Street Achievements: Making the “Pride of the Southside" Mural
You can’t miss this mural.
Hit the Brooklyn corner of Roebling and South 3rd, and suddenly you’re awestruck by it: a vibrant color burst, mushrooming massively 50 feet up the wall of Middle School 50, then dipping down and stretching right, all the way to the building’s last brick.
The mural called “Pride of the Southside” is many things all at once, and its impact demands that even the busiest pedestrian pause and face it to take it all in. It is an explosion of joy, history, color and culture. It reveals a previously untold story of Williamsburg’s famed “Los Sures” – the ever-changing Southside.
An Ever-Shifting Landscape
In the early 1900’s Williamsburg was arguably the nucleus of the nation. Serving as an escape valve from the overcrowded slums tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Brooklyn’s bustling Williamsburg wards became the most densely populated neighborhood in New York City, which in turn was America’s most densely populated city.
But long before this well-documented influx, the region had plenty going on. Accompanying the 1800’s-era industrial progress brought on by shipbuilding and sugar refineries, agents of change were in action. People like John D. Wells, who became MS 50’s namesake for his welfare work on behalf of laborers that built up the borough, and Willis Hodges, a free African American and abolitionist who founded a school for fellow free African Americans on the corner of nearby Union Avenue and Stagg Street.
Today, as ever, the Southside – technically a square mile area nestled around the Williamsburg Bridge -- is perpetually in motion. Gentrification is rapidly transforming a neighborhood long known simultaneously for social upheaval, violence, and fierce ethnic pride owing to the waves of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Irish, German, Polish, Italian, and Hasidic Jewish communities who have all called it their home.
Time for “Pride”
With the past, present, and future endlessly blending, why was 2016 the year for the vibrant mural called “Pride of the Southside” to debut? The seeds of this remarkable piece of public art were sown two decades ago in the mind of Joe Matunis, who was struck at first sight by the blank canvas that was MS 50’s eastern wall.
“That wall was always the Holy Grail to me,” says Matunis, who studied in Chicago as a community muralist before moving to Williamsburg to become an educator at the nearby high school El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice. “I've been living here for 26 years, focusing exclusively as a community muralist on the South side of Williamsburg. It's always been my approach to zero in on one community and make its issues my issues, and not coming in as an outside interpreter.
“The issue of gentrification has been playing itself out for a long time in my mind. I’ve been looking, working, and talking to the neighborhood to ensure that the community doesn’t just become a footnote. How do we use its strengths to preserve itself?”
Matunis’ training taught him to seek opportunities to work with communities on murals, collaborating with its residents on their conception, design and execution. When Middle School 50 aka J.H.S. John D. Wells prepared to celebrate its 100th Anniversary in 2016, Matunis finally got his chance at that Holy Grail of a wall.
“Over the course of just a few years MS50 went from being on the verge of closing to one of the better schools on the Southside,” notes Matunis. “It was opened in 1915, shortly after the Williamsburg Bridge opened, and the flood of Eastern Europeans overflowed from the lower East side to Williamsburg -- MS50 was founded to educate the children of the world that came into the neighborhood. Over the years, the student body changed from Russian Jews, Italians and Irish to to a diverse mixture that includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and African Americans. We worked with students to get oral histories of their parents and grandparents, assembled their stories, and had a rich history gathered over the years.”
Following these developments, Matunis and his colleagues obtained the funding they had long sought to create a monumental mural – one that would take the century-long legacy that had unfolded inside of MS50, and turn it inside out for all the world to see.
A Big Back Story
Even when done on a shoestring, large-scale murals like “Pride of the Southside” are costly to produce.
Since an important defining characteristic of a mural is that the art and the space’s architectural elements are seamlessly intertwined, its creation goes beyond paint and brushes – the “Southside” team needed to account for scaffolding sufficient to scale five stories, scores of polytab panels, and hourly pay for the MS50 and El Puente Academy students who would spend long summer days painting the mural.
From there, it was design time. “We knew what the theme was, and a whole body of data had been collected from families of the school’s students,” Matunis explains. “Everything that we’ve gathered ran the emotional gamut, from silly to somber to historical. Originally, I didn’t want the mural to be a chronological timeline, but then we did do it that way because the space really did lend itself to that approach.
“We wanted to tell this story of 100 years. Something referring to the commonality and common root, emphasizing the power of multiculturalism, and that this had always been a diverse community without being divisive.”
Working with a team of longtime collaborators that included Rolando Almonte, Andrew Baer, Crystal Clarity, Ana O'Keefe, Clara Parker, Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. and Josh Sarantitis, Matunis began generating drawings to illustrate the oral stories that had been gathered. From there, the pictures would be reviewed by students, teachers, and community members who decided what to include. Then they were painstakingly pieced together to form the model for a Big Picture that worked well collectively, while helping each part of the mural to transition smoothly to the next section.
Finally the drawings were officially consolidated, forming two major sections. The vertical component towers 50 feet into the air, joined at its base via a storyline that extends another 150 feet to the right. All told, they tell several stories to passersby.
