The stretch of Bowery between Houston and Third Avenue is usually an eclectic mix of busy bars, coffee shops and art galleries, with crowded sidewalks to boot. But since the start of the pandemic and more recently the looting following the George Floyd protests, the streets have been stark, and the colorful windows have been replaced by plywood boards and rusty nails.
In early June, artist Sono Kuwayama saw an opportunity to freshen up the neighborhood and started the Bringing Back Bowery project by writing letters to some of the local businesses asking if she could paint the plywood covering their storefronts.
“The basic reaction has been pretty positive,” Kuwayama said. “I feel like everyone’s been having some kind of dialogue about it [including] the store owners.”
Because a lot of the boarded-up storefronts were covered in crude graffiti, some store owners were even relieved that Kuwayama wanted to paint their boards.
“I’ve just been waiting for artists to come and paint these doors,” one store owner said to Kuwayama. “I’m so excited you walked in here.”
Archiving the Project
Kuwayama hasn’t been the only artist painting murals on the plywood boards. Early in the project, Kuwayama invited other local artists to paint their own murals on some of the storefronts. With over 30 murals and counting, the project has turned into an outdoor art gallery, though Kuwayama emphasized that the murals haven’t been curated in any way. And while there is some input from the store owners, Kuwayama doesn’t require a certain subject matter or censor the artists. In fact, when asked by one store owner to include certain words to reflect what she felt was going on in the moment, Kuwayama refused.
“What you’re doing, it’s worth a thousand words and you don’t have to write anything on this,” Kuwayama said. “These are artists and they work in their style, and it is what it is. It’s a gift from us and it’s free to the [owners].”
Though the store owners have been delighted to have the art displayed over their doors and windows, the boards will sooner or later have to come down. Kuwayama said that the art gallery City Lore is going to archive and document the project, as it’s become a part of Bowery’s history. But past being just an art installation, the project has another, more significant purpose.
“I feel like this is going to be the only tangible artifacts left from this time period,” Kuwayama said. “There’s photographs, there’s writing, memories, there’s all of that but this is actually one really tangible thing that is here. It’s just a historical document of what people are going through because of the hundred plus days of the pandemic, and being in isolation, and artists, either having no access to their city or just in their studio so I think it’s been a very reflective time.”
Follow the Bringing Back Bowery project on Instagram at @bringing_back_bowery.
“What you’re doing, it’s worth a thousand words ... These are artists and they work in their style, and it is what it is. It’s a gift from us and it’s free to the [owners].” Sono Kuwayama, founder of Bring Back Bowery