NEW YORK – The area where I grew up in Greenwich Village features historic buildings with plaques touting the equally historic people who graced them with their presence. Eleanor Roosevelt once spent the night here. Dylan Thomas disgraced his liver on our ground floor. Edgar Alan Poe once tore up a failed poem. They’re fun, but after a while I stopped noticing, and started being dismissive.
Recently however, Los Angeles-based street artist Kai unknowingly called my bluff with his New York visit, where he’s attached his own molded cement plaques to apartment buildings, businesses and traffic lights. Despite how well they blend into their surroundings, the pictures, some playful but most with some sort of social message stopped me in my tracks.
My first double take occurred near the East Broadway F train stop, one of what Kai calls his relief sculptures looked stately next to a wheatpaste. In this picture, a cop holds a nightstick above his head, a shield with the words POLICE in front of him. What is the police officer so afraid of that requires so much armor? The answer is a protester with a crooked smile, discreetly, but unmistakably taking a picture of said cop with a flip phone’s camera.
On Orchard Street, just below Broome, another relief sculpture hides in plain site on the turquoise wall of Dudley’s restaurant. Here, a bank robber with a ski mask, tools strewn around the floor, opens a vault to reveal the word LOVE carved in the cement, letters arranged just like pop artist Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculptures, a public art icon in both New York and Philadelphia. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I love the idea of one piece of public art paying homage to another, when one is legal and the other not so much.
In an interview with Ratter, Kai claimed to have over 100 pieces up in New York. I’ve only caught a few so far, but I can’t wait to make my new game, “Where’s Kai,” my next replacement for Waldo.
By ILANA NOVICK