I’m on Prince Street, SoHo, New York. As I walk down the busy streets, there is one thing that catches my eye. It’s not the galleries, nor the shops around me. It’s the artists – selling their art on the streets.
There are dozens of street artists around here… I was curious about who they were, and what brought them here, so I decided to interview four of them. Here are their stories.
The first person I talked to was a 31-year-old woman in a pretty dress, awaiting customers in front of a large building, where she usually sells her drawings. Mery‘s drawings were detailed, they were mandalas, mixed with sketches of people, on black and white paper. A few minutes into talking about her work, Mery asked me where I was from. As I said I was from Turkey, she told me she was from there too!
“You’re not going to use my real name, right?” Mery (this is her nickname) asked me, halfway through our interview. Her mother and father didn’t know she sold art on the streets, something, she said, that they wouldn’t support or be proud of. Mery’s teachers had told her parents since she was five to send her to a fine arts school, but they didn’t listen. “They were going to make me a civil servant. They even made me take the police school exams,” she said. Mery secretly took exams to study interior design. She got in. “Even as an interior designer, people find my work very artistic,” she added. Since she has another job, she only sells her art Friday through Sunday.
Mery, who has been selling here for two months, said that she heard many people speaking Turkish on the streets, but I was the first one to stop and take in the art. She feels that all Turks care about are the shops around SoHo like “Miu Miu and H&M,” and that they don’t care about art at all.
Mery also told me that sometimes people approached artists on the streets just to talk to them, that this was some peoples idea of friendship. A few minutes later, a young man came and lay down on the floor in front of us, and asked Mery what kind of music she liked. He then blasted the music on his bluetooth speaker. He sat there for what felt like ten minutes, Mery kept looking at me and saying, in Turkish of course, “See, I told you so!”
Mery has been expanding her work, she now has sculptures in galleries, but despite everything, she said that she prefers working on the street to working in a studio. She loves being able to talk to people on the street, but sometimes struggles to find a decent place on Prince Street. Mery is thinking of getting a place in front of the Whitney Museum. “Last year a man made a million dollars selling his art there,” she said.
Mery’s art usually has a deeper meaning to it. Like this drawing, pictured above, symbolizes her family. The fish symbolizes happiness and tranquility. The two girls are her and her sister, who she doesn’t see anymore, she recounts emotionally. “The one on the left is me, trying to keep the family together,” she says. “People don’t want to be reminded of sad things when they look at a drawing they purchase, so I just tell them that it’s about family.”
The drawing was colored by another artist working near her. She tells me that he would be a good person to interview for my article since he had been here for so long. I listened to her.
“The stairs lead to nowhere. You come from everywhere to come to nowhere,” said Matthew Courtney, talking about his gallery on street stairs. His art is mostly people, eyes, shapes, and buildings drawn on newspapers. He has been selling for 18 years in different locations, finally coming here 10 years ago. The 59-year-old started selling his art after his boss found out that he claimed he had art in MoMA, a museum in New York, and Mr. Courtney’s former workplace. “I used to draw little drawings on bags and sell them at the cash register. So I could say I have art in MoMA and sold art in MoMA.” Today, more than 10,000 of his drawings were sold and are decorating homes all around the globe.
“I’m really great with kids and dogs,” Mr. Courtney added mid-conversation. He has a special section in his outdoor gallery, filled with drawings made by kids from around the world, his “colleagues,” who visited the gallery and drew something. Of course, they are only for display. “That kid was from Istanbul,” he said, knowing that I was from there as well.
Matthew’s mind is always jumping from topic to topic – talking about his love for the color orange, he went on about the fruit, then a Lamborghini he once saw which was “international orange” – the color of the Golden Gate Bridge. ”Have you ever seen the Golden Gate Bridge?” he asked me. I hadn’t. “There’s a documentary called ‘The Bridge’ […] If you go up there to end your life, it really makes you think twice, cause it’s so beautiful.” Then on suicide, he said that “if you have a 100 options in your life, suicide should be number 100. Because the first 10 options in life are enough. And then you have 89 more […] The first five options are pretty great.” And then he finally added, “So purple is my second favorite color.”
A piece he had just finished was titled “Person of Colors” because he thinks “it’s not Person of Color but of Colors.” The portrait is filled with different lines in different colors drawn on the face. “That’s New York,” he said, and explained that the different lines represented different ethnicities. “Turkey’s in there somewhere,” he added.
Although Mr. Courtney’s art has become a part of SoHo now, some locals even stating that SoHo isn’t SoHo without him, he might have to leave soon. His stairs are in front of a store, and although the old store, J.Crew, didn’t mind him being there, he thinks the new store that will replace J. Crew does. In New York you are legally allowed to sell art on the streets without a license but you still have to respect people’s property.
Mr. Courtney pays a lot of attention to how his pieces are organized. He loves changing the location of his pieces carefully so they sit in the shade, also making sure they are symmetric and look nice.
“The classrooms never closed in the school of the self-taught, so my babies here, my drawings, get more beautiful and mom and dad don’t get any younger,” he said pointing at his brain and heart. His practice is making perfect; he can now draw a straight line while on the subway, where he completes most of his art.
Bonnie Lynn was sitting on a small chair on Prince Street, reading the New York Times, less than a block away from the brick building she lives in. Her umbrella with bright colors was protecting her art – the photos she had taken on her trips from all around the world.
