NewYorkNico a.k.a. Nicolas Heller is dubbed by many as the “Unofficial Talent Scout of New York City” by both friends and followers. What began as something of a passing moniker became a reality when many New Yorkers and visitors alike began recognizing his characters around the city as local personalities.
Evolving throughout his filmmaking and documentary style, he began to casually shape characters from people he noticed around his neighborhood. From full-on performers to the everyday guy grabbing a cup of coffee, his vision evolved into a time machine throwing everybody back into the old-school New York City Nico was born and raised in. Whether it be Big Mike at Astor Street Hairstylists or Tiger Hood, Nico has a special relationship with all things old school and neglected by the toils of everyday NYC.
Here at Resource, we catch up with Nico and ask him about his latest documentary, what he’s working on now, and thoughts on filming in the city.
Resource Magazine: You’re doing so much in regards to your commercial, personal, and recreational work. I would hate to call your social media stuff work, but with how much you probably invest time and content into it, do you feel at any time in obligation to keep up with your characters?
Nico: That’s actually a really good question. I don’t feel any pressure. Like you mentioned, I have my real work which is the commercial stuff and that’s how I depend on making money and the Instagram has been always just for fun. I committed to it just being something I had fun with and kind of use to uplift other people. To help people in my city and make a name for myself in that world.
Nico: So, I don’t feel any pressure to keep up with people. I know that people kind of expect to see these recurring characters, but I’m not going to do it for other people, I’m going to do it for myself. They’re all my friends. Obviously, I’m making everything public so people can see it and enjoy it. But, I can’t make it about them, I have to make it about myself and my friends who I feature. I don’t feel any pressure. If I go a week without posting anything, I get a little anxious, but that’s because if I’m not posting anything it probably means that I’m at home working on a day job so I just want to get out there and see what my friends are up to.
RM: I feel like you really care about these people. As a follower, your characters make your stuff candid. You bring out this authenticity in the city that I feel like is lost now in just a mecca of gentrification. You’re a local New Yorker. You’ve witnessed the everyday change coming in now since your upbringing. Does the different tides of diversity you experience help define your style of documentary?
Nico: I feel like that directly impacts the work that I’m doing, that is, seeing the change in New York City since I grew up here. Everything that I document has this nostalgic New York feel whether it be a character or place, you know, I’ve gotten more into transitioning into using my Instagram and turning it more into documentary. Basically combining my skill sets as a filmmaker and as a street documentarian. That’s what I did with my Big Mike Takes Lunch documentary. I’m currently editing a documentary on Tiger Hood and I’m going to do something similar to that. You know, the first event, we had a screening at Astor Place Hairstylists along with Mike’s first art show.
RM: Yeah, unfortunately I missed that.
Nico: It was incredible. The mayor showed up. It got crazy coverage and gave so much to Mike. He was able to sell a lot of paintings and get more gallery shows. It felt really good and boosted me as a documentarian. I do the commercial stuff and it’s how I make my money and it’s fun, but I’m working for somebody else. And it’s more their vision and it’s usually corporate. The reason I did this Mike documentary is because I wanted to do something for myself whether that meant self-financing it and taking a little loss there. I just wanted something to live on beyond the Instagram videos.
And, create a really cool event surrounding it. When I saw how well that went, I was like ‘sh*t I just got to keep doing this’. My next documentary is on Tiger Hood. Similar story, it’s like everyone knows him for one thing but he actually has an amazing talent that he hasn’t really pushed as far as one would think he should. So, I’m going to be doing a screening with him in conjunction with his first ever art show.
I feel like all of these subjects remind me of old New York in some way or another. Big Mike, for example, is the manager of Astor Place. Astor Place is where I’ve been going to get my haircut since I was 10. And it’s such an old school New York place like nobody can step foot in there and not be like “holy sh*t it feels like a time machine.” And, Tiger, is just super old school New York as well.
RM: I was curious about Tiger Hood. How did you get to the point where you’re sharing these nostalgic, candid photographs with each other? Like, I just saw the Seinfeld one and—
Nico: Oh, he actually didn’t take that one.
RM: Oh sh*t, he didn’t?
Nico: No, but it definitely looks like he would have. But, yeah, I was just going through all our old videos this morning and I saw the first video I ever took of him and it was funny. I hadn’t looked at it since I took it. He wasn’t opening up to me like he is now. So, we just built a friendship like anyone would. The only difference is I would document a lot of our encounters. He also saw that my fans really appreciated him.
