Mott Haven walls keep memories alive

Memorial murals are leading South Bronx art form

By Dan Rosenblum
rosemblum@motthavenherald.com

A tradition that started in the Bronx’s deadliest days, when homicide was an everyday occurrence, still marks the borough’s streets. As blood fell on the pavement, paint rose on the walls.

Beginning in the early 1990s, memorial murals began to appear in Mott Haven and other South Bronx neighborhoods as vibrant reminders of those lost in the community and to honor the lives of neighbors who died.

There are brightly painted murals on many Mott Haven blocks, memorials of people like Manuel Contes, who died in 1994, or Kevin Freeman, 25, who was killed in a shootout at the Patterson Houses in the summer of 2004.

“In a way, it’s like still having a person still on the block,” says Hector Nazario a member of the mural painters Tats Cru who signs his work Nicer.

The tradition grew from the graffiti painters who bombed subways and walls in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The South Bronx, and particularly Mott Haven, has a storied past in the history of graffiti, according to Eric Felisbret, who painted as DEAL CIA, and who has dedicated countless hours to documenting graffiti tags, street art and murals across New York, culminating in the book “Graffiti New York” published in 2009.

The subway station at Third Avenue and 149th Street was once the center of the South Bronx graffiti scene, Felisbret recalled in an interview. There, painters would meet up, network and decide where to go.

Around 1989, as the city began to crack down on graffiti in the subways, the messages came up from underground and began spreading in the sunlight. Felisbret traces the earliest memorial murals to that time, when artists like Anthony “Chico” Garcia began painting them on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Garcia painted one notable mural when a friend’s little sister, Julissa Rivera, was stabbed in Brooklyn’s Albee Square Mall.

“It helped my grieving process and I know it did for the family as well,” Felisbret said.

Tats Cru, based at The Point Community Development Corporation in Hunts Point, has long been one of the leading forces in painting memorial walls. There’s even a mural at their studio dedicated to Marcos Ortiz, who died of cancer in 1997.

In the early days, the muralists almost ended up in the middle of the violence, according to Soltero Ortiz, who signs his work BG 183. He recalled one winter when Tats Cru was painting a commissioned mural. Because it started to snow, the group left for the day. Later on, their subject’s family was murdered.

“Maybe someone up there liked us and sent that snow down,” Ortiz said. “We were blessed that day.”

Much of the violence has subsided, and murder rates in Mott Haven and citywide have fallen dramatically. The demand for murals has fallen, as well, but some continue to be painted.

Alfredo Oyague Jr., who does murals as PER1 with the FXCrew, said the murals are a dying culture, due in part to the bad economy and in part to the declining murder rate. He said many young people in New York are losing their interest in the time-consuming art of mural making, while the trend is spreading around Europe and the rest of the world.

“Over there, they’re just catching the fever,” said Oyague. “Here, we’re almost done with it.”

What started as a makeshift process has gone legit. Murals can cost from $800 for just a face to $1,600 for a large, elaborate mural scene, depending on the size and amount of detail. Ortiz said they take four to eight hours to paint.

And making murals nowadays means getting permission from a landlord to be sure the murals won’t get painted over. Owners of a Laundromat refused permission for a mural on their building, Oyague said, because they think it brings the spirit of the dead. He said he wasn’t sure he believed that, but there was one incident that stuck with him.

He remembers a funeral procession for a Bronx boy named Jonathan when he was hit by a car. Doves representing a free spirit flew from his casket, but some of them remained by the newly-painted mural and wouldn’t leave.

After that FXCrew added two doves to the mural to remember that moment.

Sometimes publicly marking grief is controversial. Critics of the murals say some of them memorialize gang violence. But the artists insist most of those whose memories the murals keep alive died of natural causes.

“It has nothing to do with society or making a statement,” said Tats Cru’s Nazario. “It’s really more about just dealing with death amongst family and friends.”

“It’s all about the neighborhood.”

A version of this story appeared in the June/July issue of the Mott Haven Herald.