Art collectors with deep pockets are expected to trickle into the South Bronx over the next few weeks in hopes of buying from a 20-piece collection of street-style paintings featured at Wallworks Art Gallery. The show titled “the last ride,” features the stencil graffiti of British art-icon, Nick Walker, most famous for his “gentleman vandal” motif highlighted in street art around the world.
“I’ve always been inspired by New York City,” said Walker. “Ever since I started coming here, the first time was like 1992, I used to come here to basically feed off of it.”
Several paintings on display at the gallery, located along the Harlem River in Port Morris, depict the gentleman vandal – a man in a suit and a bowler hat – interacting with the word “Bronx” painted in bold red. These Bronx-specific paintings were sold before the show even opened on Sept. 17, both earning four-digit receipts of sale, according to gallery director Anna Matos. Walker’s featured paintings are selling for $1,500 to $3,500, more than many people in the area pay in monthly rent, a harbinger of the rapid and controversial changes taking place along this section of Bruckner Boulevard.
At the show’s opening event, Walker mingled with guests, many of whom were visiting the Bronx-based gallery for the first time. He signed his book for excited up-and-coming artists and young enthusiasts with purple hair, long beards, and tattooed arms, while simultaneously negotiating with middle aged collectors.
Walker said his favorite piece at the show was one of a silhouette of a man in a boat rowing away from the viewer. The silhouette is painted on top of an image of a red butterfly meant to symbolize change.
“They have an ephemeral existence in a way,” Walker said. “It’s about change. Whether good or bad. It’s just one of those things. It just kind of talks to me.”
Change is a poignant theme in this area of South Bronx, slated by developers to become “the next Brooklyn.” Bronx-native Naiomy Guerrero, founding editor of the blog Gallery Girl NYC, said she enjoyed seeing iconic artwork by a famous artist so close to home. But she also had concerns about having an out-of-towner featured at the only art gallery of its kind in the Bronx, especially given that the Bronx is home to so many artists.
“It’s not like you have to be a native to make work about a place,” said Guerrero. “But this is sensitive, because the Bronx is undergoing a revolution right now.”
One block from Wallworks is the site of a controversial multi-building residential development project proposed by Somerset Partners LLC. The development, set to break ground in the next few months, will include up to six market-rate luxury riverfront apartments. Somerset has also partnered with several local restaurants and shops, boosting the commercial appeal of the once neglected riverfront. Somerset founder Keith Rubenstein’s hospitality and residential plans are part of an effort that he says will “reinvent” parts of the neighborhood, which has historically struggled with drugs, violence, and poverty.
“They’re going to bring back this part,” said art collector Arthur Katz, who came to show’s opening with his wife hoping to buy a Walker painting. “I hope it works. I was born and raised – we were born and raised – in the Bronx, so it means a lot if they could bring it back.”
In a promotional video, Rubenstein refers to the Port Morris area as “authentic, edgy, and undiscovered.” Yet the surrounding area, known as Mott Haven, is home to over 50,000 people. Rubenstein also attempted to re-brand the neighborhood the Piano District, in a move that protesters said whitewashed the vibrant history of the South Bronx.
“The Bronx is here,” said Guerrero. “And there’s art in the Bronx. And it never left. And there is no such thing as bringing it back because it’s always been here.”
Hip Hop music and graffiti-style art trace their roots to the Bronx from a period long before big developers or collectors thought the area or the art were interesting. But times have changed and what was once considered vandalism in the South Bronx is now a lucrative art form around the world. Walker’s Moona Lisa sold in 2006 for over $70,000, showing just how much street art has evolved.
“It’s kinda funny ‘cuz here you are talking about graffiti, and I grew up with that,” said Julio Barea, who attended the opening. Known to this day by his artist name 2Mad, Barea grew up in the Bronx where he started “tagging” trains and buildings as a kid. “It was a way of life.”
Wallworks is owned and operated by another renowned graffiti artist from the Bronx, John “Crash” Matos, a friend of Barea and Walker. Matos said he founded the gallery in 2014 on a whim, after recognizing that most Bronx residents didn’t have easy access to art spaces.
“I wanted to just bring people in here – artists who I like – whether it’s 18-year-olds from down the street or friends of mine from Europe,” Matos said.
Matos said he continues to search for ways to engage members of the Bronx community. He is one of several business owners in the area who is not partnered with Somerset, though he said Rubenstein approached him about working together. While he said he is not opposed to progress, Matos believes that the Somerset development down the street will price out long-term residents of the neighborhood.
“And that’s a crime,” he said. “I walked up to a hornet’s nest. When we got the space, the whole gentrification thing was just starting here. But I didn’t know, to what extent, how deep it was.”
Matos’ refusal to participate did not prevent Somerset from capitalizing on the gallery’s presence in the neighborhood. The mural painted on the outer wall of Wallworks is featured in Somerset’s promotional video. And the gallery shows continue to bring new people to the neighborhood.
“I do think it’s ironic that in one way it’s kind of helping [Rubenstein],” said Guerrero, about Wallworks gallery’s success. “Because it makes the neighborhood look —”
“But it is f***ing cool. And it is hip,” Guerrero continued. “But it’s been that way.”