Tag Archive | "Art"

Street Art As Tourism: Using graffiti to attract visitors to the borough

Alexandra Maruri was working in a hotel in midtown Manhattan in 2010 when she had an epiphany.

“People were asking for suggestions where they could go to visit other than midtown and the regular touristy spots, and I would suggest the Bronx, and they would cringe,” she recalled.

The Bronx native said that she always knew her home borough had a “bad image” on a local or national level, but it had never occurred to her that the negative reputation had spread to a “world-wide scale.”

So Maruri would hand-sketch maps of some of her favorite places in the Bronx that were off the beaten track to supply to these tourists. After being outright ignored or told no, one traveler in particular, Maruri said, made her realize that she needed to shift her career and life’s calling.

“A lady from Spain said to me, ‘If I could go with you, then it would be perfect, I would go.’ And that was when I got the idea to do the tours.”

These days, Maruri spends her time as a licensed tour guide for MCNY Tours, the company she founded in 2011, through which she takes sightseers to historical and cultural locales throughout New York City’s oft-forgotten borough. A new themed tour in her portfolio highlights one of the Bronx’s most attractive features: street art.

“There was hidden talent,” she said of the bountiful number of professional street artists that the Bronx breeds.

Street art is steadily increasing as a formidable magnet to attract visitors to the Bronx. People like Maruri are taking advantage of the international interest in street art and its strong roots as a Bronx art form, and hoping that this suppresses what Maruri called the “world-wide problem” of a negative image that the borough still struggles with.

Maruri partnered with the TAG Public Arts Project – a local initiative that “enhances the visual landscape of urban communities with art,” as the organization’s website states.

TAG was founded by J. “SinXero” Beltran to help local businesses commission street artists to create visually exciting murals on their walls. So far TAG artists have covered 100,000 square feet of wall space in the Bronx.

The Bronx Tourism Council also works closely with Maruri, as well as with a number of other tour companies in the borough, to bring more visitors to the Bronx. According to Dena Libner, the Director of Communications & External Affairs at New York City & Company, the city’s official destination marketing organization, 55.8 million visitors are expected to come to New York City this year. According to data provided by New York Pass, an attraction “smart card” that tourists can purchase to give them access to a wide variety of city sights, the number of Bronx visits has jumped from 5,000 in 2012 to an expected 25,000 this year. But while numbers are steadily increasing, the borough is still lagging behind the city as a whole.

While Maruri and SinXero depend predominantly upon social media sites like Instagram to spread awareness about the tours or the artists behind the murals they show, their work is also promoted by the Bronx Tourism Council, which sends out a weekly newsletter to 20,000 people and has a website potential tourists access frequently, according to Olga Tirado, the council’s director. “We get a lot of hits from international folks who want to know what’s going on in the Bronx,” she said.

Tirado is able to target the potential tourists before they even make their way to American soil.

“Graff art is a big part of the Bronx legacy,” she said, explaining how the genre captures the interest of a possible sightseer. “One of the things we all know in the tourism business is that people go to different places for different reasons. There are many reasons why tourists want to make their way to New York in general and then to the Bronx, and art, and within that, street art, is one of them.”

Street art has had a lengthy history in the borough, spanning over the past several decades. Many street artists in the borough argue that graffiti and street art were born in the Bronx, like hip hop or doo-wop, before spreading in popularity across the country and the globe. The era began with “bombings” or tagging on subway trains, before the city instituted The Clean Train Movement in 1985, with trains that had been “bombed” or graffiti-covered all taken out of the New York City subway system by 1989. So graffiti artists were forced to turn to rooftops and buildings as their new canvases.

Ever since the 1980s, new locales have regularly popped up as popular street art sites. Since 2007, Tuff City, a Fordham tattoo shop and gallery has been a sanctuary for graffiti artists. The building is enveloped in lettering and murals, but the pièce de résistance is the 45-foot subway car behind the building, which is home to ginormous lettering and characters.