“There’s a few threads going on,” Matunis observes. “One is the rich tapestry of the immigrant community, going back to the early part of the 20th century. There’s also a celebration of the dynamic contributions of the Latino community, which go back a long way. Another important theme here is that this community has a long, rich history of organizing and working for social justice. The two big figures on the mural are John D. Wells, for whom the school is named, and Willis Hodges. It was amazing to see how this school, this community has always had a history of working for human rights and freedom.”
Design in hand, there was still one more key step before the team could put brush to wall: Approval by all of the project’s stakeholders would be needed first. “We did a presentation for the MS 50 Principal Ben Honoroff and the parents,” says Matunis. “Then it went to the Department of Education, which has a facility management portfolio team. They went through it with a fine-tooth comb.”
“Principal Honoroff was really instrumental in supporting the research phase of the work throughout the school year,” Matunis adds. “He connected us with staff and students, sharing his insights and ideas through out the design process and providing the bulk of the funding for the project.”
When every OK had been issued, the time had finally arrived. On July 6th, 2016, Matunis looked up from the base of the great wall whose face he had dreamed of for decades. The time to scale this civic surface and allow it to tell an undiscovered tale had finally arrived.
For the next three months, he and his band of painters slowly made “Pride of the Southside” a reality. In the summer they worked Monday through Friday, with the young painters working six hours a day and the adult artists on the scene for eight hours or more, often in sweltering heat. “We had to build the scaffolding every morning,” Matunis recalls, “then take it down at the end of the day. That was a brutal summer – we tried to pace ourselves, but that wall was facing East, in direct sunlight for hours every day.”
Each day, the mural grew out as it was painted in two zones. Its bottom section – stretching 150 feet long to the right – was painted onsite for six weeks in the summer. Meanwhile, the upper part of the mural (it’s South end), ranging from 20 feet to the uppermost 50 feet was painted in an expansive studio in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, and then adhered to fabric.
During the planning phase, Matunis decided that the mural’s uppermost portions called for a common mural technique of pre-painting large sections, and then adhering them to the wall. “We worked with Josh Sarantitis, who took the design that Crystal Clarity had created for that section, scanned it into Photoshop, and then used a four-foot wide laser jet printer to print a scaled-up version of the drawing directly onto polytab, which is a poly fiber custom blend that’s like money. It’s paper that’s very strong.
“The designs were printed directly on sections that were three feet wide by 10 feet wide. Once they were printed, they were hand painted and adhered onto the wall. Then we did an underpainting of monochromatic brush work, followed by final round of painting. The best analogy is that it’s like wallpaper: The images are painted and dried, then rolled up and taken from the Navy Yard over to the wall. There’s a numbering/lettering system that lets us know where to put each piece – 1A, 1B, etcetera -- and then it was a matter of putting adhesive gel on the backside of the painting with a roller. Ultimately, it was fit together as one piece: The top section flows into the bottom, with careful blending where the two parts overlap via many water-type shapes.”
A Memorable Lesson
One of the participants in the murals painting was BB4 Studios founder Rafael Planten, who spent a few harrowing hours one summer day 50 feet high on a lift adding some brushstrokes. As a former student of Matunis’ at El Puente Academy in the 1990s, he had advance knowledge that “Pride of the Southside” would be significant.
“Every time I see a mural that Joe’s working with, I’m excited even before I see the final product,” Planten relates. “You want to be involved with things like he creates: art that moves you and has a message. All of Joe’s murals have the story of a struggle, or a better way. They give insight to something that’s crucial to the community.
“Joe had always talked about putting a team together to paint that wall, and when I finally saw that scaffold going five stories up, I was amazed. When it was finally going up there, I had to pitch in. I wasn’t certain of how it would turn out, but I was certain it would be something special. Even if I weren’t involved, just seeing it would be inspiring – the stories the vibrant colors, the different styles that converge so harmoniously. It’s alive. You can get lost in it.”
Planten had gotten his first taste of Matunis’ community spirit two decades prior as a skeptical high school student who got roped into working on a smaller street mural called “Erase the Hate.” It was a formative experience that would transform the way Planten looked at the visual arts, music and teamwork.
“When you’re working on a mural you’re working in a group, and you might not like everyone in that group,” he acknowledges. “But you get involved, and then you get focused and excited. Everyone’s trying to do their best, and there’s a positive intent behind. Everyone is proud of each other. Painting a mural brings people together in a way that can’t be described. And then years later after ‘Erase the Hate’ was up, I would walk past it with my nieces and nephews, and tell them, ‘Hey! I was involved in that!’”
A lifelong resident of Williamsburg’s Southside, Planten nevertheless discovered information that was new to him in the towering new artwork. “It’s a weird thing living through all the gentrification and change of this neighborhood,” he says. “There was a lot of violence, but there has also always been community – a group of people finding their way in a new land, like everyone in America at some point. To see the history of Los Sures in a positive light, after everything we’ve been through, is very important.”
