The Lower East Side has what some might call a reputation; retaining its gritty city image, despite the rush of realtors throwing up condos in every feasible corner of New York. The LES is a mesh of city life where upscale meets downtown, Thai restaurants sit next to Hungarian beer halls, every conceivable niche alcohol establishment thrives, and pizza is a dollar.
Naturally, it’s a breeding ground for all styles of art.
One fine night, while imbibing in this scene, I stumbled across a mural. Rather than gracing a wall, this piece was painted over the shutter gate of a liquor store. Curiously, I meandered the alleys of the LES, and saw more murals of this sort. Alongside each artist’s signature, they were marked #100GatesProject.
On a brisk Friday morning, I met with Natalie Raben, for a proper tour of the LES. She stood in a black leather jacket and chic shades, waiting for me on Grand & Chrystie as I arrived carrying coffees. Cheerful despite the early hour, Natalie was easy-going and charming. Senior Vice President of Partnerships & Public Affairs for the Lower East Side Partnership (LESP), Natalie began her career down the ladder in marketing, before being promoted for her innovative thinking. After pleasantries and some strong sips of caffeine, we embarked on a mission against the rising sun, to catch all the mural-gates before business began.
“I’m happy you reached out,” Natalie said as we crossed the street, “it’s been a while since I’ve done an audit of all the gates. I figured we should start here, since these stores open a little earlier. We should be fine for the rest — other shops run on LES time.”
Here, the Lower East Side kisses Chinatown. The murals carried a distinctly Eastern influence to reflect the character of the street. A mother panda playing with her child, cherry-blossoms, orchids and other floral flourishes.
“These were some earlier murals that went up, before we really knew what the project would become. Our tag line was something like, ‘A secret garden, that only comes out at night,’” Natalie said.
The Origins of The 100 Gates
It was Summer 2014 and the intersection of Division & Canal was blossoming. An ugly concrete corner was being transformed, newly designed as a fabric of flowers and colour. Modern Tapestry, a mural by Kim Sillen, was being painted on the street.
As part of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District’s (LES BID) team that commissioned the artwork, Natalie had come out to help with the project.
While filling in the shades of a triangle, she looked up to see a young man spray-painting down the street. Natalie watched curiously, and then after a minute, walked over and struck up a conversation.
The man happened to be the semi-pro skateboarder and aspiring entrepreneur, Billy Rohan, who was trying his hand at graffiti. Chatting with Billy, she learned he had been going door-to-door to local businesses, asking permission to throw up a mural on their gates.
Natalie explained, “Billy’s a character, but he was serious about the concept.”
Natalie liked the idea. With Modern Tapestry finishing up, she would need a project to work on. The plan was proposed to set up a network of artists and shops to promote an artistic touch to the LES. Over the coming months, the two would work together creating the Gates project; later to be officially named, 100 Gates.
‘Opening’ of the 100 Gates
The gates reflect the LES past. A by-product of history, the legacy of tenement style buildings left most shops in the area with manual, roll-down, shutter gates. While Natalie and Billy were not the first to envision these gates as a canvas, the innovative approach they took to designing the project was integral to its success.
As with any enterprise one hopes to venture, the first question is funding. Natalie’s job brought to her attention the Neighbourhood Challenge, a competitive grant contest. The grant asked groups to submit an original idea that would help revitalise the district. Through-out Autumn, Natalie did her research and filed the paper-work, spearheading the funding. Billy, as per his vagabond nature, alternated between a gig selling art in Puerto Rico, and skateboarding in-and-out of the office to see how things were coming along. And with the coming of the new year, 100 Gates was approved and the team was given $30,000 to work with.
Natalie set up an open-call for artists, offering $300 per mural. Natalie chuckled as she recalled. “$300 each, for 100 Gates. We figured that seemed right. Of course, we forgot to consider the cost of operations: overhead, supplies, and, ya know, our own salaries. But we made it work, somehow.”
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
We stopped at the cross of Ludlow and Hester. Stanley’s Pharmacy was a vivid orange, it’s marquee matching the mural. The synchronisation had a radiant effect, brightening the corner with a wholesome aura.
Turning to Natalie, I asked: “How did you match the artists with businesses?”
“Trial and error,” Natalie said.
In the early months of 2015, plans began to formalise and develop. Natalie ran the day-to-day operations, coordinating the logistics. With funding secured, the next step was to engage the different stakeholders: property owners, merchants, and of course, the artists.
Reception within the art community was positive from the start, with artists enlisting their expertise to the project. When selecting artists, Natalie took into consideration factors such as whether the artist was a member of the LES community, their reputation, style and their attitude, to figure out who was best for 100 Gates. Her aim was to cut a broad cross-section, gathering both the known and unknown, the colourful and the profound.
By the time painting began, heavy-hitters and A-listers like Buff Monster were part of the team alongside the up-and-comers.
The open call brought together an odd consortium and arranging the murals was a process in itself. Later, the focus was more site-specific collaboration but at first Natalie played the role of matchmaker, arranging mini-portfolios and setting up meetings between artists and businesses.
“The goal,” Natalie explained, “was to bring everyone together with a shared vision.” For the most part, both parties were receptive and open-minded which led to some extraordinary murals that everyone was proud of. Many play on themes guided by what the store sells. Others intend an atmosphere, reflective of the chosen personality by the owners. And some are simply pretty.
Shutting out the Taggers
Of course, the best laid plans often go awry. As with all street art, the murals are subject to the discretion of graffiti tags. Street art runs on the unspoken code; those paintings that earn respect are left untouched. Those that are not, get bombed.
