Sitting at Umbertos Clam House on Mulberry street, business owner Robert Ianniello, pours a glass of water for each member of an impromptu round table called to discuss murals, community, and commerce. A curator, an art critic, a producer and a photographer gather around the table alongside Ianniello, the founder of the Little Italy Merchants Association, to discuss the growth and development of the L.I.S.A Project, a street art campaign dedicated to beautifying the streets of Lower Manhattan.
“The challenge for Little Italy is to move away from its stigma as a tourist trap,” says Ianniello pouring from the bottle of Pana water. “We went way over the line so now we’re trying to draw New York City back.” Ianniello, who's a third generation Italian, assembled the troupe of independent business owners to mobilize the voices of Little Italy into an organized coalition. Today, the neighborhood might be most commonly associated with over priced napoleons and crowded street fairs but dating back to the early 19th century Little Italy was once home to a rich immigrant population of Italian American entrepreneurs and tradesmen. For the Merchants Association supporting the L.I.S.A Project is a way to bring culture back to the streets of Little Italy.
L.I.S.A., which stands for the Little Italy Street Art Project, started in 2012 by Founder Wanye Rada who was working as a producer for the New York Comedy Festival. He had the idea to paint murals around the area as a promotional tool to advertise the festival to a creative audience. He reached out to curator and street art blogger (and eventual co-founder) RJ Rushmore and together they developed a small program that brought artist Hanksy (a combination of Tom Hanks and Banksy known for his pun infused murals) to the walls of Caffe Roma, an Italian pastry shop that has been in the same location since 1891. The mural became so popular that it outlived its original festival-centric time frame by an additional 6 months.
Rada, who was a friend of the association, bringing the evidence of street arts' ability to generate foot traffic and act as an economic stimulus to the neighborhood, proposed a long term initiative to transform Little Italy into a veritable Street Art District. Together, Rada and Rushmore along with the help of photographer and archivist Reynaldo Rosa, began importing world-renowned artists and adorning the walls of Little Italy with beautiful renditions of the proletariat art form. For them there is a real opportunity to incorporate the artists into the narrative of Little Italy’s growth and revitalization by introducing them to the local population and resources. Artist Max “Ripo” Rippon for instance, created a site specific installation based on research conducted at the Italian American Museum while ChrisRWK adorned the walls of Umberto’s Clam House with a customized Mona Lisa at the personal request of the business owner.
Chris x Veng RWK.
The project, which is fully funded by The Merchants Association and private donors speaks volumes to the power of street art. Once a technique commonly associated with vandalism and feared by property owners is now creating a resurgence in the interest of Little Italy’s creative community. Artists such as Ron English and Olek have contributed monumental sized installations to the community and Martha Cooper, the mother of Street Art Photography has visited the neighborhood to document its progression.
Ron English, Olek.
The ultimate goal of the L.I.S.A Project is to expand its reach across Lower Manhattan to the neighboring communities of Chinatown, the Financial District and the Lower East Side to connect the disparate immigrant populations that have been marginalized in New York’s history. District 1 council woman, Margaret Chin has shown an incredible amount of support for the project and has been known to attend opening receptions and dedication ceremonies.
2013 culminated in the installation of the L.I.S.A Project's permanent mural by Tristan Eaton, Liberty, which was produced in conjunction with Shane Jessup and can be seen from one of Lower Manhattan’s busiest street corners of Canal and Mulberry. Eventually, the project seeks to have a virtual map and application that will enhance the viewer's experience of each one of their murals from the street level and allow technology to create new relationships between community members.
Chris x Veng RWK.
Tristan Eaton, Audrey of Mulberry
The Yok, Sheryo
a.s.v.p. close up
For more information on the L.I.S.A. Project please visit www.lisaprojectnyc.org
(All images: Courtesy of the author. Top image: Meres1 x Spud)