The Newark Allery: Street Art Sojourn
One of the pleasures of travel is breaking routine, even getting lost, the unknowing that leads to discovery. Author and activist Rebecca Solnit has written extensively about the importance of sometimes moving through the world free of the efficient instructions of our GPS-enabled devices. I went for a long walk through the Ironbound to find a new street art spot, the Newark Allery, wondering if I would find what I sought.
The uncertainty was intoxicating, and as I rounded past the corner’s bodega, not all that far from the Passaic river, the greyish winter world exploded with color.
A woman’s face, pensive and lush, eight feet high, rising amongst wild style, old school characters, and a dozen other artworks that probably began humbly in “black books,” the battered notebooks bound in black oilcloth that graffiti writers work up designs in.
As an urban denizen I take pride in the spectacular math and geometry skills of our youth, who must scale up artworks from blackbook to wall without making any errors in ratio or 3D perspective, all of course, under the critical eyes of their peers, and sometimes a tribal art elder.
The Allery, as it’s called in a clever play on Alley and Gallery, is a constantly changing outdoor aerosol art environment, spanning the concrete and metal walls of a one-block alley. With a relatively modest social media profile, the project seems to demand that people experience it in person, actually leave the house and go somewhere.
Refreshing, right? In my foggy winter morning, the alley glowed red orange purple green blue yellow. The desire to transform one’s built environment is a human impulse that I adore endlessly, and the urban youth who have made this particular artform known worldwide possess a very special kind of tenacity, the something out of nothing vision that makes places meaningful.
The abutting structures of the Allery are mostly the kind of house-proud residential stock that characterizes much of the neighborhood.
A calico cat slipped by me, temporarily interrupting my view of an intricate, looping design, multicolor tail passing across my vision as it headed home on the other side of the wall.
It was quiet except for some house music and conversation coming from a garage, and the flapping of someone’s new Christmas pajamas on a laundry line. I can’t imagine how much fun it must be to be a kid living nearby, able to watch the “pieces” get “pieced.”
Which I know well; I spent a magic hot summer practically living on the roof of what used to be called the Phun Phactory, now demolished. The Phactory was an enormous building completely covered by a writhing, ever-changing coat of fantastic graffiti, visible from the subway like a neon mirage.
The distinctive blend of subcultural camaraderie, the unpredictable, fluid time rhythms of who might show up when, and the SSSSizzle of spray cans I will never forget. Shoutout to Pat, a true original, a gay vet who started the whole thing and oversaw all the chaos, and to all the people who told me stories that animate my imagination to this day whenever I am in any city.
Legal spots, and the spots that operate in a grey zone, exist worldwide. From what I’m seeing online, artists known locally as well as regionally have been making time to hit the Allery.
The instagram images that have replaced the hoarded polaroids of prior decades look like fun: a good looking woman with dark skin made up like the wall she poses in front of, rocking a blue lipsticked mouth and neon green cheekbone as striking as the art, a car (maybe a civic- popular locally for aftermarket souping for speed!) getting painted to match an intricate piece, akin to a chameleon acquiring it’s shades as it acclimates to a new environment, and one of the artist’s moms helping him finish a piece, grinning with a spraycan in her hand.
The global nature of street art allows hyperlocal spaces to function as conduit, attracting international artists to a city while at the same time being that first few square meters a local talent claims as their own, for their own bold colors.
So I hope I’m not taking from you all the pleasure of getting lost when I say to go to Cortland Place, any time day or night. You can drive through if you want, or walk, or bike, or skateboard, or rollerblade. You won’t have the same experience I did, because the walls constantly change, shedding off old colors for new.
Evonne M. Davis and Emma Wilcox are working artists and cofounders of a Newark alternative arts nonprofit. Begun in 2003, Gallery Aferro offers exhibitions featuring local, national and international artists, a wide range of public events, a year-round studio residency program, educational offerings, group tours, a publication line, a gift shop and public art initiatives.