According to locals, a favorite for the past few years has been the TATS Cru “I Love The Bronx” mural on Simpson Street and Westchester Avenue. The large mural, which takes up the entire side of a discount store, was made in 2012, and has been a neighborhood attraction since then. Playing on the famous “I Love New York” slogan, the painting features a fiery heart in front of larger-than-life block-letters that spell out “BRONX” and are filled with hyper-realistic scenes familiar to those in the borough, from a subway train and children playing in the streets, or a hot dog vendor and DJ spinning tracks, to the more touristy Yankee Stadium and Bronx Zoo.


TATS Cru "I Love The Bronx" mural on Simpson Street is a favorite amongst locals (Stephanie Beach / THE BRONX INK)

TATS Cru “I Love The Bronx” mural on Simpson Street is a favorite amongst locals (Stephanie Beach / THE BRONX INK)

John “Crash” Matos, a graffiti artist who has been working in the Bronx since 1974, when he was 13, opened WallWorks NY, an art gallery that he will run with his 24-year-old daughter, Anna. The entire side of the building, on the corner of Bruckner Boulevard and Alexander Avenue, showcases a stunningly realistic mural of a woman and her dog, painted by TATS Cru, that will be up until the end of the year, before being painted over with a new piece.


Famous Bronx street artists TATS Cru painted a mural on the side of WallWorksNY gallery on Alexander Avenue (Stephanie Beach / THE BRONX INK)

Famous Bronx street artists TATS Cru painted a mural on the side of WallWorksNY gallery on Alexander Avenue (Stephanie Beach / THE BRONX INK)

Matos said that the Bronx has given him so much and he is excited to give back to the art world in the borough.

In addition to attracting international visitors and beautifying the neighborhoods for locals, street art tours also act as an open-air, public, free art gallery for talented artists in the borough.

“This is actual art and hopefully these gentlemen that are involved can go to the next level and get noticed on a world-wide scale,” Maruri said.

One such artist gaining momentum in the Bronx street art scene is Connecticut native John O’Grodnick.

O’Grodnick started painting as a young boy, saying that he always had a lot of “creativity running in my brain” and had to find a means by which to “let it out.”

Now he lives in the Bronx – and he opted to move to the northernmost borough instead of one of the other four.

“Every borough has its own soul,” he explained. “And the Bronx has a vibe of realness that you can’t find anywhere else. It is the most untouched, untapped borough in New York City. It reminds me of Old New York before billionaires took over and pushed all real New Yorkers out of their homes.”

After meeting SinXero at an art opening, O’Grodnick decided to try his hand at using a wall as his medium in place of a canvas, and now visitors taking a street art tour are exposed to his work – which he describes as “beautiful, dirty industrial street art” – without having to set foot inside a gallery.

O’Grodnick’s murals imitate the general look and feel of his gallery pieces. His murals feature bright neon and primary colors and have a modern urbanite Picasso-meets-Warhol feel to them. One such mural at 2100 Glebe Ave. in the Parkchester neighborhood features brightly colored mouths and noses staggered on top of each other, with one particularly large pill-shaped mouth covering the entire door of the building. Another, done across a metal gate on 370 E. 134th St. in Mott Haven, consists of swipes and splatters of bright pastel lavender, blue, green, and yellow; a neighboring gate sports a painting of a turquoise, pink, and orange cartoonish robot with “The Boogie Down Bronx” imprinted on its stomach. The artwork is bright, unique, and attention grabbing, and provides a stark contrast to the concrete and steel urban landscape that it is surrounded by.


John O'Grodnick's colorful mural on Glebe Avenue (Stephanie Beach / THE BRONX INK}

John O’Grodnick’s colorful mural on Glebe Avenue (Stephanie Beach / THE BRONX INK)

One point that these artists insist upon, no matter what medium they use, is that street art is not vandalism.

“There is a difference between tagging or graffiti on walls and having a professional artist come in and paint a piece of art on your wall,” O’Grodnick said. He recognizes that some people may not be fans of street art, and may instead prefer for “all buildings to look the same,” but he stresses the creative importance of businesses allowing commissioned artwork on their buildings.

“It is great to walk down the street and see somebody’s passion on the wall,” O’Grodnick said.

