It takes a certain type of resident to appreciate a neighborhood filled with graffiti and other forms of street art; in fact, some people would probably prefer to hire a residential painting service to clear any evidence of this controversial art form away. However, for one street in Brooklyn, the work of an artist has come to define the area’s culture and drawn international attention. Now, a New York City developer plans to showcase and protect some of these murals as the area evolves.
Franco “The Great” Gaskin immigrated to New York City from Panama in 1958. When the riots following the death of Martin Luther King caused Harlem shop owners to install metal gates to protect their windows, Gaskin began painting murals on these gates to help change the image of the area. Often focusing on themes of peace and racial harmony, Gaskin painted over 200 murals on East 125th Street in Harlem, drawing thousands of tourists to the area and helping to form the neighborhood’s artistic identity. However, as the area evolved and corporate retailers replaced local entrepreneurs, many of the murals disappeared. Gaskin was able to save roughly two dozen of the gates, but most were lost.
Now, Forest City Ratner, a real estate management and development company, is trying to help preserve Gaskin’s work. The company, which is currently seeking permission to build three residential towers atop the East River Plaza Mall in Harlem, is planning to showcase several of the murals in the mall or elsewhere in the area. The company has called the project their way of paying homage to a highly influential time in the neighborhood’s history.
However, not every community is as supportive of street murals as Harlem: while often used as an art form, graffiti has become infamous for the way some murals incorporate gang signs and other disreputable elements. Other examples may not even be art at all, but simply “tags” or signatures left on public property. While many murals and forms of street art are valuable instances of artistic expression, others may lack these merits and may need to be covered to preserve the character of the area.
Currently, Forest City Ratner is still finalizing the details of Gaskin’s exhibition. The organization is planning to take at least three of the murals on loan, acquiring more if the as-yet undecided display space permits. While the display is still being coordinated, Gaskin has commented he is excited about the possibilities, as the shop gates were instrumental to his success as an artist: in the decades since he first painted the street murals in Harlem, his work has spread as far as Germany and Japan, two countries known internationally for their street art.