SoHo has been a ghost town for weeks, as wealthy residents fled amid the coronavirus pandemic. Storefronts have been boarded up, and if it wasn’t for the still visible Chanel and Prada signs, the eerily quiet streets could make visitors think they’d time traveled to the ‘70s.
Companies treated the plywood frantically installed over their windows as armor — protection for their property during the uprisings against police brutality and anti-Black racism. Artists turned these surfaces into canvases, transforming the eery, beige-lined doorways into an open air gallery for landscapes, portraits, and text. For the first time in decades, Soho is teeming with art.
A kneeling Colin Kaepernick watches over Spring Street asking, “do you understand now?” On one corner, a giant Superman wears a mask, while another wall is adorned by portraits of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Layleen Polanco, and the countless Black and brown people murdered by police and the prison system.
“No single person really started the larger movement,” explained Tristan Reginato of SoHo Social Impact, one of many groups and individual artists involved in this outpouring of public art. “After the NYC curfew was lifted, various people in SoHo painted a few boards, which gradually grew into our movement.” SoHo Social Impact itself was started by Reginato, who grew up in Harlem, but whose father lived in SoHo when it was still an artist’s haven. He had help from a number of others, including Keiji Drysdale, and Selima Selaun, owner of Selima Optique (an eyeglass boutique with locations in SoHo), who helped with getting permission from store owners.
Bethany Halbreich, who runs an art organization called Paint the World, helped secure a paint donation, and invited artist friends to use it. Other artists simply claimed a canvas and jumped in.
Like any social movement, there are disagreements in messaging and tactics. Neon and pastel pleas for us to “love each other” and “stay safe” face off against demands to “kill all cops.”
In a work by the artist Sule, a man watches over Broome Street wearing a black mask with, orange letters in a font styled after “No Trespassing” signs; instead it reads, “my color is not a crime.” Many of the portraits by other artists feature masks bearing messages; a harsh truth inscribed on the mask of another male figure states, “my execution might be televised.”
“Some stores reacted positively, giving us permission to do our murals and encouraging us (some even provided water and rags),” Reginato explained over email to Hyperallergic, adding, “Unfortunately this wasn’t universal, as some stores painted over our murals, and in some cases took down the boards and tried to sell them.”
As the city reopens, the future of these artworks remains in limbo, as stores begin to open and the plywood comes down. For SoHo Social Impact, at least one thing remains certain: “We were asked to do a few murals to endorse the luxury brands of Soho, but we denied all offers.”