Upon reflection, Planten can see the DNA that stretches from his first brushstrokes on a wall at El Puente, to his construction just a few blocks away of BB4 (shorthand for “Brooklyn born Brooklyn Bred”), and later on to the making of “Pride of Southside” in the 21st century.
“I think of how big and monumental the mural is to me: People are going above and beyond in putting their all into it,” says Planten. “That’s the intent of BB4, to make a creative space for great expression. To be big and vibrant, with a humble message in it as well, that remembers how things used to be. Where the quality of the music is not trying to be curbed to save money, but to be maximized for better sound.”
Another major contributor to the project was the Brooklyn artist Crystal Clarity, who experienced an artistic homecoming with “Pride of the Southside.” She had painted her first mural collaborating with Matunis in 2006 on “The History of Bushwick” when she was a fellow instructor with him at El Puente.
“Joe said the same thing to me for ‘Southside’ as he did 10 years ago,” Clarity recalls, laughing. “’Crystal, here’s the biggest part of the wall. Why don’t you design it?’ The experience taught me a lot about how to facilitate for others, give them space to work and space to grow.”
Clarity’ assignment for “Southside” was challenging, but as an illustrator, longtime member of El Puente’s “Los Muralistas” squad, and facilitator for many NYC public art projects with the Groundswell Community Mural Artist project, she was up to the task.
“It was a big ask as to how to contribute to the narrative of this piece,” says Clarity. “We wanted to illustrate the spiritual and energetic forces of life, and imbue it with all the strength and culture that we all share in common. We all come from different places, but where does the energy of our cultural representations originate from? Are there cosmic forces that are larger than us?”
Clarity solved this visual puzzle in many ways, with a pair of prominent themes taking the lead in the topmost part of the mural. “There are two main spirits that are depicted,” she explains. “One is a masculine energy playing a drum, bringing rhythm and music. The feminine energy holds the seed that’s growing. During one of the community workshops that we held at MS 50, we asked what was important to have in the mural, and one girl said that water is a major issue all over the world. That’s why there’s water flowing to other parts of the mural.
“Water is how a lot of us arrived here ancestrally – if people came from somewhere else, they came on a ship,” continues Clarity. “That’s why there’s a lot of water going through the mural, sourced from that divine place. There are also a lot of symbols and patterns that are a nod to African cultures from all over the world. It’s a nod to the Afro diaspora, the peoples that are there now and have been for generations.”
With “Pride of the Southside,” Clarity sees a fulfillment of the greatest promises that public art can make. “It’s an important thing for people to have the ability to change our landscape, and influence each other in ways that are meaningful to us,” she states. “Murals go up all the time without community involvement, and billboards can simply be bought to influence thought or purchase decisions. The difference between a community mural in graffiti, or a billboard for that matter, is that communities are involved in the procedure from beginning to end. It’s a participatory process from inception to completion.
“In a project like ‘Southside,’ and pretty much all community murals that I’ve been involved with, the process is so layered. It’s the difference between having a meal with your family on a holiday, where everyone’s cooking together, telling stories and sharing moments, or going to McDonald’s to grab some fast food on the way to work. It’s ‘I need to just consume’ versus ‘I need to experience.’”
The result is an outcome for all with extreme depth in its value, purpose and meaning. “A community mural is a teaching tool, it’s a healing tool for people who are actually involved with its process – and the community is watching the entire process as well,” Clarity says. “We are working with youths who are painting out there in public. A lot of people will come up to when you’re working with the community mural, and thank you for working with youths, for beautifying the neighborhood, for telling their narrative. People in the neighborhood actually wound up in the mural, which makes it an opportunity for them to see themselves celebrated in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
“So it’s a very holistic practice that involves everybody from the beginning, and includes everyone to the end of it. The result is something that leaves a deep resonance with the community that they get to experience, with a legacy that they leave behind. That wall will be up for so long, and some of those youths that helped paint it will have their own kids by then. They’ll be able to say, ‘Look, I had a hand in shaping the community.”
A Lasting Legacy
For Matunis, the success of “Pride of the Southside” is measured not by the fantastic sight that it weaves into the South Williamsburg streets, but the feeling that it has affected in all involved – from planners to painters to pedestrians passing by.
“We made something that everybody is really proud of and will be for a long time,” Matunis says simply. “I feel really energized after this one, and that’s a good sign. Everyone was pulling their weight, with really amazing teamwork. People have told us how empowered they are to see their culture, history and language represented on that wall.”
But it’s Joe Matunis’ role as an educator, with a lifelong dedication to moving young minds, that connects him to what may be this big picture’s deepest achievement. “The most meaningful impact is on the young people that work on the mural,” he says. “They’re involved in the research, thinking deeply about historical social issues, using their imagination, collaborating with their peers.
“And then they’re painting this thing. It’s 6,000 square feet, it’s huge, it’ll be there for generations. They can bring show it to their grandchildren. They’ve done something far bigger than they thought would be possible.”
-- David Weiss