Art

Renaissance in the Heights

There is a big difference between walking on the streets in Williamsburg and walking here in Washington Heights.”

Story and portraits by by Matteo Lonardi - matteolonardiphoto@gmail.com
René De los Santos  © Matteo Lonardi

René De los Santos Photo © Matteo Lonardi

René De Los Santos, 67
“Art is flourishing here in Washington Heights even if there is a lack of spaces where artists can learn and grow. Yet at NOMAA, artists found a new foothold.”

De los Santos has lived in Washington Heights for thirty years and is convinced that today the art scene is developing faster and that more artists are moving to the neighborhood. His canvases, which fill the walls of his house, are rich in surreal imagery with voodoo and Santería references. He is also an active participant in the GaGá community, a group that performs pagan-Catholic ceremonies rooted in Dominican culture, and is invested in bringing ancient rituals back into today’s Dominican culture.

Rider Urena Photo © Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Rider Urena Photo © Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Rider Urena, 38
“There is definitely a renaissance in the way businesses are changing. We used to have many mechanics and now there are restaurants and shops and nightclubs. Artists usually work in these places they create these places, designing and putting art on the walls. In this way it has been a renaissance.”

Dister Photo © Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Dister Photo © Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Dister, 37
“The talent and skills are here but the fact that we are not working together as a collective is definitely paying a toll in the growing of the renaissance or even in the existence of it.”

He is one of the neighborhood’s well-known graffiti artists. He has worked with El Museo del Barrio and has taught workshops in the Dominican Republic and in Europe. Dister is convinced that art should be valued much more in the Washington Heights community, yet he acknowledges that things are slowly improving and that a renaissance is possible.

Tony Peralta Photo ©  Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Tony Peralta Photo © Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Tony Peralta
“Renaissance is a very strong word to use. You can see that there is no renaissance just by taking a walk in the neighborhood. There is a big difference between walking on the streets in Williamsburg and walking here in Washington Heights.”

He tries to define the identity of the neighborhood creating pop iconic imagery that he applies on T-shirts, caps or canvas.

Carlos Jesus Martinez Photo © Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Carlos Jesus Martinez Photo © Matteo Lonardi / Northattan

Carlos Jesus Martinez, 34
“It’s not a cozy relationship, it’s not that we are looking out for each other, we have a lot of back stabbing and jealousy, but there is a renaissance. We are getting much more attention. A lot of our artists are being represented.”

He came to the neighborhood in 1993 and lives and works in his apartment. He doesn’t like the term “graffiti,” but works as an artist questioning the role of public space in New York City. He uses found signage, boxes and other materials as canvas. Martinez uses art to comprehend his identity as a Dominican in Washington Heights.

Art © Dister

Art © Dister

Lower Manhattan has had an art scene for the last century, but just a few miles North on the same island, a neighborhood has lived in artistic anonymity for years. That scene in Washington Heights is the theater of a dispute: Some artists say there is an artistic renaissance in the neighborhood, while others say that it is not there yet.

Art © Carlos Jesus Martinez

Art © Carlos Jesus Martinez Dominguez

Carlos Jesus Martinez Dominguez, a graffiti artist, is convinced that Washington Heights is seeing an increase in the public nature of its art. He has displayed his work at El Museo del Barrio and was part of “Caribbean Crossroads of the World” in 2012 at the Queens Museum of Art, which was named “best show of the year” by The New York Times and The Village Voice. “The renaissance is just a combination of the different exposures that the neighborhood is getting,” he said. “It’s a very slow process. There is more art being put in the public and there are more art-related events going on.”

Art © Carlos Jesus Martinez

Art © Carlos Jesus Martinez Dominguez

He said, though, that some artists wouldn’t agree with him, and that the community does not act as one. “It’s not a cozy relationship,” he said. “It’s not that we are looking out for each other. We have a lot of back stabbing and jealousy.” Even so, he said, “We are getting much more attention. A lot of our artists are being represented.” Martinez said there are disagreements on who are the “good artists” and who is doing “meaningful work”. And that not all artists share the same definition of what “the scene” is in Washington Heights.

Art © Tony Peralta

Art © Tony Peralta

Tony Peralta, for example, disagrees with Martinez’s optimistic view.
A couple of blocks from the 207th stop off the 1 train, in the messy basement of an apartment building, Peralta created his silkscreen laboratory. He tries to define the identity of the neighborhood by creating pop iconic imagery that he applies on T-shirts, caps or canvas. “Renaissance is a very strong word to use,” he said. “You can see that there is no renaissance just by taking a walk in the neighborhood. There is a big difference between walking on the streets in Williamsburg and walking here in Washington Heights.”

Art © Tony Peralta

Art © Tony Peralta

Peralta said there is no real rebirth of the art scene. He recalled that in eighties, when he was a child, there were many writers and he would often see painted walls and trains in Washington Heights. “That’s what’s happening here today,” he said. “More people get too excited and think they are artists. Kids get a spray can and think that’s enough. I have been doing this for five years and only now I feel comfortable calling my self an artist.”

Art © René De los Santos

Art © René De los Santos

René De los Santos moved to the neighborhood 30 years ago from the Dominican Republic. He is convinced that there is a renaissance in the art scene of the neighborhood. De los Santos is part of a prolific collective of graphic designers and fine artists called Dominican York Proyecto Grafica.

Art © Tony Peralta

Art © Tony Peralta

“The neighborhood was very different in the nineties,” he said. “There were no artists. Now there are spaces where artists can show their work.” His paintings are a complex mix of Catholic and pagan symbolism: He strokes Caribbean warm colors on his canvases. The walls of his apartment on the borders of Washington Heights and Inwood are covered with dozens of his surreal paintings.

Art © René De los Santos

Art © René De los Santos

Rocio Aranda, curator at Museo del Barrio, said that while there have always been working artists in the Washington Heights area, they never had exposure through galleries and not many people knew about them. Since 2007, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance has provided artists with space to showcase their work while also promoting and funding local artists and institutions. “Now, because of NOMAA, people know artists are there,” she said, adding that El Museo has showcased the work of some of them.

Art © Rider Urena

Art © Rider Urena

Rider Urena, painter and sculptor, is convinced that a change in the type of businesses in the area is a main reason for the growth of the art scene. “There is definitely a renaissance in the way businesses are changing,” Urena said. “We used to have many mechanics and now there are restaurants and shops and nightclubs. Artists usually work in these places. They create these places, designing and putting art on the walls.” The appearance of “hip” bars and clubs makes it possible for different types of artists to make a living.

Art © Dister

Art © Dister

Because of the lack of galleries, artists acknowledged that life in the neighborhood is very difficult. Yet NOMAA has tried to make space available for collective and solo shows. Apt. 78 is one of the bars that support local artists by organizing shows and networking events. Urena and Peralta have been working closely with the owners to decorate the space and get more artists to participate in the creation of an art-friendly space.

Art © Dister

Art © Dister

Dister, one of Martinez’s closest friends and collaborators and another graffiti artist, keeps his art supplies in a grungy basement on 171st Street. He said that there had been a change in the art scene of Washington Heights, but that local artists needed to get together and work as a collective. The lack of communication among local creative people could cause a waste of talent and it would damage the future of the neighborhood, he said. “The talent and skills are here, but the fact that we are not working together as a collective is definitely paying a toll in the growing of the renaissance—or even in the existence of it.”

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