styles and substance are on display, from the political to the artistic, extravagant to subdued. There are stirred echoes of “bombing trains” — turning the outsides of subway trains into colorful murals — which for some graffiti fans, harkens back to free expression, youth and resistance to authority.

From the outside, the building at 350 Grand St. seems not particularly extraordinary, a typical high school. Seward Park High School, started in 1905, was a place for the immigrant populations of the Lower East Side to excel. It switched from its original building to the current one in 1927. But a few years ago, Seward Park was broken into five separate high schools, all cohabiting in the same building. Five years ago, Pais came on as dean of one of these, the New Design High School.

New Design had begun using the rooftop space for film screenings to help fundraise. But after a particularly successful class on hip-hop history, last summer, Pais began to brainstorm ideas to use more of the students’ cultural heritage in their education.

Scott Conti, principal of New Design, agreed with the approach.

“Often this culture is taken negatively,” Conti said. “But hip-hop culture is completely around the world, and it started in the South Bronx.” Conti called hip-hop the biggest cultural revolution “since the Internet,” one of serious value that should be respected and treated accordingly.

Though Conti and Pais had long been scheming on how exactly to use the unique opportunities on the school’s roof, nothing seemed to click. Leaks made a proposed garden unfeasible, and ideas seemed to dwindle. Conti recalled the “moment of awe,” when, standing there together, they realized the brick walls and open-air design would cater perfectly to a mural exhibit. Rooftop Legends was born.

Ben Rojas, an artist who teaches design at the school, worked to create student-artist teams for the roof, allowing the teens to learn graffiti art from the experts. Rojas has his own work up on the roof, and puts a piece up each time the works are renewed.

One of his students, sophomore Ryan Pacheco pointed out his mural that stands out even next to the older, more established artists. Pacheco noted he wasn’t satisfied with the quality — his trained critical eye pointing out flaws — but was eager to get started on his third piece next spring.

It’s this kind of student involvement that is exactly what Conti hopes to grow out of their efforts in the space.

“That’s what the roof is supposed to be,” he said, “building bridges to the community from the school.”

Conti said empowering the students, turning curatorial responsibilities over to them, is the next goal. They become the guides and protectors for the space, guardians for the culture. They also inform the teachers.

“It’s nice that to think that these kids actually have something to teach adults,” he said.

Conti is already planning on programs to teach students how to be tour guides and arbiters for the other events that want to use the roof space.

Pais seemed to think the students were already ready, noting the great respect with which they’ve treated the art.

“Not one piece of art has been defaced,” he said.

Conti said that having these works in a school, in such a protected way, will ensure there remains a place for graffiti art in New York City, even with tighter laws and enforcement. The art-lab roof also has become an effective fundraising tool for Conti and the rest of the school administration.

With roughly $90,000 slashed from the school’s budget, Conti has been organizing around the space as a method of income replacement to keep improving the school. He called it “no different than the P.T.A. running a bake sale.” Except in this bake sale, it’s Google that’s buying the cookies. The Internet giant is one among many to have held an event in the space. Being able to reach out to companies and communities like these are what makes Rooftop Legends such an important part of the school, Conti said.

The culture of the Lower East Side lives on in quiet oases like community gardens and this school’s hidden rooftop. Whether or not people appreciate just how rare it is, just like any art, that’s a matter of taste. As Pais said, “The word ‘graffiti’ — either you love it or it scares you.”