On March 30th 2012 five artists gathered in a deli parking lot in the suburban town of Elmwood Park, NJ to paint a mural commissioned by the building owner. Its initial reception was uneventful; a routine stop by local police and a visit from the town’s building inspector neither halted nor deterred the completion of the work. After leaving the wall the artists who painted the mural never expected to get them-selves into a freedom of speech argument with neighbors who call the mural “gang-related graffiti” and town officials who have sited the building owner with a violation of “sign” ordinance.
The two aspects of the mural that are the bones of contention are a hooded figure that sits as a welcoming sentinel to the mural by North Jersey stencil artist, Joe Iurato “:01”. And the words “Trayvon, we got you!” by mural organizer and FLY DRAGON Studio(FDS) Director, Carmelo “SNOW” Sigona above his own piece of the wall.
In this two part interview we give Iurato and Sigona an unfettered platform to express their views on the controversy they find themselves in, as well an overview of their artistic backgrounds and philosophies.
SS: Joe, you’re a husband and father of two boys, a wine columnist and stencil artist…now some would argue a social provocateur and 1st amendment crusader. Do you find the label justified or do you see yourself as a street artist doing what you do naturally?
JI: I, along with the other artists involved, am only doing what anyone else would do if their rights had been compromised. This really has nothing to do with being an artist or some kind of crusader for free speech – we didn’t go looking for controversy or something to defend. We painted a picture on a wall that ultimately didn’t sit right with its neighbors. That’s fine, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but opinions shouldn’t be allowed to curb the freedoms that so many have f ought and died for. We painted that wall with the permission of the property owner. On it, we also decided to address an issue we all felt strongly about supporting, which was justice for Trayvon Martin. And we believe we reserve the right to express ourselves publicly through our art when given the opportunity. There was nothing violent painted, no obscenities, and we certainly weren’t trying to sell anything. It’s not a sign. It’s not “gang graffiti”. It’s art bearing social commentary. Purely.
SS: How did the concept of the hoodie figure emerge in your series of work?
JI: A few years ago I was doing a show with a friend of mine, photographer Boone Speed. We wanted to collaborate on one piece for the show, and we decided I’d cut a stencil based on one of his photos. We chose this beautiful, haunting image of a man wearing a hooded jacket. To me, this person radiated desperation and confidence at the same time. He seemed to be a crossroads somewhere in between victory and defeat. And because there was no face to identify with, I saw myself in that jacket. I saw everything I was going through in my life, and I connected instantly with it on a personal, emotional level. From then on, I began telling my story and articulating my thoughts through this character, which has essentially become a series of self-portraits with my face removed. It was my hopes that some would connect with it the way I had.
SS: You’ve mentioned in the past that the hooded figure stems from a spiritual aspect. How do you identify with the faceless visage and how does he reflect your spiritual beliefs?
JI: It’s a really strange thing for me. I have no real religious foundation. I don’t go to church. I admittedly only pray when something dear in my world is threatened. And even then, I’m not convinced anybody hears me. Yet for some reason, when I paint myself, it’s often in this very spiritual, “lord have mercy” kind of way. I don’t know why, but it feels right and comes naturally. I can only relate it to some kind of a search for faith. Whatever it means, I’ve no reason to hide from it. It comforts me.
SS: Many have assigned the term “threatening” to your hooded figure because of the lack of a face and the fear of the unknown, but in truth most if not all of the hoodie stencils you’ve created have a very docile if not “supplicant” pose; hands in a begging fashion, arms raised in a praying manner, arms outstretched in a welcome and the first in a downtrodden bent headed fashion. Why do you believe your hooded character is now being lumped in with drug dealers and bank robbers?
JI: Many people are afraid of the unknown. And if something doesn’t look “right” to them, they’ll quickly draw conclusions based on assumption, preconceived notion, and first impression, rather than approaching it with an open mind. That’s my only guess.
SS: How did the Elmwood Park mural come about?
JI: The same way a lot of these public murals come about; I was invited by a friend to paint a legal, sanctioned wall. Carmelo “Snow” Sigona was given permission from the property owner to do a mural on the side of this building, and he invited me along with 3 others to participate. Interestingly enough, it turned out to be in the town I grew up in – on the side of a deli that my family once ran a catering business out of. Small world.
SS: Did you believe as you were painting the mural that it would cause the type of reaction it’s had?
JI: No way.
SS: You grew up in Elmwood Park, you went to school there, much of your family still lives in town, and in fact your family once had a business in the very store that holds the mural wall. Can you give us your view on the mural as an Elmwood Park resident and your perception as an artist coming back to your hometown and its reception of your art?
JI: It’s tough for me, truthfully. I thought it was going to be a good thing. But it didn’t quite work out that way. Having grown up in Elmwood Park, I can admit that graffiti and street art of this nature has always been extremely scarce. Sure, you’d catch some scrawling and tags here and there, like in any town, but big, colorful, abstract pieces like this are almost unheard of. I can understand if some of the locals weren’t quick to embrace it. Stylistically, it’s nothing they’ve lived with before. But so what, it’s not going to hurt anyone or affect his or her daily lives negatively. It’s color splashed on a white wall. But I guess it’s done in a way they can’t identify with and don’t want to give a chance. In my heart, I know if we’d painted a bunch of flowers in a grassy meadow we’d have no issue here at all.
I can’t talk badly about the town of Elmwood Park as a whole, though. While I don’t live there anymore, many of the folks I grew up around still do, and they support what we did – including my mother, stepfather and sister. There are great people in Elmwood Park, and it’s a culturally diverse town. To be honest, I don’t like seeing it labeled as racist and closed-minded, which some have pronounced it to be since this debate. I don’t think it’s fair to judge everyone based on a few people’s opinions.
SS: You’ve stated publicly that you believe that the mural should be painted over. Do you believe it should be a public wall for further expression of art for future artists, or should it go back to its original state?
JI: In the beginning this was all a bit overwhelming, and I had this momentary lapse of reason where I thought we should just paint over the wall, return it to its original state, and spare the property owner, John Quinn, fines or any further hassle. But he’s on or side – and as this progressed, my eyes were opened to the larger picture we’re dealing with, and I became very protective of our work and what it stands for. I changed my tune. I would like to see the work remain until ordinance is clear and our work is proven illegal. As for what happens next, I don’t know. I know that John wanted to continue to use the space as a revolving door of socially conscious art. I’d love to see that happen. Whether or not that will become a reality…we’ll see.
SS: In the final analysis do you believe you’ve walked into a fight you never intended to have but now that your in the midst of it, it’s a crucial argument that needs to be hashed out, and a fight that is noble and has merit not just for your work but for the expression of other artists?
JI: I think this happens a lot, especially to artists who display their works publicly. And even more so to artists who use spray cans. The problem is it’s extremely rare they’ll get the visibility we have right now, and it’s easy to be bullied into a corner when it feels like nobody is on your side…like nobody will hear you or even cares. We have an opportunity to change that, or at least make an impact.
I want my kids to be able to express themselves freely and peacefully through art or however else they choose – and wherever they choose. I don’t believe our freedoms should vary from one town to the next, and a few opinions shouldn’t be enough to sway a 221 year-old amendment. So in the grand scheme of things, this may be a small fight, but it’s necessary and on the behalf of many, many others.
Stan Sudol is co-founder and co-director of Guerilla Galleries (GuGa) and Rinky Dink Gallery, an established Newark curator and arts promoter as well a returning arts commentator and critic to GlocallyNewark.
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