A handful of the gates we passed had been hit. Natalie gave a disapproving look as we came across a tag. She took note, marking it down, so she could inform the artist it needed a touch-up. However, for the most part the murals were pristine.
“A lot of it comes down to respect. Ensuring the local scene was cool with the project, came from communication, making sure we listened and they knew they were heard. We made a big effort to involve the community, and I think it shows.” Natalie explained. In truth, that is perhaps the 100 Gates greatest success; less than 10 of the gates had been tagged.
Throughout 2015, somewhere around 60-70 Gates were painted, illustrating the soul of the Lower East Side. “It was a lot of fun, really. A lot was going on, but most days it didn’t feel like work. Me, Billy, and whichever artists were around that day, we’d just be hanging out.”
The Year of the Tiger…and Katz
As the year wore on, and more murals went up, 100 Gates grew in momentum.
Tiger Beer reached out, expressing interest in getting involved. The Singapore-based company offered to fund 20 gates, as a way of expanding their local presence. Initially Natalie was hesitant, cautious of what Tiger’s money might mean. However, it came to be a model for the kind of private-public synergy that the initiative intended to represent.
“They were ideal partners; modest about their input, they gave all the creative control to the artists. All they asked for was a little publicity.” Natalie remarked, demonstrating a signature that included #TigerGates. “Plus, you know, free beer.”
By the end of 2015, a wall map was put together, showing all the mural spots. Tours were organised, tourism grew, and when there was a live painting, people flocked to watch artists at work.
In the first half of 2016 more murals were painted and as the numbers rose, the project got closer to 100. Natalie wanted to do something special to commemorate the centennial. “I felt we had to do something cool, to cap things off right. Something symbolic, that embodied both 100 Gates and the Lower East Side,” Natalie told me.
Katz’s Delicatessen sits on the southwest corner of Ludlow and Houston Street. Established in 1888, the kosher-style deli is a landmark, not just of the LES, but of New York. After some organisation on Natalie’s part, it was chosen to be the 100th gate.
Jake Dell, the fifth-generation owner, wanted the gate to be iconic, and artist L’Amour Supreme was brought in for the job. Created as a historic homage, a colourful cat lusting over a pickle and salami stick in the style of a 50’s cartoon now graces the gate. After the painting was finished, a party was held at Katz’s to celebrate.
“It was amazing, everyone involved was invited.” Natalie recollected, “the place was packed. The party was catered with unlimited pastrami sandwiches and Tiger beer.”
It ended on a beautiful note, with the party crystallizing all the effort and dedication put into the project. A flattering write-up appeared in the New York Times, and a sense of accomplishment permeated. But while Natalie and the 100 Gates team celebrated, there lingered a question in the back of everyone’s mind: What’s next?
Opening of Future Gates
In January of this year, 100 Gates was awarded funding for two new neighbourhoods: East Harlem and Downtown Staten. This money comes from the Neighbourhood 360 Challenge (N360), another competitive grant program run by the New York City Small Business Services (SBS).
I reached out to the SBS, and they were kind enough to provide me some background on how 100 Gates is reshaping perceptions of art in commercial spaces. “Street art can have a legitimate role to play in building vibrant neighbourhoods and establishing an area’s unique sense of identity,” said Gregg Bishop, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services. “The 100 Gates project is an excellent example of what can be positive about street art. The gates that have been painted are works of art and can actually deter tagging. We are proud to support this initiative and its expansion into additional neighbourhoods.”
East Harlem and Downtown Staten will each receive 50 Gates of their own.
“No, though we considered it,” Natalie laughed when I asked if this meant renaming the projects to 200 Gates. “We’re going to stick with 100 Gates. We don’t want to confuse people. Besides, 100 has a certain ring to it.”
Natalie and the team have partnered with ThoughtMatter, a creative consulting agency. ThoughtMatter has been tasked with helping to create an official logo and shape the identity of 100 Gates. Although the project began with Billy’s entrepreneurial spirit and Natalie’s innovative mind, growing organically has helped overcome challenges and hurdles on the road to success. Now, 100 Gates wants to get serious about building a professional network.
Before painting can begin, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Natalie has taken to task with formalising the paperwork, as well as community outreach.
“It’s important for us to get local involvement.” She explained.
The team understands the importance of learning and doing research first. Each neighbourhood has its own unique identity, and the new composite will represent that. Another open call has gone out, aimed at gathering local artists from each district. Natalie has been busy meeting with community leaders, shop owners, and other neighbourhood stakeholders, bringing together a shared perspective.
“We want to make sure it remains a community project.” Natalie explained.
And when will paint splash steel? “We’re looking to kick it off sometime in the summer.”
“Some artists like to have a little crowd while they work. Others don’t. Everyone has their own style. But if you’re around, stop by.”
The 100 Gates project developed like a work of art; an old idea, recreated with an original style. Natalie, Billy, and the crew were not the first to paint murals on gates. But creating a community-driven organisation that connects artists and owners, that’s a masterpiece.
The future lays ahead as 100 Gates continues its expansion into Downtown Staten and East Harlem. Artist positions are being filled and new portfolios are being passed around. Deadlines develop, and outreach reaches out to local leaders.
However, home remains in the Lower East Side, where it all began. The LES murals are on display across the city canvas, where gallery meets the streets.
Make sure you check out The #100GatesProject, next time you’re stumbling around the heart of New York.
All photos provided by T.K. Mills
More of the author’s work can be read at tkmills.com
Head to the 100 Gates website for a complete list of artists, gate locations and other information,