Stephen Powers wanted to share his feelings about the coronavirus pandemic.
So he took his spray cans, put on his Willson air-purifying respirator made by Honeywell, rented a scissor liftand went to work, painting a series of wooden panels outside of an Aritzia womens clothing store in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood.
On one panel, Powers, who also goes by ESPO, painted time is a tide immersed in a wave. On another, the word us is placed onto a boat carrying a sail as a mask. A different panel includes an advertisement for a roommate with the location just off edge of panic.
The whole mural is about being afloat and riding the tides of time and staying up, staying up on the current, Powers, 51, said.
As hundreds of thousands of people have died from COVID-19 worldwide and everyday life has been disrupted, graffiti art in New York City and elsewhere has reflected mourning and frustrations and hope, and is being used as an outlet for creativity and expression amid shutdowns and panic.
Powers who’s been a graffiti artist for over 30 years said he received permission for his work outside the Aritzia store from the property owner and plans to auction the work to benefit a variety of causes.
I posted on Instagram some possibilities that I thought could happen in those places, and the good people at Aritzia saw the post and gave me the opportunity to paint their boards, he said.
Each of the windows that are covered are maybe 10 by 12 feet, or 11 by 14 feet, and they end up being these really dramatic canvases.”
Karla Murray, out with her husband, James Murray, was moved by Powers’ work during a walk with their dog, Hudson, especially one panel showing two dogs side by side.
They had some resemblance to our dog, Murray, an architectural and interior photographer, told NBC News. It made us feel that we were a part of the wall even though it wasnt really Hudson, but it made it feel that way.
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The husband and wife have spent years documenting graffiti and small businesses throughout the city. They’ve also been highlighting New York City’s food and hot spots on YouTube, but in recent weeks the channel has shifted to show the city in lockdown.
1990s mural by FX CREW photographed in the Bronx as seen in their book, “Broken Windows: Graffiti NYC”Courtesy James and Karla Murray @jamesandkarla
Karla said she and her husband have seen more graffiti around the city during the pandemic, although much of what they’ve been documenting has been vandalism.
To us, we were always interested in documenting the beautiful side of the graffiti,” she said. “Theres the vandalism side, and then there are the murals.”
New York May 7, 2020
Graffiti on 7th Avenue, Manhattan on May 7, 2020.John Taggart / for NBC
New York May 7, 2020
Moma boarded up in Soho, Manhattan on May 7, 2020.John Taggart / for NBC
The NYPD said that graffiti complaints this year through May 10 have been down 11 percent 3,096 this year compared to 3,461 for 2019. “I do not have a breakdown of the type of graffiti at this time,” a spokeswoman, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, said.
Eric Felisbret, a former New York graffiti artist turned author, says he has also noticed new graffiti that reflects the pandemic being shared on social media. It reminds him of murals after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that aimed to spread harmony instead of discord, and also ones from the 1980s.
There were a lot of murals like anti-drug murals or also memorial murals for many people that were killed by gun violence or things that related to the drug trade, he said.
New York April 24, 2020
Graffiti giving thanks to front line workers is displayed during the coronavirus pandemic in New York on April 24, 2020.Gotham / Getty Images file
Graffiti murals that the Murrays photographed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 reflected sentiment by the artists during that historic time. They were taking their feelings to the wall, Karla said.
A mural made in the immediate days after September 11, 2001, painted by STEM (YNN Crew) in Brooklyn.James and Karla Murray @jamesandkarla
Felisbret said that the nearly empty streets and fewer people around in public now has created a perfect environment for traditional graffiti writing.
Its like sort of opened up a bit where all sorts of businesses are closed and so a lot of areas in the city are far less active than normally would be, and the graffiti artists would have more opportunity to do things without being seen, Felisbret said.
Graffitti is seen reading “Never Forget 9-11-01” near the World Trade Center site September 5, 2007 in New York.Mario Tama / Getty Images file
Some artists like Isauro Inocencio, 45, of Chula Vista, Calif., have reflected their personal feelings during COVID-19 but while painting a canvas at home under quarantine.
Adapting to the quarantine life, just getting used to it and going with the flow, its a fluid situation, Inocencio, a mixed-media artist and second grade elementary school teacher, said in describing his latest work.
Inocencio also saw similarities to the murals hes seeing now being shared online during COVID-19 and the dedication pieces going out in the aftermath of 9/11.
Similar murals could also be seen in other U.S. cities, like Los Angeles and New Orleans, and around the world from Hamm, Germany, to Milan.
Hamm, Germany April 8, 2020
The artists “SULE” and “ZitrOne” spray graffiti with a coronavirus theme on a wall in Hamm, western Germany on April 8, 2020.Ina Fassbender / AFP – Getty Images file
Glasgow, Scotland April 4, 2020
A man wearing a protective face mask walks near a Coronavirus-inspired piece of graffiti in Glasgow on April 4, 2020.Andy Buchanan / AFP – Getty Images file
The Hague, Netherlands April 10, 2020
A graffiti artist creates an artwork dedicated to the fight against the coronavirus(COVID-19) pandemic in The Hague, The Netherlands on April 10, 2020.Pierre Crom / Getty Images file
Milan April 30, 2020
A Deliveroo food cycle courier rides his bicycle past a mural representing a man wearing a protective face mask in Milan, Italy on April 30, 2020.Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images file
For Powers, graffiti gives him an opportunity to “speak for everybody” during the pandemic.
For me, graffiti is a very direct response to the environment, and graffiti is a way of, I think, broadcasting the emotional weather for whoever is writing the graffiti, he said.
Typically, no matter where Powers paints, he plays music so theres a lot more noise.
I have a general soundtrack that I bring that kind of overrides whats happening in the place where Im painting,” he said. “But this time around, the silence and the quiet, just ambient beauty of the city became the soundtrack to what I was doing.”