RM: Yeah, and not just watching him to make fun of him or anything.
Nico: Oh yeah, for sure, and he definitely saw that and was like ‘oh sh*t’. He’s the best. He really is one of the most genuine people I know. I’m happy that we’re going to be doing this documentary and creating this event to expose his work for the whole world to see.
RM: I was wondering, do people come at you with these stories or do you initiate it? I’m sure it comes uniquely like interacting with someone like Matthew Silvers where they may be way easier to confront.
Nico: Usually their story is upfront and center. Matthew Silver for example. Clearly, he is this wild street performer. That’s right there for me. As opposed to Big Mike where he’s just this normal guy. He’s still a character, really funny, super old-school New York, but he’s the manager of this barber shop and has been doing this for 40 years. The fact that he’s this super skilled painter who only started two years ago and does it on his lunch break at the back of Astor Place hairstylists. That was something that didn’t come right away. We weren’t even friends. I would see him whenever I got my haircut, but I never really spoke to him because I just thought he was this New Yorker who wanted to get through the day. Until, I went to use the restroom and on my way I saw that the storage area was open and for whatever reason I poked my head in and saw him working on this Van Gogh-inspired Biggie painting.
That’s when I was like Oh Sh*t. There’s a lot more to this guy than I thought. So we started talking, we built the friendship from that. I would check in with him every few weeks or so, see how his paintings are coming. And then a year later I was like ‘Yo, I think it’s time to do a documentary about you.’
And then there’s someone like Tiger Hood, where you see him playing milk carton golf and you’re intrigued and you start talking to him about that. And then that turns into finding out about this crazy, photography talent that he has. Getting to look at his archives of photos from the past for 25 years. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not so obvious, other times it’s obvious but there’s a surprise.
RM: Was anything in Big Mike scripted? Or was it all pretty impromptu?
Nico: I think the obvious stuff was scripted and that’s what I wanted. I had him introducing himself. I feel like the awkward parts of documentary are the most real moments. And its a documentary, so you’re expecting to see a candid portrayal of your subject.
I feel like setting up scripted moments that they come into trying to be somebody else and they screw it up and break, then you see them as they really are. The opening scene, he comes to the camera and he keeps screwing up. You’re like Oh! He’s cool, he’s just this big doof! Moments like that I really like.
RM: Wait, are you familiar with this 1975 documentary Grey Gardens?
Nico: Yeah of course. I actually haven’t seen it such a long time.
RM: It’s so cringy and genuine, I love it. You take such a Grey Gardens/vérité approach at times. Essentially just letting people act the way they want, however dramatic, however withdrawn. That pretty much revolutionized how documentary works. Trusting your subjects that they won’t do anything offensive that might get flagged online or whatever. Do you ever worry about anything like that?
Nico: No, definitely not.
RM: I also noticed on your Instagram that you highlight on everyday people who do “unsung hero” stuff. Like, Doris Diether, the Queen of WSP. Do you feel as though your social media has evolved to become this community to celebrate and laugh with the people who you film?
Nico: With the following I have and having New York in my name, I feel like I have an obligation to educate my followers. A lot of people follow me because meme accounts will post crazy videos and to backtrack, I will never post something that I believe is offensive to whoever I’m filming. It really bothers me when people will send me videos of people who are high on drugs, passing out on the subway because they think its funny or something. Like, when have I ever posted something like that? Everyone who I’m posting is loving life in one way or another. I would never show somebody super down and out, to disrespect them.
Instagram has taken something more than just me keeping up with the same person every day. With my schedule getting more and more busier, I don’t really have the time to go out and keep up to date with the people I post on my Instagram. Like, even though I didn’t shoot this video from 1993 about this kid who hijacked a subway car for three hours, this is actually a really cool New York story, I’m going to share that. Now it’s just a mix of my stuff and if Doris Diether is having her 90th birthday, then I really need to show her some love on the ‘gram even though she’ll never see it. It’s good for other people to learn.
RM: People definitely recognize the characters you create on the street. People like Matthew Silvers is now on Adult Swim, and Larry the Birdman always has so many people around him whenever I pass by him at WSP.
Nico: That’s all him. That’s Larry being Larry. He’s funny, like every time I see him, even when he doesn’t know I’m there he’s always like, “Google ‘#LarrytheBirdman,’ look at NewYorkNico’s page!” So funny. He doesn’t even have an Instagram or smartphone.
RM: He really trusts you! I guess for more intimate relationships, like Luca Two Times and Tiger Hood, do they get reported on without your presence now?
