BY SCOTT STIFFLER | The enigmatic artist whose choice of canvas had passersby shaking their heads and searching for answers says his nearly complete mural project—spanning the street-level length of 210 Seventh Ave. and wrapping around several feet onto the W. 22nd St. side—was created to send a message to the neighborhood of his youth: Whether resident, reveler, or returning son, “We Love Chelsea.”
“I grew up in Chelsea until I became an adult. I’d say 27 years in total counting back more than a few times,” said OPTIMONYC (aka OPTIMO), who requested we not reveal his real identity. (Unlike the mural project, some of his open-air work falls outside the realm of legal placement. That, pandemic notwithstanding, explains the omnipresent bandana covering his nose and mouth.)
The Chelsea of his childhood and teen years, recalled OPTIMO, “was tough to grown up in. It made me tough. But it also exposed me to diversity. The 1980s felt a bit segregated, but the 90s blended different races and cultures. I know more than a couple thousand people from the neighborhood, so I’m always welcomed. That’s what draws me back—my peoples.”
Ask how OPTIMO’s work came to cover the side of a building with a backstory every bit as colorful as his own and you’ll end up using, or at least contemplating, words like fate, synchronicity, kismet, or karma, depending on what, if anything, you believe in.
En route to a job a few weeks ago, OPTIMO passed by a long-dormant piece of private property on the corner of W. 22nd St. and Seventh Ave. that he’d always seen as a potential canvas.
“I was working on a commissioned mural in the back patio of a restaurant,” recalled OPTIMO, of Counter & Bodega. Located at 216 Seventh Ave. btw. W. 22nd & 23rd Sts. the Latin restaurant and bar is just steps from the building OPTIMO had designs on. “I inquired about painting the mural on the corner [building at W. 22nd St.]. Sofie [Serrano, the restaurant’s CEO] spoke to Errol [Rainess, owner of 210 Seventh Ave.] and made the connection. I proposed my vision to him, and he accepted.”
This particular day, April 10, was the first-ever citywide graffiti cleanup initiative, bringing together members of the NYPD and volunteers from the community, to paint over patches that garnered 311 calls and/or were known eyesores. With the permission of building owner Errol Rainess, 210 Seventh Ave. was added to their list, and its graffiti met the business end of the brush and bucket brigade.
Work on the mural began that same day because, noted OPTIMO, “I knew if I didn’t, it would be bombed [tagged] right away. That’s what’s happening with all the walls they buff. It’s fresh canvas for the streets to hit.”
Mindful that volunteers had just spent part of their day turning the building’s ground floor level into a wall of solid gray, Serrano and Rainess quickly drafted a letter to acknowledge OPTIMO had been commissioned to create a mural, and was on site with Rainess’ express permission. Last week, Serrano said they were working on a more formal Letter of Commission, and would share that with Chelsea Community News when it was ready for public consumption.
Serrano said the unlikely alignment of so many factors makes the work, and the neighborhood, all the more worth celebrating, given how Rainess isn’t always in the country, let alone the city, and walls don’t get painted every day, and OPTIMO just happened to be working on a mural for her own buseinsss at a time that put him in close proximity to Rainess. OPTIMO had his own take on the copious amount of happenstance, noting, “When I started the mural, Errol was there when the police approached me. He confirmed to them that I have permission to paint the building.”
Since then, OPTIMO said he’s been conducting his work largely unbothered by local law enforcement—although early on, he was “approached by police officers numerous times, due to people calling in with complaints of me defacing property. I expect to be approached, it comes along with spray painting on surfaces as opposed to using a brush.”
With the origin story in the can, our talk with OPTIMO (pieced together from a half dozen chance meetings at the work site) turned from the HOW to the WHAT. Initially, the mural’s visual concept consisted of just the three words “WE” followed by a red heart symbol doing the job of the word “LOVE,” followed by “CHELSEA.” The letter style, noted the artist, “is white roller block letters, and the [NYPD] gray served as a primer. I did the color in the background after the letters. It’s pink faded to purple, top to bottom.”