Maruri attributed the mentality that street art equals vandalism to public ignorance, and pointed out that changing this misperception is another goal that she is attempting to reach with her art tours.

“We want to discourage graffiti and discourage vandalism from a perspective of creating some real art,” she said. “People don’t know the difference and that is what this tour is about. This is not illegal. The owners want it there. It is not done behind anyone’s back. It is not done in the middle of the night.”

But numerous longstanding street artists from the Bronx fear that commissioned work is leading to the gentrification of the borough – which they are not too happy about. They contend that the Bronx’s image – the one that Maruri and Tirado and so many others are trying to change, is based upon the borough’s grittiness. And that grittiness is due, at least in part, to graffiti and tagging and the frequency with which it is visible around the borough’s streets. So to take that away would be akin to whitewashing the unique vibe and feel of the borough in favor of creating a more family-friendly, touristic environment – not entirely unlike what happened to Times Square in the 1990s.

Even in the street art world, that is a highly controversial topic of debate.

“They have no idea what they are talking about,” Matos said of people who stand behind the anti-gentrification viewpoint. “There is still an amazing amount of resistance to what we are doing and what we are about. We are basically self-taught kids who took industrial materials and made it work, not caring what people said. People like that need to get with the program, get a laptop, get into the Internet, and see what is happening beyond their front door. So there goes that argument of gentrification.”

Maruri also refuted claims that tours like hers are the wedge of gentrification, saying that people from all over the world can easily relate to street art, and that is why it is important to focus on it as a form of tourism. She cites other cities across the globe known for their admiration and dedication to street art, including London, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, and Philadelphia.

Tirado agreed that the ease of accessibility that street art offers is an aspect that makes it ideal to be used as a tourism boost.

“Street art is public art, and we are big supporters of public art. We need to make space for art on our streets,” Tirado said. “It raises the community perception, it also raises the community’s pride in their community when you see art, when you see beautiful art in your neighborhood.”

Maruri said that she and SinXero work together so well because they both share the same interests at heart.

“Since we’re insiders, we’re not outsiders, we really want to see our communities improve, and that’s the common goal that we have. We want to uplift our communities,” she said.

Through the use of street art to attract tourism, tour companies, the Tourism Council, and the street artists themselves hope to ignite a cultural shift.

“You’re working against an image from the past, so it is not like something that happens overnight,” Maruri said. “But people can now see that we’re a community that is booming and not burning.”


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Art of Memory

In memory of their friend who was fatally stabbed five years ago, the House of Spoof Art Collective opened a new show in Hunts Point’s Brick House Gallery on August 23, celebrating young talent from the Bronx and beyond, and expanding the gallery’s role in the burgeoning Bronx arts scene.

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The Brick House Gallery in Hunts Point is used by the House of Spoof art collective as both a studio and a gallery space. It currently houses the collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

This year’s Annual Summer Show, the fourth, is its largest exhibit to-date and combines a wide selection of photos, videos and paintings from 32 different artists that fill the gallery walls top to bottom. While shows there typically confront social and political issues, this exhibit is not bound by any thematic, aesthetic or geographic constraints. The all-embracing organizing rubric, intended to draw a diverse range of submissions, was “Community and Culture.”

“It’s a celebration of art,” said Misra Walker, art student at Cooper Union and co-founder of the Spoof Collective. She said one of her goals is to facilitate rather than curate: all artists who submitted work in response to a call through social media were accepted. Misra said she wanted to help kickstart some careers with this event rather than be a gatekeeper.

This is also the group’s first effort to reach out to likeminded artists beyond the South Bronx. Participating artists came from California, France, and the Netherlands, as well as from New York. Danish photographer Petrine Clausen flew in from her new hometown of Amsterdam to see her five color prints on display. “This is my first time in the Bronx and it’s very different from what I know,” she said with a wink, sipping wine from college-style plastic cups and sampling homemade fried chicken outside the gallery.

Capturing unposed moments in artsy party scenes in Europe, her photos of white young people in shiny outfits may seem out of sync in the midst of Hunts Point, but fit the exhibit’s underlying theme by opening a window on a particular community.

