Monday, June 3, 2013

jim power and his mosaic trail

two weeks ago i was in the east village, walking along st marks between avenue a and 1st. it was a part of town i haven’t spent much time in in recent years. ahead i saw a guy doing some sort of work at the base of a lamppost. he was a little more grizzled than i remembered, but i recognized him. it was jim power, now known as the mosaic man, a man i haven’t talked to in over 20 years. he was repairing the mosaic, which he’d made around 1988, when he’d covered the lamppost with shards of glass and tile, turning it into a colorful and glittery art object. it was one of many public surfaces that he’d converted into unexpected sources of fantasy with his mosaics. it was such a crazy, illegal, outrageous idea, yet somehow symbolic of the east village’s outlaw spirit in those days.

i thought, wow, old jim, a man out of his time (not any more grizzled than me, but still…). in my mind, he was a representative of the late ‘80s east village, when the neighborhood was poor, run down, often politically radical, and in turmoil. He remembered me of course. when i was doing my real life funnies comic strips in the voice, i created a two part series on him and his mosaic dream. we talked for a few minutes and even had our picture taken.
the encounter got me thinking of those days. i’d been drawn to the squatter movement in the east village, and as a voice reporter/cartoonist, wanted to document the goings on. landlords were abandoning decaying buildings, the city was warehousing them, and squatters were illegally occupying them.

here is my strip ‘change of heart.’ it’s the story of a squatter—a homeless man fighting a crack addiction and a friend of mine—and his attempt at suicide, followed by the very mixed reaction of his fellow squatters. (you can click on the strips and see an enlarged version.)
at the same time, more and more homeless were living in tompkins square park. together, the squatters, the homeless, self-proclaimed anarchists, artists and musicians, the drug addled, and all manner of political radicals and local affordable housing activists were pushing back against the city’s attempts to turn the neighborhood over to real estate interests. it was a combustible mix, full of humanity, greed, righteous anger, opportunism, politics, official blindness, and violence. here’s my strip of one of many clashes that centered on the park and the expensive christodora condos.
i tried to be objective in my strips—an equal opportunity non-ideologue—but my sympathies were with those opposing the city’s policies and its strong-arm tactics.

in time, the gentrifiers won, as they usually do in new york, and the east village has become a sanitized version of its former self: decay and grunge are fashion statements, ethnic food shops advertise gluten-free-organic-locally-sourced ingredients, new glass fronted apartment buildings incongruously shoulder their way between ancient tenement buildings, streams of nyu students and tourists flow this way and that, tompkins park has traded live-in refrigerator boxes for strollers and kids’ playground equipment…and i remember my first drawing of a very different tompkins park. it was a birds-eye view showing where the various and many groups hung out—the who and the where.

as i left him, jim handed me a flyer and told me to check out his website. somehow the idea of jim with a website didn’t compute, but, as it turned out, that was my problem not his. when i got home i went deep into the closet and found the two strips i’d done on him and put them up on my site: the st. marks mosaic trail part 1 and part 2.

i also read jim’s flyer, went on his site, mosaicmannyc, and googled him.

jim power may look like an aging hippie whose day has passed, but apparently, like the east village itself, his day has simply moved with the times. jim and his mosaic trail have been transformed into a distinctly touristy puzzle piece in bloomberg’s new york. so much for me jumping to conclusions. 

look at what jim has managed to create: a facebook page, twitter account, an indiegogo campaign, pinterest and etsy pages where he’s selling official mosaic artworks; the city of vilnius in lithuania is using his work as inspiration in their own beautification efforts, he’s fundraising to reclaim and expand his mosaic trail, his mosaics are being promoted as a unique part of new york, and he has an on-line following that includes a recent shout-out from rosie perez. the man makes marketing in the digital age look easy. i really should take lessons.

one last thought: the writer of ev grieve wrote that a village voice blog from june 23, 2010 claimed that a 1988 voice article coined the name ‘mosaic man,’ but the blog gave no specifics. ev grieve said they searched for but could not find any such article. I think it is fair to say that, in those days the voice had little interest in covering local neighborhood issues (they had very big political fish to fry), especially when it came to writing about what they no doubt saw as a sad collection of washouts, homeless and punks noisily hanging around tompkins park. but i was interested in that world. my strips about jim in 1988 were part of an ongoing series that ran for a number of years in the voice. here’s a link to the market page on my site where you can find a sampling of those strips. (to view, click on magnifying glass.) 

so i am assuming it was not a village voice article but my two-part profile on jim and his work that was the genesis for today’s ‘mosaic man.’ not a terribly important point, I guess, but I like the idea that my strip helped introduce jim’s work to a wider audience and put a name to his dream. the voice is welcome to disagree.

1 comment: