Looking for Arlene’s Grocery, a hip venue with music performances every night and, as of late, art exhibitions in their bar lounge area, I knew I had found the right location when I happened upon one of Joseph Meloy’s distinctive Vandal Expressionism characters – eerie and skeletal-like with frazzled hair – pasted on the outside of the building. Having followed Joseph’s artwork online for many months now, I was stoked to finally meet him in person and learn more about the man behind the post-graffiti movement, Vandal Expressionism – a term which he coined himself. Markers in hand, we talked for about 45 minutes as he continued to work on his permanent mural on the walls inside Arlene’s Grocery. Mesmerized by his intricate maze of varied geometric shapes that did not seem to follow any particular pattern, but instead appeared to be guided by what I can only describe as his own intuition, I was able to learn a lot not only about his own artwork, but the history and accomplishments of the graffiti and street art scenes in NYC.
NYC-APS: So you’re an NYC-based artist, originally from New York! What part of the city did you grow up in?
JM: I grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Actually to be more specific, I grew up in the Lower-Lower East Side, all the way down by the East River. There are really no businesses in that part of the neighborhood, so if you don’t live there, you probably wouldn’t have much occasion to be there…
NYC-APS: What got you into urban art and the graffiti movement? What was your first encounter with urban art?
JM: I was born in 1982, so by the time I started becoming aware of the world around me, there was already a strong presence of graffiti seemingly everywhere. I have such vivid memory of a mural by Lee Quinones in the handball court on Madison Street of a huge, scary lion… I remember driving past it and covering my eyes because I was so frightened of it, but at the same time I was so drawn to it that I kept peeking out just to see it… I was so young I couldn’t even properly pronounce the word “lion,” but there was just something about this mural that absolutely fascinated me… The way the name “Lee” was written so huge… Who or what was “Lee” and what was the story behind this giant painting? Was it selling something or telling me to do something? Did somebody ask him to put this here? Was this a crime? I had a lot more questions than answers, but whatever the case was, seeing this evocative piece of art right there in the street really stimulated my 5-year-old mind.
The 80s & 90s: From Keith Haring to Cost & Revs
The “Crack is Wack” mural by Keith Haring was also really important to me in terms of opening my eyes to the art of the street. Haring, of course, was already a household name by the late 80s, and because of his work with children, I knew who he was from a very young age. The expressiveness of his linework and the bright colors really appealed to me, and because his message was so clearly positive, it was very natural to take him on as a hero or somebody to learn from.
And finally, in the early 90s, I became obsessed with the work of Cost and Revs, two guys who wheatpasted the entire city with white paper posters full of bold, mysterious messages. Every street sign, every doorway, just completely plastered… I had more questions than answers, but I was just enthralled by the sheer number of posters they put up and how many different ones there were. I used to leave early for school just so I could walk around and scout them out and maybe find one that was falling down so I could hang it on my wall…
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