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Danish artist Petrine Clausen’s photograph of a European party scene is shown at the House of Spoof art collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

Randy Clinton’s photographs, in contrast, are stark cityscapes expressing the beauty of the borough. The former Marine Corps photographer, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2008, shoots with a camera phone and prints the digitally enhanced pictures on square metal sheets that give the images a bright sheen. “I just want to try to capture everything around me as it happens,” he said, explaining the freedom he feels without lugging around the cameras and lenses he used as a Marine. “My iPhone makes that process easier.”

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Former US Marine photographer Randy Clinton standing in front of his collection of submitted photographs. (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Most of the contributing artists applied by submitting five samples through JotForm, a social media platform. The number of submissions surprised the gallery collective, who cut their own work from the show to accommodate all 32 applicants. “We don’t agree on everything,” said Richard Palacios, co-founder and multimedia artist, describing how members of the collective held different views of the work they received, but supported the principle of the open call. “I guess there was some kind of democratic process behind it,” he said.

The House of Spoof Collective (THOSC) was officially founded in 2011, when four friends working summer jobs at The Point CDC, the renown community art and activist center in Hunts Point, sought to honor the passing of their close friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright.

Wright, who would have turned 26 on the day of the show’s opening, was a flourishing South Bronx photographer who was brutally killed 2009. Mistaken for a rival gang member by a group out for revenge, Wright was stabbed to death outside his grandmother’s Lower East Side apartment.

“After Spoof’s death we were in group therapy sessions and decided to channel our grief and his spirit by creating this project,” said Palacios, 24, one of the co-founding quartet including fellow art students Misra Walker, 22, Ryan Smith, 24, and Alberto Inamagua, 27. Only a couple of months later they had already curated their first show in a space provided by The Point.

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The House of Spoof co-founder Misra Walker stans under a portrait of her murdered friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright that hangs permanently in the gallery (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Though they continue to present a rotating selection of Wright’s black-and-white photos at every show, the group has since moved beyond the original premise of keeping Spoof’s legacy alive.

Walker admitted that the group is still very young — “We often have no idea what we are doing,” she said — and that their current work is only a stepping stone to bigger goals. They plan to create an art incubator for young artists and “bring back that Andy Warhol, factory-feel to art in New York City.”

In many ways their work space reflects their own transformation. Set on a remote stretch along Hunts Point’s industrial waterfront, the stocky Brick House Gallery is the only remnant of a burnt down fur-tanning factory that was converted into an experimental art spot for the community in 2007.

Working out of the South Bronx in an impoverished area with scarce public resources, the group has always seen location and context as a central element of their work. They see themselves as activist artists, tackling local issues related to violence, neglect, and the environment. They are currently building a greenhouse out of discarded soda bottles. The group conducts free art workshops for Hunts Point’s residents throughout the year.

“We want to make the art accessible to the Hunts Point community,” explained Walker, who gave an emotional TED TALK on activism through art back in 2009. “Art has always been really important in this community and we want to keep that going. That’s what Glenn would have done – given back to the community.”

The Bronx has historically been a hotbed for the arts — it is the birthplace of both hip-hop and modern street art — and is currently seeing a resurgence, with a host of galleries and shows opening across the borough.

Among the work in the Summer Show, photographs by Tiffany Williams stand out: prints showing colorful smoke wisping against a black background. Williams, one of the group’s mentors and the co-creator of The Point’s after-school photography program, has been active in the Bronx arts community for more than a decade. “The Bronx has been involved with the arts way before Brooklyn ever got cool for its art scene,” she said, basking in the late afternoon sun in Hunts Point. “It might take time, but we’re bringing the conversation back.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Southern Bronx, The Bronx BeatComments (0)

Top Stories of the Day

Bronx mom takes cops to civil court for failure to protect her son

Residential confidential informant, 20 year old Antony Velez, was doing is job when he tipped off two cops to the location of guns and drugs inside a Brooklyn apartment. The agreement was that he would be protected in return. But on that day in 2004, Velez was shot just two hours after giving police the tip. Velez’s mother Bronx woman Towanda Velez, according to The Daily News, has decided to sue the two police officers in a civil case, for what she sees as negligent conduct.

