The Optimo-zation of a Chelsea Eyesore

Graffiti artist’s painting on an abandoned property aims to connect the neighborhood and the city

| 30 Apr 2021 | 04:15

For anyone even remotely familiar with the heart-wrenching inertia of 210 Seventh Avenue, the story isn’t even worth talking about anymore. The piteous, decades-long saga of Erroll Rainess and the abandoned property just seems like a moot discussion. Any glimmers of hope, like the removal of the scaffolding, or spray-painted FDNY symbols, just lead to disappointment. Vacant since the early 2000s, it has been in a constant and aggravating state of degradation ever since.

And then, one bright and sparkling spring day in mid-April, the entire cemented-over facade had been carefully shellacked in a pleasant pink-to-purple ombre, with bold, white block letters wrapping “WE [Heart] CHELSEA” around the corner of 22nd Street onto Seventh Avenue. Granted, this is quite possibly the ultimate lipstick-on-the-pig, but in any case, it was a brilliantly refreshing update from the dilapidated grey filth that has hallmarked the address.

But who did it? It seemed too organized, too big a project for a single tagger. A post on provided no information, until my neighbor discovered a lead. Sophia Serrano, the owner of the newly bustling restaurant Counter & Bodega, had procured permission from the building’s wayward landlord to spruce up the facade, and enlisted a locally famous, and infamous, professional graffiti artist known only as OPTIMONYC.

Since then, the mural has featured a panoply of characters, all sporting a specific headpiece: a top hat. This hat is the signature chapeau of the artist, whose story began in Chelsea, and via a tangled path of growth, struggles and expression, has found his way back to his favorite neighborhood.

Optimo (as he has been known since 2007, and will be for this article’s sake) was born in Chelsea, and grew up here. To him, “this is it.” Chelsea is the center of the city, the lifeblood: not totally downtown, not uptown ... but right in the heart of it. So when he and Serrano met, as a fellow Puerto Ricans with many mutual acquaintances, the idea burgeoned for the mural. The pink backdrop wasn’t so much intentional as it was what he had on hand, but it is more than a suitable hue for the neighborhood. He has works throughout New York City, and his signature silhouette, that mirrors his own quasi-vampiric, top-hatted flamboyance, might be familiar to people who keep their eyes at least partially out of their phones on their daily perambulations.

In this project, and in all his pieces, Optimo tries to integrate the subject matter into its surroundings, creating organic tableaus that seem at one with their canvas. He never studied art formally, but is a member of many graffiti crews, many of whom have formal degrees, and others who learned as he did, by practice. He was always artistic as a kid, but he seemed “to always find myself in some sort of trouble.” He’s not unfamiliar with the penitentiary system, by which he has been arrested for a number of offenses, some petty, and others unfortunately a little more serious. But now, in his forties, he has worked most of that rascally blood out of him, and is proudly, and admirably, five years clean and sober.

The rascal that remains exhibits itself through his art, both in its implementation and his signature silhouette: you won’t catch Optimo without his snazzy top hat, nor are his tags ever bereft of one. His current mural in Chelsea is a work in progress. Residents and passersby can observe its progression through the coming weeks as its cast of characters evolves, including Freddie Mercury, Betty Boop, Mr. Peanut, and his own Sherlock Holmes-ian silhouette. These iconic figures are connected by the hat, but Optimo says we are all connected in some way. He hopes in every piece he creates that “someone’s gonna relate to it.” And yes, he is hurt when people deface his art, but it’s part of the metier he has chosen. People have a destructive streak, something with which he is well familiar. He sees the friction in the city and the world, and his strategy to put something positive out. Whether it is the citizens of Chelsea, people from other boroughs, or tourists, his hope is to remind people that we all share a common bond. He’ll often place a little quote embedded in his work, hoping that it resonate with the viewer, reminding everyone that no one is alone, and that we are all connected, even if just by recognizing his dapper top-hatted silhouette.