The street art that plasters the public spaces—and nooks and crannies—of New York City’s five boroughs can be haphazard, but it’s mostly striking, sometimes familiar, and often alluring. These murals and posters and tags, wherever they may be—spray painted onto a billboard, stenciled onto a sidewalk, plastered onto a construction zone wall—coat the City in a sort of rugged refinement that seems to serve as a bridge between the disappearing grit of NYC, and the grow grow grow high-rise modernism that being executed all over.
And like New York’s edge, which is being razed on a regular basis, the outdoor art of New York typically has just as ephemeral a life. “Street art and graffiti—it’s here and then it’s gone,” said Yoav Litvin, a photographer from Bronx and Manhattan who documented the often illegal outdoor art from 2011 to Feb 2014, when he published Outdoor Gallery. “Some were gone within even an hour.”
Litvin, 38, was born in Jerusalem but moved to the Bronx when he was six, and then to 63rd and Broadway in Manhattan. “Back then you could get mugged in the middle of the day.” He moved far away to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience at the University of Hawaii, and soon moved back to New York to work as a research scientist at The Rockefeller University.
One day, Litvin and a friend played squash on a local court. During the game, his friend, an inexperienced player, swung the racket as though he was playing tennis, and accidentally smashed it into Litvin’s head, slicing a gash above his eye, which necessitated 10-15 stitches. Litvin also herniated a disc in his neck. After that, said Litvin, “I wasn’t able to do much.”
But he was able to walk. So he began to roam the streets of the city he grew up in, sometimes up to 15 miles in a day. These trips accessed childhood memories he had long stowed away, perhaps inspiring a feeling of destiny within him. “Slowly,” wrote Litvin, “I started noticing art on the walls.”
He began to document the art and eventually connected with the artists, whose identities are typically hidden given the illegal nature of their creative work, via social media like Instagram. In 2014, Litvin put together a beautiful, 240-page book called Outdoor Gallery that showcases the work of 46 street artists (34 men, 12 women) in New York City, including interviews with each.
Here are a few cool images to whet your appetite:
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.