Nico: Oh yeah, I think its great. I don’t want to take credit for their success. Luca was just on Rachel Ray and I went with him to the taping of it. I’m not getting shouted out but I don’t expect to. Luca is Luca and I helped boost him. That feels good. Personally, I don’t need that recognition from other people. Him and his family show me so much love anyways. I’ll always look out for people who show me love as well. There’s a lot of people who I helped out on the page who kind of use me, nothing wrong with that.
RM: I think they use your platform, definitely.
Nico: Yeah, it’s fine, but it’s the people like Luca and Tiger who really show me love and who I’ve cultivated these real friendships with like I’d ride with ’em [laughs] like, beyond Instagram.
RM: So do you just talk to them without your phone on hand nowadays?
Nico: Yeah, especially now. I used to be all about recording everything, but now–maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I’m taking a more documentary approach, or, maybe I do need to record everything… these videos that I record on my phone come in crazy handy. I was hired by the New York Post to do a little day-in-the-life of Luca. We shot that last week and I’m editing that now.
All this footage that I got from him is coming in handy because I need certain videos to help supplement the stuff he’s talking about and I’m like ‘Oh sh*t, I didn’t film that. But, oh I have old footage of him!’ talking about what I need him to be talking about. [Laughs] So maybe I do need to film more.
RM: I feel like in Big Mike, you have the flashbacks. To the year that you met him. Stuff like that, where you’re not expanding the image or anything, it’s just a small iPhone screen and you don’t change it. You’ve been in contact with these people for awhile now, you’re not meeting them for the first time.
Nico: Yeah, yeah, totally. In the upcoming Tiger Hood film, I used so much of that kind of footage. And it’s cool to see him throughout the years from the same perspective, which is my phone, and I feel like its pretty obvious it’s from my camera. Like, I feel like it makes it more of a personal piece, it’s not just some filmmaker was hired by a production company to create a film. And, you’ll see it, but the ending is very rewarding!
RM: For our readers at Resource, do you have any tips on casual documentary without overplaying it? Like, advice for our readers who want to engage with these people, or even just people in their own neighborhood that they may feel too shy to engage with. I believe Snapchat and IG stories are arguably a form of casual documentary that’s super accessible to everyone. Do you have any advice for people who want to engage with people who they find interesting and not be exploitative in any way?
Nico: This is a question I get a lot, especially in DM’s, people like, “yo, how do I approach this person I’m interested in.” Honestly, I don’t really have any suggestions because it comes down to how comfortable you are with the situation. Like, if you feel intimidated by somebody, you can’t really force that. And if you do, it might scare them away. Wait. Wait for the right time, there’s a lot of people who I didn’t approach for a while because I was pretty intimidated by them.
Big Mike being one of them. Mike was someone who I’ve seen since I was 10. He was just some guy behind the front desk who told you which barber to go to. He’s been there for so long, I’ve seen his face for like 20 years, but I was too intimidated to go speak to him. It wasn’t until I saw him working on something that he’s clearly passionate about that I chose to talk to him about that. Once I talked to him about his art, he was totally down to start talking.
Find something that this person is interested in that you have a common interest with and talk about that. Then you’ll have a natural conversation and maybe it will lead to something else.
RM: I was thinking that with Snapchat and IG stories, people kinda lose that consent to record someone to some degree. Like, you can definitely go behind someone like Larry without ever interacting with them and I guess that’s where the initial engagement becomes intimidating because it’s so easy to stand far away and be silent.
Nico: I do that too sometimes. If there’s a street performer who I think is really cool, but I don’t talk to them because A. Maybe they’re intimidating and they don’t look like they want to be spoken to or B. they’re busy performing so I’d film their performance and post it. Because I have a following, it’ll go back to them, and we’ll start a relationship through that. That’s okay too.
RM: Besides the Tiger Hoods documentary and screening, is there anything else you’re working on?
Nico: The Tiger doc is the big one, we’re gonna have a really sick event around it and people can buy Tiger’s work. Meet him, see the film. And then I have other little things that I’m working on, like a subway etiquette brochure. That’s coming up soon and that’ll be exciting. Yeah, but other than that, watch and see.
What NY Nico accomplishes reflects his personal New York City. By allowing his friends to act in whatever way they desire, he creates shared experiences with his followers on the cultural phenomena that regularly takes place here in the city.
He’ll be announcing the Tiger Hoods documentary soon, and is working on a subway etiquette brochure with graphic designer and illustrator Naomi Otsu.