When art director Eric Lau showed up at 5Pointz two months ago, it seemed like any other afternoon. The photographer often hung around the street art collective on his weekends, shooting the artists at work at this Long Island City Mecca of graffiti and aerosol art. A hip-hop dance competition soon broke out, with enthusiastic cheering from the crowd as the teams one-upped each other in an escalating break-dance battle. After the victors were declared, however, the judges announced that this would be the last competition of the year. Weeks later, the Queens neighborhood residents awoke to find the walls washed white, years worth of vibrant and ground-breaking art erased in a flash as the building is prepared for demolition, making way for a set of high-rise luxury condos in a court decision that has enraged street art enthusiasts from every corner of the globe. Lau had no idea that sunny afternoon that he was documenting a piece of history: the end of an era and the last hip-hop battle of 5Pointz. He shares his photos, and his story, with Resource this week.
Tell me about the day you took these photos. When did you start going to 5pointz? What was that last day like?
The first time I encountered 5Pointz was around five or six years ago. I had to go to MOMA PS1 for a school project. Long Island City was quite out of my way, so to make my trip more worthwhile, I went online to see if there was anything fun around there. The number one recommendation was 5Pointz. I read a few “reviews” and had no idea what it was all about. Was it a museum? Was it an exhibition? I was looking around and didn’t find an entrance, opening hours or anything. I walked around this industrial building and finally got to the other side, under the subway rail, and I was like “Whoa…that’s like a graffiti paradise.” I couldn’t put it into words. The entire building was covered with different graffiti, different styles, from artists all over the world. Unlike PS1, there isn’t an entrance fee, there isn’t a map; I like the informal quality of it.
So life goes on and it wasn’t until two years ago that I started to pay more attention to street art again. I met street artist Kidlew during an Art Director’s Club event; I was so impressed by his live graffiti performance. I started to look more into street art and began going to 5pointz on the weekends to hang around. A month or two ago, I was photographing around 5pointz and Kidlew was working on some pieces. I came across my first “hip-hop battle.” Their body language, the passion of the performers, judges and audiences, was an experience I had never seen before.
With 5Pointz’s graffiti as the backdrop, the music is banging. The dancers form teams of three and alternate for three rounds: performing, dancing, challenging the other teams, in an “in your face” style. Another team responds in the next round, challenging the others to amp up their game again. The judges are not sitting and taking notes, but actively engaging with body movements, hand gestures. They are just as involved as those who are competing. At the end of the last round, the judges announce the winner by voting, one vote per person, by pointing to the team they vote for at the same exact time. If they think it is a draw, they make a cross with their hands.
The dance was finally done, and they announced it was the last event of the year. The winning team celebrated and got the box of donations (a cardboard box passed around with dollar bills in it) that the audience and 5Pointz had chipped in to. The music kept going, and the judges couldn’t help but start break dancing, the audiences as well. They formed circles, and everyone would go and perform in the middle of the crowd for a bit. There’s a system, although it isn’t formal.
I couldn’t believe this was my first but also the last hip-hop experience at 5Pointz.
What do you think is the importance of having spaces like 5Pointz?
I think art is at its best when its intention is pure expression and not any commercial purpose, and I found that at 5Pointz. The artists there do not paint for money, but for a pure love of street art. Some very famous artists have painted here as a way of saying thank you to New York and to 5Pointz when they come by, and some told me they felt honored just being a part of it. For me, that is a great atmosphere.
I love street art for a few reasons. First, how often does an average member of the population visit a gallery or museum? Not very often. But everyone goes to the street. There’s an informal quality to the exhibition: there’s no opening hours, no entrance fee, no security check. I think the scale and quality of the art at 5Pointz added something to the neighborhood, and to New York City. When my friends come visit, it’s torture showing them around Times Square; I find it touristy and not authentic. Who needs cups and key chains that say “New York?” But I am always proud to bring them to 5Pointz, a place that really shows what New York is about: a place rich in culture and in art. And everyone who I’ve brought to 5Pointz has agreed that it is their favorite spot in NYC.
Second, 5Pointz gave street artists a formal canvas to work with, in comparison to having to paint random walls on the street. It also gave young street artists a good community and showed them that there are legitimate careers to be had doing this, hopefully steering them away from bad environments, drugs, etc. I think the importance of 5pointz is tremendous.
As a young artist, what was it you found so inspirational about 5Pointz? What kept you coming back?
