<body> Public Ad Campaign: A Brief History of West 13th and Washington Streets
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Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Brief History of West 13th and Washington Streets

I walked by one of my favorite street art/commercial advertising corners the other day and realized I had a post backlogged that I was supposed to put up weeks ago. So without further ado.

Often I am asked, quite abrasively, why I stubbornly abhor the presence of commercial messaging in our shared public spaces. My answer, often a meandering rumination on advertising motives, community values, and my personal thoughts on how our society would benefit from a more open outdoor media landscape, is met with resistance to say the least. Changing private property laws and decriminalizing symptomatic displays of visual communication (graffiti/street art) are not high on the list of civic priorities, nor those of public space activists for that matter. And yet I continue to pursue my interests in understanding advertising's relationship not only to public space, but to our society in general, and how its presence might be incompatible with a properly functioning shared environment which serves our larger societal goals and those particularly important to the cosmopolitan. (community, identity, realization of ones expressive potential and its ability to integrate you within your community and larger social structure) This line of thought is often without a lighthouse to guide me along its shores and I admit, I am tossed haphazardly by the tide with few stable examples to guide my thinking, often causing misunderstandings and hypocrisies, I understand. Never without a sense of humor though.

That said, the corner of West 13th street and Washington in NYC has been a focus of my attention over the years and has recently become an interesting backdrop upon which to discuss my concerns about public space and its relationship with outdoor advertising. If you are unfamiliar with this location in NYC, briefly it was once a neglected corner within the commercial meatpacking district, has recently been the focus of street artists and public muralists, and even more recently been targeted by the outdoor advertising industry as the Chelsea neighborhood has developed into the new gallery center of Manhattan and the associated tourism and subsequent hotel traffic has followed suite. This post is prompted by the recent wanton destruction of a 2 year old Conor Harrington mural at this location, but is informed by a 2 hour conversation I had with Sol Joseph of Critical Massive, an outdoor media company interested in supporting painted mural arts in New York. Initially it was my belief that Critical Massive was the responsible party for the atrocious act, but a more complex story unfolded which I will recount here.
A little History:
Critical Massive started about 6-7 years ago as marketing companies looked to new strategies to reach younger audiences that grew up with a relationship to the painted wall through rampant graffiti in our metropolitan cities. I was told they began by employing local artists, often graffiti artists themselves, to produce relatively small scale murals that were done with the landlords permission and sometimes input. I am told artists were paid well for their work, although I was not offered any numbers, and that they often had critical roles in the design and production of certain aspects of most murals. I can corroborate this story after speaking with several Critical Massive employees while they worked on the streets of NYC.
As Critical Massive secured locations around the city, an interest in maintenance and general respect towards the property is how they approached each location, "attempting to invigorate the spaces as opposed to taking from them" as Sol explained. Indeed the time invested to create each advertisement or mural lends itself to a sense of respect for the property, if not simply to protect their hard work and profits. This investment of time and energy in the production of visual art on the street I have always believed creates a sense of physical and psychological responsibility to public space, although I have never considered the production of advertising along those same lines. Nonetheless, Critical Massive through their investment of time and energy seems to have a deep respect for their locations and this city, even if the copy does not follow suite.
As a small company, and one of only a few, the other being Colossal Media, Critical Massive's presence in our public space has been minimal. Surely there was friendly competition between the two but both of these companies had chartered their own unique approach, Colossal going sky high, while Critical remained at street level. It is interesting to note that as these painted mural companies grew, NPA, our favorite street level illegal wildposting company was throwing its own weight around, making huge land grabs which often didn't recieve copy but sent a clear message to other outdoor advertising firms that NYC street level was NPA's territory. The affects of these strong arm tactics extended to numerous small outdoor advertising firms including Eyegoo Media which was forced to comply with NPA demands after receiving bogus legal threats they could not afford to fight. I digress....
