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Murals in NYC: 501(See)(Streets) nonprofit sponsors street art in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx

At an Amtrak underpass tucked away in Astoria, Queens, a man and a woman stand opposite one another with paint rollers and spray cans in their hands.

They’re putting the finishing touches on two giant murals — each one slightly bigger than a subway car — showing ancient Greek motifs, the national flag and philosophers like Socrates.

In Astoria, with its large Greek community, the two murals allow residents to celebrate their heritage, says Marthalicia Mattarita, the murals’ artist and a Harlem native.

“The other day, this woman came to me and said, ‘Wow, I get to walk by and be reminded of how proud I am to be Greek,”” says Mattarita, who has painted more than 30 murals in New York City.

The murals are just one of 15 projects that Noah Sheroff, a 29-year-old Queens native, has spearheaded in the last two years.

Sheroff is the founder of 501(See)(Streets), a nonprofit organization that recruits professional artists to paint outdoor murals for NYC community groups looking to beautify their neighborhoods. Community groups range from businesses to police precincts to civic associations.

“We’re like the intermediary between the artist and the community groups,” says Sheroff, who works with a network of 25 artists.

For artists who don’t have studios or a lot of money, street murals provide an avenue for showcasing their talent, says Lisa Bateman, an adjunct associate professor of fine arts at Pratt Institute.

“I think street art started as a response to the economy,” says Bateman, who specializes in installation art.

Outside, there’s no need to impress curators or art dealers, a typical hurdle. The public is the only audience.

501(See)(Streets) completed its first mural project in the summer of 2014, but it wasn’t until January 2015 that it officially became a 501(c)3 nonprofit. So far, the nonprofit has completed 15 murals in New York City, mostly in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.


As Sheroff and Mattarita work on the Greek
Photo Credit: Wendy Lu

As Sheroff and Mattarita work on the Greek murals, Kitty Prager, a neighbor who lives next to the Amtrak underpass, comes out to give them bottled water. A few weeks ago, a gentleman from the adjacent Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York brought Greek food.

Leaders of the Greek-American nonprofit had frequently complained to the City Council about graffiti on the underpass.

501(See)(Streets) tends to focus on areas that are known for having high crime rates and graffiti complaints. Before the Greek murals were painted, the Amtrak underpass was frequently tagged with graffiti -- "a total mess," Sheroff says. Councilman Costa Constantinides, who represents the City Council's 22nd District, co-sponsored the project.

"We've continuously worked on (graffiti) removal, yet we've been unable to stop it. So we are working with 501(See)(Streets) to do these murals and improve the landscape of Astoria," Constantinides says.

Prager, who has volunteered for many years to blot out walls tagged with graffiti in Astoria, says she thinks the murals help deter graffiti.

Now, what was once a go-to wall for taggers has, as Sheroff puts it, become a "little Athens."

Street murals that don't get tagged tend to remain in neighborhoods for years, says Vince Ballentine, an artist who worked with 501(See)(Streets) on a mural for Il Triangolo, an Italian restaurant in Corona.

He says the street murals are "for the people."

"It goes from being a bunch of spray paint and an idea to something that's going to live with someone for the rest of their lives," Ballentine says.

The Bronx

The first mural project that 501(See)(Streets) completed was
Photo Credit: Yeho Hwang

The first mural project that 501(See)(Streets) completed was a portrait series of legendary Yankees baseball players near Yankee Stadium, in collaboration with the Business Improvement District for 161st Street.

Community groups typically pay for the murals, Sheroff says. The price for a mural on a wall outdoors can range between $2,000 and $6,000 each, depending on the mural design and size of the property.

Cary Goodman, the executive director of the Business Improvement District, says she's seen a "remarkable" increase in traffic at local businesses near the murals.

"(They've) served as a bridge between the Yankee organization, the Yankee team and the neighborhood that has housed them over the years," Goodman says. "Because of what the murals represent, they are also tourist attractions."

Featured players include Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and minority players such as Mariano Rivera and Elston Howard.

"The Bronx is majority Hispanic and black, so I think it's a good idea to have a representation," Goodman says.

Muralist André Trenier, who painted several of the Yankees portraits, agrees that every neighborhood has unique qualities and a different history.

"As an artist, you should always be aware of where you're painting and how the art reflects what the conversation is in that community," Trenier says.


Globetrotters like
Photo Credit: Yeho Hwang

Globetrotters like "Solus," a street artist from Dublin, Ireland, fly from all over the world just to paint in Brooklyn, a huge platform for outdoor art. Solus, who goes by his street artist moniker, has worked with local street art organizations including the Bushwick Collective, the Lisa Project and, beginning in 2015, 501(See)(Streets).

Last summer, he painted a half-filled glass of milk against a blue background for Postmark Café in Park Slope. The café's owner, Katie Love, says she constantly sees people taking selfies with the mural and posting them on Instagram.

When Love told Sheroff she wanted a mural that had to do with coffee or drinks, Solus's "glass half full" mural came to mind. After looking through Solus's portfolio, Love says that painting stuck out the most.

On a downcast evening, street murals like the "glass half full" help to lift people's spirits and the area's general appearance, she says.

Sheroff says the murals can not only help businesses become more visible to potential customers, but also send the message that there are people who care about their district.

"(The murals) instill a sense of community pride and encourage people to become active in their neighborhood," he says.

Next month, 501(See)(Streets) is hosting a silent auction in Valley Stream, Long Island, where its artists will be selling their pieces to help raise money for the nonprofit. Later this year, 501(See)(Streets) will be releasing a book that features its murals in NYC.

In the future, Sheroff says he hopes to start offering art workshops for New Yorkers, particularly at-risk youth who are interested in cultural expression and neighborhood beautification.

As for why Sheroff does what he does, it all comes down to having a penchant for entrepreneurship and a bystander's appreciation for artwork.

"I'm not a professional artist," Sheroff says. "I'm lucky if I can draw a straight line with a ruler."


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