The City As A Canvas: Artists Remake SoHo With Protest Art

Once a desolate haven for artists and bohemians, New York City's SoHo neighborhood has in recent years transformed into a high-end luxury shopping district. But after the COVID-19 shutdown and extensive looting in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, many stores chose to board up their windows and lock their doors, creating a blank canvas for the neighborhood to return to its expressive roots. Cell Vision correspondent Samantha Singh writes about SoHo Social Impact, an artistic collective dedicated to using the neighborhood's public-facing facades as canvases for cultural discourse and inclusive reflection.

photos by Christos Katsiaouni

It is a Friday evening in June when I emerge from a subway station to set foot in SoHo for the first time since the beginning of March. Whereas the streets below Houston usually thrum with motion, now an eerie quiet echoes, louder than ever. Following shutdowns in defense of the spreading Coronavirus, the downtown neighborhood, inhabited primarily by artists before its gentrification, now stands still, a vacant luxury shopping district in a seemingly post-apocalyptic reality.

And, in many ways, the current state of the country does seem on the verge of a kind of collapse. On May 25th, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed civilian George Floyd with deliberate, sustained knee-to-neck contact that would be recorded on video and circulate widely through social media, further illuminating the insidious issues of police brutality and systemic racism which have long plagued American society. Invigorated with passion and disgust, people in cities across the country and the world began taking to the streets regularly to demonstrate their belief in the Black Lives Matter movement and demand legislative change—namely, the defunding of police departments and reallocation of funds to community resources—as well as justice not only for Floyd but for other Black people senselessly murdered, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and Ahmaud Arbery among them.

What was not foreseen was these ugly boards’ potential to lure out the old, expressive spirit of SoHo and serve as a medium for messages of positive social and political change in this climate of racial discord.

Amidst protests on the night of May 31st, looters cleaned out SoHo shops, leaving barren storefronts of big brands, including Gucci, Tory Burch, Chanel, and Kate Spade, to don plywood window coverings in an effort to prevent further vandalism. What was not foreseen was these ugly boards’ potential to lure out the old, expressive spirit of SoHo and serve as a medium for messages of positive social and political change in this climate of racial discord.

In early June, artists and local residents Tristan Reginato, Keiji Drysdale, and Zoe Salaun rallied with other artists to take back the neighborhood, giving rise to a volunteer project that would come to be known as SoHo Social Impact, a collective aiming to raise awareness of racial inequality and other issues faced by the community whilst celebrating the artistic legacy of New York City.

“Historically, ‘street art’ has served as a medium for marginalized voices,” reads the group’s mission statement. “In this galvanizing moment of social redress, there is a collaborative potential for public-facing facades to serve as canvases for cultural discourse and inclusive reflection.”

“Historically, ‘street art’ has served as a medium for marginalized voices,” reads the group’s mission statement. “In this galvanizing moment of social redress, there is a collaborative potential for public-facing facades to serve as canvases for cultural discourse and inclusive reflection.”

Paintings and multimedia works bloom on Wooster Street and the surrounding blocks, signs of life and a resistance to be complicit in silence.

“Art is a language, and it is one that is inherently political: It demonstrates the conditions and ideologies of a group existing at a certain period in time." -Tiger Mackie, Artist

“We want to add another voice to the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Tiger Mackie, an artist associated with SoHo Social Impact. “Art is a language, and it is one that is inherently political: It demonstrates the conditions and ideologies of a group existing at a certain period in time. This is about contributing to a period in time where, as a collective of human beings said, No more. No more abuse towards the Black community. No more brutality, pain, and suffering. We wanted to bring this message to the upper class elite of SoHo. We wanted to make a statement that could not be ignored.”

"This is how artists speak... Now is the time to be on the right side of history. And we feel that staying silent is not an option." -Tiger Mackie, Artist

While the month-old project has gained momentum quickly, it has also experienced its share of difficulties, including defacement by random actors, theft of some works, confusion in the media over its affiliates (it is not affiliated with Westwood Gallery, as some outlets had purported), and censoring by brands Chanel and Gucci, which painted over Impact art. But with the continued support of members of the community such as local business Selima Optique, which stepped up to protect and store uninstalled art until it could be retrieved, SoHo Social Impact remains focused on the cause.

“This is how artists speak,” says Mackie, “We speak through images. And eventually, we want to sell these pieces so that we can donate the money to organizations [benefitting the Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter causes]. Now is the time to be on the right side of history. And we feel that staying silent is not an option.”

Here is SoHo Social Impact’s complete mission statement:

SoHo Social Impact is a collective revitalizing the lost creative spirit of our city by fostering collaboration between artists, public spaces, and local businesses.

We encourage artists to help reshape the landscape - both physically and culturally - by bringing their voices and artwork to the storefronts of SoHo and allowing their work and messages to speak to passersby. In doing so, we hope to celebrate the artistic legacy of our city while raising awareness in regard to the issues we must face collectively.

Historically, “street art” has served as a medium for marginalized voices. In this galvanizing moment of social redress, there is a collaborative potential for public-facing facades to serve as canvases for cultural discourse and inclusive reflection.

Connect with SoHo Social Impact on Instagram via the link below

SoHo Social Impact Instagram