Anytime art is placed within the public domain, it becomes subject to public scrutiny. A public artwork’s content and meaning, or what it ultimately communicates is very much dependent on who is looking. Physical location is also very important, and can influence one’s experience. The L.I.S.A. Project in NYC’s Little Italy neighborhood is a unique case study in public art programming with a focus on street art. Centralized on historic Mulberry Street for over the past 2 years, the L.I.S.A. Project exhibits to a diverse audience, which ranges from the local community to the countless tourists flocking to the neighborhood for an authentic Italian meal.
In 2012, Comedy Manager Wayne Rada and RJ Rushmore of Vandalog worked with Little Italy Merchants Association President Ralph Tramontana to initiate the project, originally called “The Art of Comedy.” Presented by the New York Comedy Festival, the inaugural roster listed Ron English, Hanksy, and Gilf, artists known for their wit and talent. The list has since grown into an international tour de force of street artists including Shepard Fairey (OBEY), Blek Le Rat, Lister, Shok-1, Pose MSK, Olek, Meres One, and Invader among others.
Little Italy is home to family owned businesses, which have been passed down from one generation to the next. A sense of history and tradition runs deep in this neighborhood. So it’s not surprising that the L.I.S.A Project was not welcomed with open arms. The proposal to adorn the exteriors of classic Italian restaurants and cafe’s with cutting-edge, eye-popping street art murals seemed miscalculated. However, the project won over most of its initial objectors. Perception is changing. The art on the streets is now viewed as a way for Little Italy to reclaim the sense of identity lost as the area became known as a “tourist trap.”
Today, most local residents are not watching their neighborhood evolve in to a premier street art district with dissent. In fact, they are embracing the transformation. Perhaps, this indoctrination stems from Italy’s artistic and cultural heritage. Further, the chance to see pieces by today’s top street artists is a tourist draw. Residents from all parts of the city are also making the trek downtown. Consequently, local business are benefiting as new visitors pass through.
On a cold mid-January afternoon, we walked Mulberry Street to check out the project’s current pieces. Sure enough, the sidewalks were brimming with tourists taking photos as maitre d’s promoted lunch specials to the passersby. We first noticed the stop-you-in-your-tracks mural on Caffé Roma. Painted by street artist and toymaker Tristan Eaton, the mural depicts a tripped-out portrait of actress Audrey Hepburn. Located a little further down Mulberry is a 3-door garage door work by L’Amour Supreme. We couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the Little Italy’s #1 Homemade Italian Ice and Ice cream cart parked right next to L’Amour Supreme’s “creepy cuties.” Dine outside at Umberto’s Clam House and enjoy a front row view of a wall by Veng and Chris of RWK (Robots Will Kill). Ron English’s original mural titled “Temper Tot” is still on show. An admired figure in both the street art and pop surrealism scenes, English finished the mural just hours before Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. Just below “Temper Tot” is a mural by L’Amour Supreme and artist and author Jeremyville. It looks like a demented Looney Tunes from the 1930s. The mural faces a horizontal piece by NYC graffiti legends Crash and Daze. Bestowing the project with their unique visual vocabularies and singular styles, Crash and Daze make work that is as fresh and relevant as when they first came on to the scene in the early 80s.
Like many public art projects before, the L.I.S.A Project has encountered obstacles. But for now, it is helping to write a new chapter in Little Italy’s history. The chapter inspires, and more pages are still being added. Furthermore, the world’s leading figures in street art and graffiti are showing their support. This tiny pocket of lower Manhattan is being revitalized as old merges with new, classic with contemporary, traditional with cutting-edge in ways like never before.