As buildings fall and rise on Lower East Side, artist is still standing
By David H. Katz
Villager photos by Clayton Patterson
Marco, looking bling, knows new development will bring more bling, as in business, but will also change the neighborhood forever.
Marco, artist, entrepreneur and community activist, contemplated the near-empty block between E. Houston and Stanton Sts. where Marcoart, the showcase of his exuberant, effervescent images, sits adjacent to a vacant lot running the length of Orchard and Allen Sts. That’s where a 24-story hotel is shortly scheduled to rise; across Orchard St., a row of one-story buildings that once housed discount dress, fabric and leather stores is boarded up and being readied for demolition: a 15-story condominium is on the way.
Outside may be a bit bleak, but inside Marcoart, at 181 Orchard St., the interior is bright and cheerful, giddy and gaudy, with hot poster board colors: deep sunny lemons, cobalts and ceruleans, chartreuse, aquamarine, magentas and knockout reds predominating. The imagery is punning and playful, unabashedly cartoonish:, a dog eating a hot dog is “Dog Eat Dog;” a group of blueberries playing instruments is “Blueberry Jam;” gladiatorial chickens are “Chicken Charge.” There are Kissyfish and Mergirls, Slinky Snakes and Spacebots. Marco sells prints, T-shirts, baseball caps and even housewares and tables emblazoned with his signature imagery; imagery that has also decorated best selling Swatch watches, shower curtains, as well as the local One-Stop Deli around the corner. There are Cosmic Babies and Alien Babies, blobular shapes in purple and teal, with antennae and diapers, and Marco’s mascot, Ollie the Octopus, inlaid on a mosaic tabletop.
“Kids love this place,” said Marco. “We’re doing a children’s line of books, just cause the imagery appeals to children. I have some racy subject matter, like Pussy Whipped, a cat in a blender, and Doggy Styles, a dog smoking a cigarette, so it’s not like all for kids per se, but they don’t know what that stuff means, they see the colors they see the shapes and the majority of it is pretty innocuous.”
Marco prides himself on the accessibility of his goofy, upbeat art, standing foursquare in the comic/cosmic tradition of Peter Max, Kenny Scharf, and Rodney Alan Greenblatt and of course, Keith Haring. “I was a little younger then he was, I wasn’t around when he was around,” Marco said of the latter. “I was out of town at the time, but from a marketing standpoint I really admire the way he was able to promote himself.”
Graffiti is also an influence, and Marco makes Marcoart available for openings and parties promoting his pop art pals.
“We have a Dondi White show up now, I think that’s very important from a pop art standpoint for me to continue that tradition that Keith really started by working with the graffiti writers, you know, we’re cut from the same cloth.”
Like Haring, Marco creates instantly recognizable, infinitely adaptable images tailor made for branding, and in the tradition of Andy Warhol, is unfazed by any conflicts between business and art. “I said, Let me create something that I can easily put on anything without a problems. Something that can be replicated on any surface,” he explained. Like any savvy post-post-post modern artist, marketing is, and has always been, a passion.
“Where is the art going to end up? That’s my incentive to create it in the first place. I have an art-based clothing and product line; so I work doing a lot of licensing stuff right now, working with a lot of individuals who work with manufacturers and distributors. So they’ll take my images and put them on this, put them on that. They end up at Target, end up at Bed, Bath & Beyond, on mosaic tabletops; we’re doing shower curtains, we’re doing socks, we’re doing shoes, jackets; that’s one facet to it. Then there’s a lot of charity. I donate a lot of pieces to charitable organizations, like Jam Master Jay Foundation. Working on children’s books, action figures based on the children’s books, trying to do an animated series; that’s all taking the images, and using them for other things, and then there’s fine art. I work with a publisher down in Miami. I take the artwork, wholesale it, wholesale it on the cruise ships, paintings and limited edition prints.”
And being a one-man industry isn’t easy.
“It’s like hustle, hustle and try to get this deal with whoever and then, all right, like fulfillment. It’s like hustle trying to get a deal for Plush Toys, and then the guy said, Well what’s the story, what’s the story with these characters? Well, I don’t have a story so I have to go back to the drawing board and write the story, and illustrate the story.”
Marco also makes no apologies for the simple playfulness of his work, it’s giddy lightheadedness and bouncy, innocuous good timey, funhouse nature.
“I pride myself on being like visual Prozac,” he said. “That’s what I do in my work, it’s very cheerful, very comfortable. I’m not trying to pour the outpourings of my soul onto canvas. If I have major negative issues I try to deal with them in my own way. I don’t throw them out on the canvas — look at my angst, spew venom. Positivity, the idea is to uplift. I’m trying to be uplifting. I want people, during their stressful day, wherever they are, especially in public art, to walk by, and when they see something cute and goofy, to feel happy, I always liked cute things, and I travel down the bright side. Growing up in New York, I know how New York is and how it can wear you down after a while. It’s a heavy place, a great place, but there’s a lot of stuff going on.
“The Koch administration, that’s when I grew up and New York was a heavy trip back then, it was no joke. It was dirty, corrupt, it was f—-d up but it was cool, it was fun, not like now, now it’s like friggin’ Disneyland and I don’t want really to be part of the Disneyfication of it. I want to keep it real, in a sense.”
The dangers of Disneyfication were probably far from his mind in 1995, when real estate dealer Sion Misrahi spent a long afternoon opening up vacant storefront after vacant storefront for Marco, who was seeking to relocate his fledgling T-shirt-printing operation from the netherworld of lower Orchard, near Hester St., Uptown to what was then the Downtown edge of the slowly reviving East Village. Ironically enough, Marco’s first store on Hester St. was, unbeknownst to him at the time, actually located on the same block where his great, great, great grandfather, a rabbi, had opened up a store many, many years ago called O.K. Knee Pants.