In 2007 Critical Massive began a relationship with the landlord who owns the meatpacking building at this now infamous corner. As Sol remembers it there were no murals, some tags and one large street level billboard operated by NPA down Washington street between 14th and 13th streets. (you can see this billboard in the distance in the above photograph) Critical Massive began hand painted advertising mural production at this location in the same year, allowing the 13th street side of the building to continue to receive street art and graffiti. Sometime after this, Critical Massive was approached by the Lazarides Gallery. They were looking for wall space around New York City for a Conor Harrington mural, and Critical Massive was an expert in what was available. From what I understand, Critical Massive secured 3 months of media time on the 13th street side of the building, as well as helped Conor get materials, a ladder and everything that he needed to produce the mural below.
This was not entirely out of the ordinary for the young outdoor advertising company whose roots lay in street art and graffiti from the beginning. The way Sol talks about it, they were happy to have the opportunity to help bring some culture to the city streets as their business model did not allow for a lot of their own artistic productions, although it was a goal of theirs. That said, the three month media buy came and went and to everyones astonishment, the mural stayed up for an unprecedented two years despite being a prime location for advertising. That said there was a week where the mural was covered by NPA goons with an illegal billboard, although PublicAdCampaign and DickChicken disposed of this monstrosity in a late night maneuver.
At this point, the Conor mural had not only stood the test of time but had also been diligently protected by the community. This mural is in fact a unique moment of mural culture in a city whose mural culture is exemplified by competing outdoor media firms. The presence of this mural over the past two years has helped define this corner through an internationally recognized artist. In many ways I would consider it a landmark, maybe not in the historical preservation sense but in our collective geography of the city it has come to hold its own.
And then suddenly the mural was gone, partially hidden under a painted advertisement. The black square so callously rolled over this beautiful artwork read with simple text, "does Manhattan cause hair loss?" I was incensed when I found out and immediately laid blame on Critical Massive because they had been operating at this location for so long. Within days of the news hitting the web, vandals came out and made their opinions known by buffing out the entire advertising text. In fact, the public outcry seemed more condemning than even Conor's own thoughts on the matter. To me this makes sense as the ones who had become truly attached to the mural were the ones upset with its loss, Conor on the other hand can create these anytime he wants.
I immediately phoned Critical Massive and in a self motivated move by both parties, we reluctantly agreed to meet face to face. Turns out both of us were happily surprised with the other and after a long discussion I have been informed that the landlord at this location was upset about the mural loss. As it turns out he had given permission to the unknown outdoor ad firm to put up an advertisement for a mere 2 week run. He was under the impression they would paint further west down 13th street. Instead the company, who through my myriad sources looks to be Massive Media, painted directly over Conor's piece. Since this happened, Nick Walker has wandered through town and in a loving move, reclaimed this location for street art and the public. In fact, Arrested Motion caught the whole process which can be seen here.
What I find incredibly interesting about this brief history is how it blurs the lines which I often see as so black and white, while illuminating the idiosyncrasies of media production in New York's public space. The larger question is how do we create a public space which champions public artwork and productions which invigorate our shared environment. To me this has always meant ridding public space of advertising companies and watching artistic productions fill in the void which is left behind. In this case, Critical Massive, although creating advertising at the same location, was responsible for aiding the public productions and therefor I cannot simply vilify their activities. In fact the company might provide a reasonable example of cooperation on our way to ultimately ridding public space of the negative affects of outdoor media.
So how do we negotiate the grey areas when some media companies are acting more altruistically than others? I don't think this question has any clear cut answers and as a public we must be aware of which companies are at least attempting to act in the public's interest at least part of the time. Although I do not believe there really is space for both artistic and commercial productions in public space, if a middle ground must be negotiated, this location can be held up as a good example of how that might be achieved and Critical Massive held at least partially responsible. Now lets wait and see what happens to the new Nick Walker.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi my question is whether these painted ads have to adhere to the same laws as other billboards. It seems like they are popping up all over the place. Do they need permits, etc.? Especially concerning are the alcohol ads.

Thanks for the info


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