New gallery to open in the Bronx in memory of slain journalist

Tim Hetherington, photojournalist, was killed while reporting in Libya last April. He dreamed of opening a film and photography gallery space in the Bronx. Soon, reports The Daily News, his dream will be realized. Fellow photojournalist Mike Kamber plans to open the doors to the gallery in tribute to his heroic friend.

Judge Lee Holzman gives advantages to his chief campaign fundraiser

The Daily News reports that Surrogate Judge Holzman allowed his lawyer friend, Michael Lippman, charge fees for work he didn’t do on the estates of deceased Bronx residents. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct recommends disciplinary action against Holzman.

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“Colors of Africa” on Display in New Exhibit

“Colors of Africa” on Display in New Exhibit

South African woodblock artist Ezequiel Mabote was the guest of honor Thursday at a reception honoring his work at the Hall of Fame Art Gallery in Bliss Hall at Bronx Community College.

Mabote’s showcased series, titled “Ubuhle Be Africa” or Beauty of Africa, reflects aspects of daily life in South African villages and his own childhood dreams in what the artist calls “the colors of Africa.”

College President Carolyn Williams said this is the first of what she hopes will be many international artist exchanges. The series will be on display until Feb. 18.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Northwest BronxComments (1)

Breaking the Art Rules

by Matthew Huisman

Four surrealist paintings hang on Luis D. Rosado’s wall in his South Bronx apartment. The sequence of paintings by Rich Rethorn depicts a horrific version of the four seasons. Skin slowly melts off a zombie’s head, eventually revealing a skull set in front of a post apocalyptic backdrop. An eyeball dangles from the skull, still connected to the socket, and stares back at the viewer.

“I wanted to put together a show that was thought provoking imagery,” Rethorn, 45, said of the paintings. “It might be disturbing to some peopl. But usually when they’re disturbed, that’s when they’re going to start to ask questions.”

The paintings were part of the November exhibit at LDR Studio Gallery, a gallery that operates out of the 28-year-old Rosado’s apartment at 134th Street and Alexander Avenue. For Rosado, its more than just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.

“I feel like my calling was in the South Bronx and I wanted to do my own thing,” Rosado said of his gallery. “I wanted to break all the rules. Call me crazy, but I think I’m doing it.”

Rosado’s gallery, which bears his initials, is celebrating its second anniversary in December with champagne. But before he can pop the cork on the affair, Rosado has to remove the previous month’s exhibit with help from artist and curator Rethorn.

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

To maintain his artist’s lifestyle, Rosado holds down two jobs, runs his own architecture photography business and sleeps four hours a day. Rosado is emblematic of the diverse artistic community of the South Bronx that seeks independence from the restraints of large, corporate galleries while exploring alternative outlets for their creative energy. The South Bronx gives artists the canvas to develop their unique style and exhibit their work the way they see it.

Seven blocks north of Rosado’s apartment gallery is another apartment-turned-gallery, the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project, started two years ago by Blanka Amezkua. Born in Mexico and raised in California, Amezkua left the Golden State five years ago for the Bronx.

Amezkua’s idea for the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project was a creative reaction to the emotions she felt after losing her nephew in a car crash in 2006. Amezkua took the death hard since she had never before experienced losing a loved-one who was so dear to her. A year later Amezkua painted her Mott Haven bedroom robin’s-egg blue and thus was born the Blue Bedroom Project.

“In retrospect, that was part of my healing,” Amezkua said. “It was an opening up of the most intimate space in my apartment.” Amezkua now lives with her husband in Queens and makes the daily commute to her studio where she once lived.

Amezkua has invited Bronx artists like Laura Napier and Matthew Burkaw, whom she met through Artists in the Marketplace, a program run by the Bronx Museum of the Arts that provides artists with practical knowledge, to be part of her project. December’s artist is Napier and she is planning a bit of trickery for gallery-goers.

