Thursday, September 10, 2015

Coca Cola, The Mole People and Dorothea Lange: The story behind the artist FREEDOM's classic mural in the tunnel that bears his name.

In the late 1990's we interviewed the artist FREEDOM for our book BROKEN WINDOWS, Graffiti NYC. Among the other topics that appear in our book, we were most fascinated by his explanation of the long mural that he painted with fellow artist SMITH in the train tunnel that runs under Manhattan's westside. Here's what he told us:

I don’t think you can make art when you are 15-20 years old, and if you do, it’s usually by accident.  I mean great, all the more power to you.  It’s not unlike writing.  I think you have to have something to say and a way to say it.  I found out by trial and error by painting down in the tunnel that a lot of what I was painting was more illustration than anything else.  It was a pretty illustration.  It wasn’t visceral, it didn’t challenge me in any way.  It wasn’t what I expect art to be.  I think you are very lucky when you make art and I haven’t done it that many times, but I would say that the Coca-Cola painting has an interesting history to it because there were a series of paintings done in that same spot over the years….  That spot was picked because it had good lighting coming from the grates overhead.  But I really like that long spot because you really have to have something to say when you paint there.

What happened was, one of the early Soul Artists, his name was COCA, had pieces down there.  And I kept on bumping into these pieces by COCA82, whom I had a reverence for.  And I was like, “I can’t touch him,” because you don’t want to go over COCA.  So in 1988, I decided to paint in that spot and at the time crack had become so prevalent on the upper west side and down in the tunnel… and it came out just when the “New Coke” came out.  And I thought, “Alright, there’s some irony, you know, word play.  I’ll do a Coke can painting.”  So did this new Coke can, which was kind of crushed.  So I did that and I always swore that when that got painted over that I would put something in the new image that I felt was summing things up….  COCA would have to be in there because he had kind of a lineage to it.  So when the wall got painted over by Amtrak when they took over….  That’s how the Coca-Cola thing wound up there.  As both a cross-reference to crack and a reference to COCA82, as sort of homage to him. 

The other parts of the Coca-Cola painting done in 1996 well…when SANE died.  I don’t know how much you know about SANE and SMITH.  But SANE and SMITH were brothers and they were the kings of the city.  They were just running the city.  They were unbelievable.  They did everything that graffiti writers should aspire to do in many ways.  And then SANE died.  He either fell or jumped off a bridge in Queens at the age of 20-21.  And when that happened SMITH, who was his partner, gave me half of his ashes because SANE had done so many paintings in the tunnel and hat sat around the fire with me and Bernard and the other guys in the tunnel.  And I think this is a beautiful story.  SMITH took the #1 train down from 242nd Street to the South Ferry and all along the way, he stood in between the cars and let a little bit of the ashes fall out.  And then he gave me the other half and he said, “You know when you do a painting that would mean something about SANE, then scatter the ashes down there, because that’s where he would want his ashes scattered.  So that happened in like 1991 and I had the ashes kicking around my house for a long time.  And I remember my girlfriend at that time…and I was thinking, “Jeez, I have his ashes here and I feel like I should scatter them, but I don’t want to just do a fake a painting just to scatter his ashes.”  And her thing was, “Look, you know, LEE is coming over here and CRASH is coming over here, and all these great graffiti artists that SANE loved so much…so it’s just like he’d be more than happy to be here for a while.”  So that was cool, and then I didn’t think about it much.

And then in 1996. I got word from the Coalition for the Homeless that Andrew Cuomo was able to get 8 or 9 million dollars exclusively earmarked for the “Mole People” who were living in the tunnels.  And I got very active and involved in trying to get a lot of those homeless guys out of there.  And the deal that was struck with Amtrak, was that Amtrak was going to seal off the tunnel on July 2, 1996 and this was six months prior to this.  So that everybody would plenty of time to get out.  And what they offered was $750 toward their rent in an apartment anywhere they wanted for the next 5 years, which is a pretty sweet deal.  But the irony was that the guys did not want to leave.  And a lot of people did not take the deadline seriously and they really had to drag them out.  So when the time was ending…I mean, it was really coming down to a thing where the tunnel was ending and all these people who I had documented and had lived with and had talked to and did drawings and paintings of…and my own works were really going to come to an end.  Because I was not looking forward to running from the cops to make paintings and I really hadn’t done a painting down there in a few years.  

So I kind of had to sum things up and I got the idea from Dorothea Lange, the Great Depression era photographer, who did a wonderful shot called, “Buy American.”  And it’s the nuclear family, this really happy family.  And Dad is in his car driving along and his wife is sort of beaming at him and there is a little kid…and below that is an image of a bread line in the 1930’s and all these people are standing there hovering…waiting for bread.  And it dawned on me that I was from a generation that was reading history books that showed depression era images and those sunk in.  And there was the Great Depression and there were depression era images. But it had never really come full circle.  I mean, I would sit outside a church on 86th and Riverside Drive and I would draw these homeless guys waiting on line to get a hot meal.  And yes, it’s a different set of circumstances than the bread lines of the 1930’s depression…but the images are essentially the same.  I had the realization that history had repeated itself, at least visually, from the Depression.  And I felt that that should be the image for the final image in the tunnel.  But I felt that I didn’t want to portray the homeless that way.  I didn’t want to hit you over the head with the homeless like that and have them all lined up.  So I drew the nuclear family instead, and cropped out the bread line.  But then I knew I had to make some reference to the mole people because there was no way of getting around them.  So I painted Dick Tracy grabbing the mole and pushing him down.  And on the left of that is the Coke sign and then there is a portrait of Bernard on the far left and a portrait of Bob on the far right (2 homeless men who lived in the tunnel), each one looking one direction, one south and one north.  And at the very end is the SANE piece that SMITH did, which had an American flag theme through it.  I painted everything but the SANE piece.  I mean, I could have done the SANE piece, but I wanted SMITH to do it because I felt that it was more appropriate.  

And when I finished painting, I put SANE’s ashes in front of the entire mural.  It was a defining moment for me.

FREEDOM as told to James & Karla Murray © 2015