Some New York retailers started boarding up their stores shortly after the city went into full lockdown. Some prosperous residents were offended that stores were expecting a starkly dystopian future to engulf the city, as the stay at home order stifled everyday urban routines. The mass protests that suddenly erupted at the end of May did bring a wave of looting at their onset in SoHo, the East Village, Union Square, the Flatiron District, and the Bronx, turning plywood into a defining element of the streetscape.
The story soon took another turn in SoHo when some locals started bringing artists to the area to turn the plywood boards into a canvas for street art, a place to reflect on the politics of the current. Recent reports on the phenomenon have either nostalgically celebrated this brief return of the neighborhood to its pre-gentrification past, or lamented the rush of corporations to co-opt the art-messaging and reposition their retail stores for reopening. What I discovered on my various trips to SoHo was more complicated, as the photos that follow will show.
I initially ventured to SoHo to pick up an item at the Apple Store that I needed to repurpose my computer and get ready for fully-functional online teaching in the fall. As I walked down Broadway from Houston, I noticed plenty of blacked out graffiti on the plywood boards, but also the exquisite one-line drawings of jazz musicians by Sir Shadow and chalk flowers sprouting from the sidewalk on the blackboards by thechalkjungle. The first large canvas I came across filled the entire storefront of the Dolce & Gabbana store with a fiery red painting by Si Golraine. With the black wall columns and the bronze plaque to the right, it almost felt like a piece in a museum exhibition. Yet the red tag in the middle of the painting was a reminder that we are on the streets where graffiti writers can (and will) add their commentary at will. Graffiti writers arrived in the scene with some delay but bombed many pieces with their tags or completely took over boards to claim their space. And a couple of days later, and almost certainly without permission, another artist — calling herself Red Square — painted white columns of cursive Chinese characters all across Si Golraine’s red piece. Art on the street evolves by the day.
The Coach store on Prince Street hired the artist and designer Jason Naylor to cover the boards, which were moderately graffitied over at the time, with a colorful decorative design that prominently incorporated Coach’s distinctive logo. Nevertheless, the corporate beautification effort was not met with much enthusiasm. Among others, street artists OPTIMO NYC and sacsix left their signatures — the black silhouette of a man with a hat and the two black fingers breaking through white gloves with the post-no-hate phrase — to express disapproval. This Coach storefront is emblematic of corporate efforts to make the plywood barriers more palatable. A few international retailers (Sephora, Club Monaco), who were among the early trendsetters of plywood cover-ups, commissioned design firms and street artists to decorate the boarded-up storefronts to sugarcoat the fortification stemming from security fears. The cheerful, pretty boards were not spared from protest graffiti. Other corporations, however, mostly jumped on the bandwagon only after the George Floyd protests gained broad public support, scrambling to turn their pang of guilt into pompous marketing slogans of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist causes.
There was also more plywood dispute over the place of commerce and the promotion of gallery art in the push to reclaim SoHo. The portraits of Barack Obama and George Washington by Isabella Cortez, an artist who specializes in queer portraiture, were part of a series of poster prints of artwork from The Bowery Union, New York City’s largest artist-run gallery. They used the posters to advertise their current exhibition, Street Gallery Project — which some clearly saw as trespassing on the genuine spontaneity and disinterestedness of the moment.
Portraiture is a pivotal theme in street art, and a wide range of different genres is on display on SoHo’s storefronts and building facades. They include the collaborative pieces by Androd Oi and LOVEMKM as well as Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s solemn, black-and-white wheat paste portraits of Black women and trans people killed by the police, wrapped around the corner of NPR’s Green Space. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is also one of the main organizers of the BLKPAPER.com, which aims to build an art resource for work from Black artists for racial justice. The posters can be downloaded for free to be used in demonstrations and for DIY wheat pasting (instructions included).
And there was plenty of political protest art. I was a bit surprised by the underuse of the classic political poster but Figure 7 and Figure 8 demonstrate the visual power of multiplication that is inherent to this technique. Some pieces help to broaden our perspective on looting (Figure 9). Others work with text, political messages, quotes by political activists, pay tribute to victims of police violence, or incorporate poems like Rosamond S. King’s eerily resonant “Breathe. As in. (shadow)” (Figures 10, 11). The flashy sports cars parked in the street punctuated the contrast between the affluence of the area and our associations — conditioned by broken windows theory — of boarded-up stores with blighted neighborhoods.
Store owners’ reactions to artists hijacking the plywood were variable. Some already sprayed their boards themselves earlier (Figure 12). Local owners of smaller stores were generally supportive, and even some larger chains like Aritzia gave permission to use their store’s boards without exploiting the resulting piece for advertising. This is how Steve ESPO Powers applied his large-scale black-and-white tableau of our floating quarantine times to nine oversize shop windows and the store entrance at the corner of Broadway and Spring Street in early May (Figure 13). One panel even got stolen and had to be replaced.
But others, like the French luxury brand Chanel, were ruthless in their hostility; they compulsively reapplied black paint over any marking that appeared on the plywood. The stick-figure drawing that I noticed a Monday morning was being painted over by the time I walked a loop around the block (Figures 14, 15).
The closing image shows large black letters printed on white paper and pasted over the shop windows of the Watches of Switzerland store that sells the likes of Cartier and Patek Philippe watches for small (and not so small) fortunes (Figure 16). The letters originally added up to the line: “THE TIME IS NOW.” But by the time I took the photo, the “NOW” part was gone and replaced with pristine new boards: the store was getting ready for reopening. In many ways, the removal of the last word made the piece even more effective. It now lets you fill in the blank: now, gone, up, coming . . . whichever best captures your mood in these bewildering times.
Virág Molnár is an associate professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research.