Mrs. Lynn has been in this corner in Prince Street since 2006. She used to be an English teacher, and later on, worked at an insurance company. She lost her job but luckily had taken many photos on her travels as a teacher thanks to their 2-month vacations every summer, so she started selling them.
Mrs. Lynn got into photography thanks to her son Steve’s friend who was a photographer. She thought to herself, “Wow, that’s interesting!” So she bought herself a camera. Although she was “terrible” at first, she kept improving. More things started to catch her eye – like doors, windows, and street art.
Mrs. Lynn thinks that the best part about her job is the people. “I meet people from all around the world,” she said, something she really treasures. Just on June 15th, a day she gave as an example from the notebook she kept track of her sales in, there were many different places: Brooklyn, Venice, Philadelphia, Israel, Paris…
“Yesterday (July 7th) was the best day I’ve ever had in 12 years,” she said. Mrs. Lynn had sold the most photos she had ever sold in one day since the beginning of her career. But today, in the four hours she had been here, she only sold one.
Street art has become something she loves to photograph. One standout piece is a photograph of street art in Chelsea which features Audrey Hepburn.
Mrs. Lynn keeps herself very informed about the world: She reads the New York Times every day, although she doesn’t enjoy it as much now compared to a few years ago. “Our country is going down the toilet,” she said, and we continued to carry out a conversation about politics and world events, including some questions she asked about Turkey.
Tommy Flynn is a photographer who has been selling his work in “his spot” right in front of a Marc Jacobs store for four years. His most famous collection is “Sliced Open,” where he has highly saturated images of fruit sliced in half.
“I love to cook, I’m a huge foodie,” the 63-year-old added. He thought of “Sliced Open” two years ago while making a salad, looking at his watermelon radish sliced in half. Thinking it was too pretty, he picked up his camera. After that, he said he “had to know what was inside of every fruit and vegetable.”
“You have to cut everything in one clean slice,” Mr. Flynn said while explaining his usage of Takamura knives. These knives are Japanese and are made by the Takamura brothers. The family has been making knives for 400 years and Mr. Flynn said that it’s the sharpest knife he has found.
But cutting isn’t the only challenge in taking the photos. Mr. Flynn added, “I have about 30 seconds until the texture starts to change. So I have to work really quick.” Although it always takes multiple tries, he never wastes food. So all the food in his photos were all eaten by him. “And probably the Kiwano Horned Melon I wouldn’t eat again,” he added.
One of the stand-out pieces is the “Blood Orange.” The over-saturation of color makes the fruit look almost like a drawing. The orange is from Italy and has a lot of juice and a lot of flavor. Very near Mr. Flynn’s spot is a trendy grocery store, Dean & Deluca. Mr. Flynn told his friend, the manager, that he really wanted a blood orange and the manager brought a case.
Many of Mr. Flynn’s customers love grouping the images into three. The longest time for a couple to pick the images was apparently two hours and forty minutes. Afterward, he made a list of images that look good together, for guidance. Mr. Flynn has other collections, including one with seashells and one with skulls made out of marble.
He studied jewelry at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and still does jewelry, mostly for his friends and family, but is thinking of getting a license and selling his fruit photographs as necklaces, rings, and earrings.
Mr. Flynn also went to school for photography and cooking. He used to take product photographs for Coach, an iconic brand known for its handbags and accessories. Mr. Flynn learned a lot about French and Japanese cuisine while studying cooking. He is half Italian and learned cooking from his mom and grandmother. “I’d love to do a photographed cookbook with some of my recipes,” he said.
When I told him I lived in Istanbul, Mr. Flynn introduced me to his Turkish friend, working two tables away from him, who had been in New York for 22 years.
That’s the story of four of these artists, and as you can probably tell, they are all very different from each other.
There are, though, a few things that tie them together. First of all, they share the same office, Prince Street, and have specific spots they like to sell in. In addition, they all pay attention to and are genuinely interested in the lives of their customers. All of them asked me questions about where I was from and connected it to someone they know or something they had done, or just asked more questions. All of them agree that they love talking to people from all around the world, something, many say, that they wouldn’t be able to do if they sold in a gallery.
I am sure, just like Mery’s parents, many of you would probably pity their job: selling on the streets… they must have had no other option. But that’s not the case. Almost everyone has options. Someone else’s number one might not be yours. But that doesn’t matter. As long as the person making the decision is happy with it.
And as I walk away from Prince Street, chasing the next story, doing the next “big thing” that’s on my mind – basically whatever I’m doing, I have one goal, to be as happy as these artists were with their jobs, no matter what other people think.
Note: These interviews were conducted from the 7th to the 13th of July. Any changes since then have not been recorded in this article.
I couldn’t stop smiling while reading this article, it’s wonderful and full of inspiration. It’s just amazing that all these people adore what they do and that you had the great opportunity to have a conversation with them about it. These are the times where it’s almost impossible to find a job that truly makes you happy and yet there they are selling their art, telling you all about it… Loved this article Emine I want more!
I loved this! Thank you for taking the time to be present with a slice of NYC we all are so familiar with. I especially enjoyed reading about the people behind the art. A valuable piece of human connection, something so desperately needed in today’s world.
Love the powerful message that at the end of the day all that matters is self-satisfaction and self-contentment. A diverse, tasteful, and welcoming piece of work. Keep up the good work, you’re on the right track!
I am so proud of you – I loved every word of your interviews and article! Looking forward to your next big idea in your mind Emine!