The artist Shepard Fairey has painted a powerful mural on a water tower high above the Bowery in New York. Called Power and Equality, it features a giant portrait of the actress and activist Rosario Dawson, who grew up on the Lower East Side, and continues to champion the neighborhood. Fairey’s monumental new work, which offers a message of female empowerment and social justice, sees the artist return to one of his old haunts: the former Germania Bank Building.
A landmark building for graffiti artists, the former bank at 190 Bowery was the home to the artist Jay Maisel for almost 50 years. Under his benign neglect, it became a beacon for New York street artists who covered its facade with spray painted stencils and tags. One of them was a young Fairey, who used to make monthly trips down to the city when he was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
“I became obsessed with putting things on the streets of New York,” he recalled in a talk about the new work. Speaking with Paper magazine founder David Hershkovits, Fairey said: “For years, I put illegal street art on the outside of this building.”
Fairey had the blessing of both the city and the building to create Power & Equality, which was commissioned by 190 Bowery tenant Great Bowery, a fashion and art agency collective. Since its purchase by real estate magnate Aby Rosen in 2015, the building has been renovated and converted into offices, and much of the graffiti has been scrubbed from the facade. Skate shop Supreme has even temporarily set up shop on the ground floor of the gentrified building, leading to lines around the corner.
“I like the grimy version better,” Fairey admitted. “But if we had to have an alternative, this is pretty good.”
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of his famous Obey Giant design, Fairey has a knack for creating graphic images that communicate their message clearly and effectively, striking lightning twice with his viral Barack Obama Hope poster in 2008, and his We the People designs for the 2017 Women’s March.
“I don’t claim to be the best artist, illustrator, designer—but I trust my instincts,” Fairey said. “To me, it’s very important that work that talks abut what’s going on in the world is accessible and direct.”
“If it doesn’t impact you without having to read a few pages of literature about it, it really wasn’t impactful,” he added. “When it comes to music, when it comes to movies, if you didn’t enjoy it, then you can say that it wasn’t good. With art there’s this idea that if you enjoyed it, it was too basic.”
Power and Equality is set to remain on view for the next six years. Fairey praised his subject Dawson for her commitment to activism and social justice—something he says many celebrities eschew “because they are afraid to turn off part of their audience.”
A Lower East Side native who remains dedicated to her neighborhood, Dawson is a board member for the nonprofit the Lower East Side Girls Club. A limited edition print series featuring Fairey’s image sold out in just one hour. Proceeds will go to towards the organization and its Alphabet City School,
See more photos of Power & Equality being painted on the 190 Bowery water tower below.
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