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Two floors above Amezkua’s blue bedroom, Napier is running a cable from her fifth floor bedroom window down the front of the building to Amezkua’s gallery. The wire carries a live feed of Napier’s bedroom – identical in size, shape and painted to match the original blue bedroom – to be transmitted on a television inside Amezkua’s gallery. The bedroom door in the gallery will be closed with a sign posted that asks guests to keep the door closed. Patrons will be able to watch what’s happening on the other side of the bedroom door on the television, or so they think.

“The idea is if people go in there and people are expecting to see themselves on the screen, they won’t,” Napier said of the exhibit. “I’m really interested to see how people behave.”

Napier is using her lunch break from her job at the Bronx Council for the Arts to set up her upcoming December exhibit in the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. The blue bedroom serves as a place where artists and the community interact and share art.

The South Bronx has a long artistic history dating back to the 70’s when Stefan Eins founded Fashion Moda, a storefront art studio and melting pot where artists and the neighborhood mingled.

“There was hip hop, there was break-dancing, there was dj-ing and there was graffiti,” said Lisa Kahane, a photographer who documented the Bronx during the 70’s. “What happened at Moda was these people met with artists from downtown, so there was definitely a cross pollination of different art forms.”

While The Bronx was experimenting with Fashion Moda, SoHo was becoming a booming art scene where galleries lined the blocks south of Houston Street. The same happened in Chelsea, as philanthropists poured more money into the Manhattan art scene.

“So you walk around and there are all these galleries all in one place,” Kahane said. “That was the accepted art neighborhood.”

When rent in Manhattan increased, artists sought out cheaper living accommodations and more space in the outer boroughs. Places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn have seen an influx in artists who are gentrifying the communities they occupy. However, the art scene in the South Bronx, though, has never been able to grow quite as fast.

“It’s up and coming but it’s taking its time,” Rosado said of the South Bronx art scene. Along with the tight-knit artistic community comes freedom from the corporate strings–a big selling point for Rosado.

“I just never really liked the fact that you had to pretty much be a prostitute to galleries about your art and yourself,” Rosado said. “I’m not dogging Chelsea. It’s just that I don’t like the attitude within that art world. I know that eventually I would like to show in Chelsea, but I don’t like the fact that it’s become so corporate. They start forgetting about the art itself and it’s all about business.”

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

For Amezkua the stigma that surrounds The Bronx started in the 70’s with the housing crisis and more recently the violence that plagued the borough in the 90’s. This has left the South Bronx with a reputation as an uncultured void in the city.

“It’s a very different thing when you say Bronx or when you say Williamsburg or Chelsea,” Amezkua said. “The Bronx is viewed as the ugly duckling of New York.” She did, however, praise the borough’s diversity. “When you come from a place that is not as diverse, and you land in The Bronx, you see the richness of the culture. It’s mindboggling.”

The downside to keeping corporate money at bay, is that the South Bronx art movement has never gained enough momentum to pull in outside investors.

“It’s like pulling teeth,” said Barry Kostrinsky, a 25-year veteran of the South Bronx art scene. “There are a lot of artists who do their own thing. Everyone has so many things going on in their life.”

Since the 80’s Kostrinsky has been creating art, everything from oil landscapes to acrylic on found objects. He said that art is about self expression and being socially aware at the same time.

“Art is about blasting parameters,” Kostrinsky said. “If you draw on garbage, you put it in perspective. It’s not the Mona-fucking-Lisa, it’s very real.”

It’s opening night for Rosado’s gallery and he is popping another bottle of champagne for his guests. He smiles as he refills empty glasses and begins to take another stroll through the exhibit.

“I like the fact that I am an underground gallery,” Rosado said. “I wake up in the morning and I eat art. I breathe art. I see art. It’s just all over.”

Rosado and Amzekua have maintained their independence from corporate art galleries, deciding instead to go it alone financially. Their reward is the ability to showcase local art that is free and open to the community while exploring the limits of their own creativity.

“Everybody leaves and I just sit down on the floor, pop a bottle of champagne,” Rosado said, “and just look at the artwork one by one.”

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