Although, from today’s vantage point of trendy boutiques, upscale restaurants, post-modern art galleries, exotic cheese stores and celebrity tea parlors, there is a sense of the inexorability of the ultragentrification of every bit of space in Manhattan, 10 years ago, in 1995, barely two years into the Giuliani mayoralty, the revival of the East Village and New York City in general were by no means assured. Storefront and apartment art galleries that had sprouted like mushrooms in the decrepitude of the ’80s East Village had vanished just as quickly to Soho and Chelsea in the late ’80s. But the ground had been paved by an artistic community seeking studio space, students seeking cheap rent and the young and adventurous seeking nightlife and the all-around downscale excitement available Downtown during the dicey and anarchistic Koch-Dinkins era.
By day Orchard St. had managed to avoid the fate of the East Village in the late ’70s and ’80s — abandoned, burned out, drug saturated and crime ridden — and the street still remained a vibrant commercial corridor stretching from E. Houston St. through Delancey St. to E. Broadway, filled with botanicas, leather and fabric shops, toys, shirts, notions and other bargain basement shopping venues with not a bar or bistro in sight.
At night it was quite a different story. From 5 to 7, depending upon the light at the end of the day, an iron curtain of security gratings would descend upon the street, and owners made a beeline to their cars, many of which were parked on a funky Chrystie St. parking lot where the massive Avalon Chrystie Place apartment complex now awaits tenants, and a Whole Foods outlet. But after dark the streets were dank, dark, deserted, drug-ridden and dangerous.
“It was desolate when I came up here in ’95, there was no one around, it was on a Saturday as I remember,” Marco recalled. “He kept on opening up stores for me, he had all the keys to all the stores, he kept on opening stores: You want this one, You want this one, This one is this much. So finally he opened up a store 186 Orchard across the street from where I am now. And it was a massive store and it went back forever and I remember I bought a sweatshirt from the guy next door. And this guy, J. Halpern, this old Jewish guy, he had Halpern’s Haberdashery, and I bought a sweatshirt from the guy and I remember looking into his store and going, Wow, what a great old dilapidated place, and what would I do with this place if I had it? I asked Sion what he wanted for this store and it was like $1,500, which was a lot of money back them, I was paying 800 or something, but it felt good, I doubled my rent I took a chance, and I started throwing parties, in the larger space, which could accommodate more people. I got some D.J.’s in there, tried to create a little buzz, get something going, and I took my T-shirt printing operation up there. So I was holding my own. I was doing OK.”
Within a year or so, Orchard Bar, the first bar on Orchard St. opened up, then another bar, River Town, housed in a one-story former fabric store known as Weiss & Katz (just demolished to make way for the Allen St. hotel). Stores, more bars, boutiques, more bars, food outlets and more bars soon followed.
“Sion was smart, he used me to attract other potential commercial tenants,” Marco said. “So he said like, Look, this guy is opening a store down here. If he can do it you can do it, he’s not a pro or anything like that, he’s just by the seat of his pants, grassrooting this thing; he’s not like a big corporation or anything like that…. All these businesses slowly started opening up, and by the time 2001 came around my landlords owned a big piece of this block. They sold the property to a real estate developer who then bought the building, took the building that I was in, renovated it, built a five-story building and I had to move. So Sion again came to me and said, Now we’ve got this fabric store, PM Fabrics, and nobody knows these guys are leaving yet; so if you want the place, I’ll give you first option. Great, so I negotiated a deal with him, I moved in here (181 Orchard St.) in 2001, I guess right before 9/11, renovated right through 9/11, and I’m still here.”
Marco is philosophic, yet wary about the pace and direction of development on the Lower East Side, and well aware of the dark side of gentrification, and the paradox of prosperity. He has seen the whole, some would say, dismal, others inevitable, cycle of degeneration, outlaw homesteading, hipsterization, gentrification, barification and like the fledging Ludlow-Orchard Community Organization, L.O.C.O., which opposes the Allen St. hotel project, is not thrilled at the hordes of hard-drinking bridge-and-tunnel people who take over the streets after dark and party noisily until practically dawn. At the same time, he’s been an active member of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District.
“I think with all this renovation, all these hotels going up, I think it’s really going to be really very bad,” he predicted. “I look at it as a blessing to my business, because it’s so hard to pay my rent. But once these hotels get built, it will forever change the face of Orchard St. We already have one hotel over there [The Hotel on Rivington St.]. I know what gentrification is; I know you can’t stop it, there’s nothing you can do. So for me from a business standpoint, I have to capitalize, take advantage of it. I’m here. My landlady was the only one who didn’t sell the building. All the other buildings got sold: Kush got sold, River Town got sold, everything got knocked down, she’s hanging on, she didn’t even sell the air rights. She was the one who called me and told me they were building a hotel, and I thought the next words out of her mouth would be, You gotta go; but she said, ‘They’re building a hotel and I didn’t sell.’ I was like, wow.
“She’s actually a really nice old lady. She owns a couple of five-story buildings down on Delancey St. She knows what it is to have a building with tenants, she likes that, she doesn’t need to cash out, or cut a deal with a building developer, take a percentage, that kind of deal. She’s just, ‘Let me keep my building, let me keep my tenants, leave me alone, build your hotel, don’t bother me.’ ”
Marco shook his head in wonder, and headed out of his store to the boarded-up block, whose future, for better or worse, beckons.