A mural on the 20th Street Loop depicts artist Frida Kahlo and performer Josephine Baker. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
In celebration of Pride Month, portraits of LGBTQ pioneers and celebrities have popped up in Stuyvesant Town, painted right onto outdoor staircases.
The larger than life faces in black and white, framed by rainbow backgrounds, include those of Freddie Mercury, Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker and David Bowie, among others.
The artist is John Cuevas, a California resident who specializes in bright, colorful murals, and worked from Friday to late Saturday. Following a rain-soaked Sunday, some of the paint had peeled in spots, though those depicted in the murals remained recognizable.
On Monday morning, a few residents who were out and about near where the portraits were, around the loop roads, told Town & Village they were enjoying the art. The project was sponsored by Stuyvesant Town management and will remain on view through June.
Longtime resident Andy Ward, while out walking his dog Rexie on the 20th Street Loop, at first was concerned the art might be something promotional. But when told the promotion was for Pride Month, he changed his mind.
“I like good causes,” Ward said. While gesturing to the painting nearest to his feet, he added, “Who doesn’t like art? They didn’t have names at first but I could tell this one was Freddie Mercury.”
Also walking by that portrait at the time was Paul Sachs, who called the artwork “beautiful.”
He added, “It’s nice to see Stuy Town support Gay Pride Month, you know? I’m a native New Yorker, so I support everybody as long as they’re doing good.”
Near the community center, another staircase mural depicted David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase and the late astronaut Sally Ride.
A mural near the Stuyvesant Town community center depicts the late musician David Bowie and astronaut Sally Ride.
Of all the murals, Bowie’s seemed to have weathered Sunday night’s rainstorm the worst, with a large gash-like tear in his cheek due to the peeling paint.
Upon noticing this, Bowie fan Nancy Fischer said she hoped it could be restored.
“That didn’t last very long,” she observed, adding that she had enjoyed watching the artist at work, alongside a couple of neighbors who were seniors, a couple of days earlier.
“They were very receptive,” she recalled, which surprised her at the time. “Because a lot of people don’t like change.”
She added, “I would say that it is a very cool addition to the community. I just wish it could be more lasting.” Contemplating the portrait of Bowie again, Fischer said, “I’d still make out with him.”
Reached on the phone on Monday, Cuevas said the project came about after he was contacted by Stuy Town’s director of lifestyle services Robert Vasquez to do some outdoor art. It was Cuevas’ idea to do portraits and suggested possible subjects, all of whom got management’s approval.
A total of 10 portraits now appear on five different staircases. Along with the aforementioned names, others who were painted were mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing, stonewall activists and drag queens Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, novelist and activist James Baldwin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who some believe was a lesbian.
“I was stoked, because it was New York City Pride,” said Cuevas.
Another mural on the 20th Street Loop depicts singer Freddie Mercury and mathematician Alan Turing.
Since the portraits were intended to be temporary, they were wheatpasted onto the ground, with Cuevas noting that this technique has become synonymous with New York street art and has since spread to other cities and countries.
“It’s an amazing art form. What I really like is it’s non-toxic and removable,” he said.
While the wheatpasting process was somewhat new to Cuevas, he is no stranger to outdoor art. Immediately upon his return from Manhattan he got back to work on mural of a realistic-looking serpent emerging from a wall in La Quinta, California.
As for the Stuy Town art, Cuevas, who identifies as bisexual, said while he was working, he was overwhelmed with the amount of supportive feedback he got.
“Just the spirit of the community here, it was a lot of sharing,” said Cuevas. “Pride can be a difficult time for people who have a lifestyle that is not necessarily mainstream. I heard a lot of people’s stories about their brothers or themselves. It’s nice to feel that your community around you supports you.”
He recalled how residents he spoke with seemed surprised to learn that the owner had commissioned the Pride-themed project.
“I asked what had happened in the past, and they said, ‘Not this.’ I said, ‘That’s great.’ I look forward to doing more projects there.”
Stuyvesant Town General Manager Rick Hayduk told T&V the Pride project was “simply recognition of our concept of community and unity,” not unlike concerts on the Oval or the recently announced chips-and-salsa gatherings for neighbors.
“Pride Month was something we haven’t participated in and we felt it was time,” he said. Since Cuevas began work, Hayduk said the feedback has been unanimously positive. Even a resident who early on in the process called Hayduk to report what looked like someone making graffiti called back when Cuevas was finished to say it looked great.
As for the pieces of the portraits that have been torn away due to immediately being rained on, not to mention walked on, Hayduk said he was looking into seeing if Cuevas could return to touch them up. Especially since rainstorms aren’t exactly isolated incidents this time of year.
“It’s June in New York. We have 27 more days to go,” said Hayduk.
Cuevas, meanwhile, said he doesn’t mind the effect of the rain, having seen photos of the installation people tagged him in on social media. “There are sporadic drips of color that bathe the portraits,” he said. “The rainbow grime gives it new meaning.”
In related news, the first ever Stuyvesant Town Pride parade for residents and employees has been scheduled for Thursday, June 20. According to the property’s official website, the event will take place at 6 p.m. on First Avenue between 18th and 20th Streets and continue to the Oval for activities and performances.
Like the murals, Hayduk said it’s about building community. “One of our primary jobs is bringing people together,” he said.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect a change in time for the parade.