It was the art that drew my attention at first, then the community after. I enjoyed going there and hanging out with my street artist friends and talking with folks who were like-minded and also interested in street art. We share some common values and interests, but at the same time everyone is from a different background, different parts of the world, different cultures. Yet we share a mutual love of street art—I find this fact fascinating. Other than the community, the art itself was also inspiring. I never came to 5Pointz without seeing something new. The walls were constantly being painted over with new graffiti; you really had to be there every week to see everything, otherwise you were missing out. Especially during the summer, there was often more than one artist working together at the same time, sometimes on the same piece. I found this a lot livelier than a gallery or a museum.
Do you think there’s hope for the center, either at that site or somewhere new? Does the spirit of 5Pointz live on even as the walls have been washed clean?
I am sure it does lives on to a certain extent. However, I am less upset about the actual art; those get painted over constantly as the space in 5Pointz is limited. I am more concerned about what it means for the culture and landscape of the neighborhood—Long Island City and Queens, and to a larger extent New York City.
Carnegie Hall, the Statue of Liberty, the MET, the Plaza Hotel: these are all landmarks. They are protected from being torn down and, in addition to being a music venue, a tourist attraction, a museum or a hotel, they are also protected as significant works of architecture. Why is 5Pointz, one of the most important centers of street art in the world, not protected? If someone went into the MOMA or the MET and whitewashed a few pieces, they would be arrested, fined, or even put behind bars. Why would our system (of law, and of the art world) allow the whitewashing of the most important site of street art to happen? A place a lot of people are proud of, and have worked on together because of their love of art. Wouldn’t it be great if the City bought the building and let it continue?
There are a few great neighborhoods that also have great street art, and I am fortunate enough to live very close to the Bushwick Collective, a group started around a year and a half ago that is making a huge change in terms of the vibe of the neighborhood. So there are things living on, but to a certain extent it is not the same. What if the Statue of Liberty got torn down and we put a replica or reproduction somewhere close by? Is it the same?
There are many different art forms tied up in your story: street art, dance, photography, design. How do you see those art forms interacting? Where do the common threads lie? Do they come from the same place?
As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, advertising and design is where I first came across “creativity.” So I think it was natural for me to pick that arena in my final two years of high school, when I started designing fliers for school events, membership cards for different clubs, school magazines, etc. I was trained in painting and drawing from a young age, since I was 4 years old until I was around 15, but I was never really into it. I felt a distance with painting and drawing, maybe because I am not talented in that area, or maybe because I didn’t see an application for it, at least not when I was learning it.
I’ve always liked street art and street fashion. Until I was 16, I was never sure what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I knew I wanted a job where I didn’t have to wear a suit and a tie. So I think I like the informal quality of street art, and I like the way that it is public. Where it makes your coffee run a bit more interesting, or it gives you something to look at when you’re waiting for a bus—there’s a genuine, positive way that it adds to the city itself. I do appreciate other forms of art, too, and recently I’ve spent more time looking at fine art. But I think street art can reach a wider audience, and it changes our city and the urban landscape.
The term dancing has a special meaning for me. For me, it means mastering something and doing it like no one is watching you, expressing yourself in a way where you don’t care how you are seen by others. For me, a street artist working is dancing, a street photographer working in the street is dancing, a painter splashing strokes on his canvas is dancing.
As for photography, I’ve been taking photos since I came to New York. When I first got here, I would bring my camera with me every weekend and shoot for a full day, on anything that drew my attention. After the first two years in New York, I had to stop shooting for a while. I started my own design firm, but I didn’t feel like I was doing a lot of work that I truly cared about. I’ve started shooting again in the past two years, with the encouragement of a street photographer friend who I met when I was working at Saatchi & Saatchi. I’ve had a great time going out shooting with him and by myself.
With my camera, I’ve made new friends and explored places that I never would have gone otherwise. I’ve become more curious and more outgoing. I switched to a film rangefinder camera and have been doing exclusively black and white for over a year now, and I’m really enjoying the simplicity of it. I think it is a contrast in comparison to my advertising work, where there are a lot of details and ideas we have to make sure we’re communicating. My photography is really simple, black and white photo documentary/reportage, and I think that’s a better representation of my vision, my point of interest. Through my photography, not only do I study cultures, neighborhoods and places, but I also learn about who I am, what I am interested in and what I care about.
Design, photography, street art—they all form my genuine interest and my inner-self. I try to be as honest as possible and let my gut drive me. I think that’s the pathway to great work, work that really represents your voice.
What is your signature dance move? Would you ever get in the middle of the crowd to show it off?
First of all, I am by no means a dancer, but I enjoy going to parties with my friends and dancing with good music. My signature dance move is blending backwards with my foot kicking in the air simultaneously. I am not a pro and I don’t have any training at all. But you will find me getting in the middle of the crowd, especially after a few Mojitos. I am not shy about showing off my far-from-good moves.