First came the graffiti bombers, who tagged Kenny Scharf's East Houston mural under the cover of the massive snowstorm that transformed New York into a blanketed ghost town earlier this month. The actions of these vandals — who described themselves as being "fuckin wasted" at the time of the defacement — led downtown real-estate mogul Tony Goldman, who owns the wall on the corner of Bowery, to install security cameras around the artwork. Then last night, after the artist swung by to spruce up his painting, over which the graffiti bombers had applied brash fill-ins, a security guard was spotted prowling around the historic graffiti spot, his presence begging the question, who had sent him to protect the mural? And from whom?
The mural by Scharf — who despite his distinguished art-world stature these days was a true East Village enfant terrible in the 80s — was arranged by real-estate company Goldman Properties and Paul Kasmin Gallery, which represents the artist in New York. After a spokesperson for Paul Kasmin told ARTINFO that he had not known about the presence of a security guard, we sought the counsel of Houston Street guru and historian in residence Billy Leroy, who has presided over Billy's Antiques, adjacent to the mural's location, for decades. Leroy asserted that the guard had indeed assumed the post last night.
"There's no guard there now," countered Tony Goldman's prickly personal assistant, when asked if Goldman Properties had hired someone to protect the work. To which Goldman himself added in an email: "We had a guard there while the paint was drying," after Scharf touched it up. "There were many people in the street and we did not want the new paint damaged. The cameras remain."
While the guard may be gone, larger questions of whose job it is (if it is anyone's) to keep street art safely pristine persist. Beginning in 2008, the works created for the East Houston space — collaborations between Goldman and galleries around the city, from Deitch Projects to The Hole, to Kasmin — have been executed by artists whose "street art" sells in galleries and at auction for thousands of dollars. And while it seems logical to try to protect such valuable, and often beautiful, artworks from the destructive impulses of ruffians, the Houston Street wall once in fact was the uncontested terrain of those who made art outside of, and often in opposition to, the art establishment.
"The wall started because of me," Billy Leroy told ARTINFO. "Back in 2005, I was renting the entire property, including the wall, which was just covered in all kinds of graffiti. I used to let OMNI and Mr. Brainwash just jump the fence and do illegal murals. But then I went to Tony and told him, 'This is the first spot where Keith Haring did his mural,' which Tony didn’t know. I said, 'Let’s do a café and a reproduction of the mural all along from Billy's to Bowery. We didn't do that together, but Tony went to Jeffrey Deitch and they started making murals."
This evolution of the mural, from site of illegal bombing to outpost for gallery-represented street artist, doesn't really bother Leroy, though, who sees Goldman as a "philanthropist," who uses his money "to help art and artists" (and who did in fact help bring about the recreation of Haring's 1982 mural). Meanwhile, Leroy considers the crew that crept in and vandalized Scharf's work "haters."
"Some people's argument is that the artist who has sold art isn't making street art anymore and shouldn't masquerade as a street artist. That someone like Scharf is a sellout," Leroy said. "But why deface the mural; why do it anonymously? Kenny is totally old school."
Other than in the event of another massive blizzard or similarly diversionary disaster, however, Leroy doesn't think security needs to stand by to protect the mural. "You could maybe put up a half-assed tag and run away. But it's funny, five years ago no one gave a shit about the wall, and now it's become the epicenter of the art world."