Lying somewhere on the spectrum between an amusement park and seaside resort, Coney Island attracts tourists with its boardwalk, rides, and more. But the visiting spectator might not know so much about the residential community of nearly 60,000 people who live within this area.
Hoping to add a cultural currency to the historic tourist spot, this summer Coney Art Walls presents more than 20 temporary walls painted by artists like Miss Van, Lady Pink, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Futura, and artist-in-residence Marie Roberts. While it’s a veritable visual candy shop for a street art fan, the initiative has also attracted criticism for being a thinly-veiled marketing scheme—yet the project is more complicated than it appears at first glance.
Following the format of many similar initiatives, Coney Art Walls lends itself to street art’s ephemerality. Artists get temporary walls in a prime spot to paint murals, without worrying about legal repercussions. In exchange, locals and visitors experience the work of many talented artists in one place. What could possibly go wrong?
Irak. All images via @ConeyArtWalls on Twitter
Development in Coney Island has always been controversial, since the first structures were built there in the 1900s. One of the biggest criticisms today responds to the fact that Coney Art Walls is largely backed by Thor Equities, the controversial development company which has been buying up and selling off real estate on Coney Island, closing down its amusement parks, since 2003. They enlisted the help of curator and former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, himself a divisive figure who continually rouses controversy amongst peers. The financial backing of the project has cynics up in arms, and it raises a fundamental issue that street artists are facing today: they are often used by developers to capitalize on their gentrifying power and push property prices up, forcing local communities out.
The project has also been slammed for the art itself. Stepping into a rare territory for art critics, Artnet’s Christian Viveros-Fauné argues that “to call 'Coney Art Walls' an art exhibition is to commit what philosopher Gilbert Ryle would have termed a category mistake.” Viveros-Fauné goes on to describe the murals as riffs on “tame wall art.” The simple patterns and almost garish color palettes of some of the murals lend some credibility the writer’s statement: these pieces seem completely disconnected from the area, as if they could exist in any context. So why here?
Starting an outdoor art show at Coney Island is different from staging an art show just anywhere. The area has a complicated cultural history—specifically when it comes to the manner in which Coney Island became a well-known attraction in the first place. As an attraction, it is a place burdened with stereotypes and myth.
Artist-in-residence Marine Roberts
Murals like those of iconic graffiti artist Lady Pink—a bright, eye-catching tableau depicting a snake lady, mermaid, and a devilish figure—demonstrate the artist’s talent for transforming a simple temporary structure into something more dynamic. But the viewer can’t help but notice that the images reinforce the perspective of Coney Island as a space for carnies and freaks. Not that there’s anything wrong with depicting these alternative subcultures—it’s just that this view reaffirms a clichéd perspective of Coney's residents and history.
Perhaps more productive in activating the space—and engaging with its residents—is a mural by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Framed against a plain white background, her portraits stand out for their stark simplicity. Fazlalizadeh decided to photograph and interview local residents. While speaking with them, the statement that stuck with her the most became the phrase displayed at the bottom of the six portraits: “The day before Easter, and the day after Labor Day—people still live here. People die here. People love here.”
In the end, questions still remain about the motives for drawing more visitors to the area: is it for the art, or the location?
If it’s for sheer spectacle then viewers might only leave with a surface understanding of the area and a newfound (or re-affirmed) admiration for the artists involved. But when Coney Art Walls comes down, the viewers will have to work hard to remember the area as much more than an attraction—or an area with real estate opportunities. Fazlalizadeh’s mural asks that viewers come face to face with likenesses of Coney Island’s citizens— and the reality that the Coney Island is more than merely a tourist destination.
(Image at the top: Mural by Futura, Via Coney Art Walls Twitter)