Over three weeks later, those words remain, although they’ve since been partially covered by a collection of figures drawn from literature, pop culture, animation, music, and film. Some, like Betty Boop, appear at one location, only to migrate to another part of the mural overnight. Others are given charged words or phrases that recontextualize their role. (Days after his appearance in mid-flight atop the mural, the John Darling of Disney’s 1953 animated film Peter Pan got a shadowy, all-caps “NO SLEEP” across his signature white nightshirt. Meantime, the comic strip cat Garfield appeared in the lower right hand corner, typically droll yet sporting a snazzy bow tie, and in possession of a Permit to Paint.)
With no signature to claim ownership, at least not the kind a landscape painter would leave in the bottom corner, the influx of various characters into the mix was jarring—at least, at first. But for those paying attention (and plenty of us are), there are through lines to be found. Some, however, are content to just say goodbye to the old anarchistic aesthetic.
“When I first saw that all the graffiti was painted over, that was enough for me,” recalled Melodie Bryant, a resident of W. 22nd St. who maintains her block’s participation in the Open Streets program. “I suspected that it would eventually host more bad graffiti. Then I saw the [WE LOVE CHELSEA] mural, and I thought it was somebody with some skill, but the new stuff, the drawings, were unrelated to the message. Gradually, it became clear that it was the same artist, and they had a vision.”
The 210 Seventh Ave. property was once home to a popular café. As noted in a January 8, 2019 article in Chelsea News (authored by this reporter), Espresso Bar was “a beloved ground-floor business featured in 1996 by New York magazine (“a bit more down-home than Starbucks”). A March 2012 report by The Real Deal noted the funky java joint was owned by building owner Errol Rainess’ late wife, whose death some in the neighborhood speculate has a connection to the property’s frozen-in-time status. Others theorize it’s retribution for City actions…”
The article goes on to note that the property sat “abandoned by its owner for well over a decade,” and its owner was subject to many unpaid fines. The derelict property got a Department of Buildings (DOB)-ordered sidewalk shed in Sept. 2010. Over the years, a number of violations were observed and went unrepaired, until, “By mid-Oct. 2018, the situation had further deteriorated, compelling the DOB to issue another Emergency Declaration, which allowed the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to take action. In early Dec., a permit was issued for HPD contractors to remove 35 feet of metal cornice, and conduct repair work to the shed, as well as the building’s windowsills, window lintels, and defective or loose bricks. . After a Jan. 4, 2019 visit to the site, DOB inspectors confirmed that HPD’s repair work is complete, and the building no longer poses a hazard to the public. As a result, the DOB has rescinded its Emergency Declaration, clearing the way for HPD contractors to remove the sidewalk shed, which should happen within two to three weeks.”
Told that Rainess gave permission for the graffiti clean-up as well as OPTIMO’s mural, Chelsea West 200 Block Association member Pamela Wolff was pleasantly surprised. Quoted in the 2019 article as calling the Rainess-owned property “a dark, abandoned, derelict, miserably dirty site,” Wolff didn’t change her tune so much as write a new verse.
“The fact that it [the mural] is there is an absolute delight,” said Wolff. “But the fact that he [Rainess] commissioned it, that’s a watershed moment.” Wolff added she acknowledged this gesture as one of goodwill and hoped it would pave the way for better relations between Rainess and those who have long hoped the derelict building would return to its glory days of providing a home for small business and a multitude of residents.
In the interest of filling in more of the backstory—his as well as that of his mural—Chelsea Community News conducted the following Q&A via a combination of email exchanges and conversations at the site of the mural.
CCNews: Do you have any formal art training? Are there movements, individuals, styles that influence you?
OPTIMONYC: I’m trained by my surroundings and my fellow artists I painted with on the streets over the years. I’m influenced by old school cartoons and comic books of all sorts. I loved Keith Haring, Salvador Dali, Dondi White, and Michael Angelo, and the list goes on. I was heavily inspired when I learned about Native American Ledger drawings as well. I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, down to the Catacombs of Paris, so my influences and inspirations are broad. My experiences are my professors.
CCNews: A person who lives nearby thought the figures on the mural were stenciled, because of the detail—but they are all done freehand. Is that something that came naturally to you?
OPTIMONYC: I don’t use stencils or projectors. I enjoy creating on the spot as I freestyle—it gives me a chance to connect with the public. I feel an intimacy with the space when I paint straight forward, spray paint serves as my pencil and eraser. I don’t believe I’m a natural. Practice and hard work molded me into creating my own style.
CCNews: Many of the figures in the mural have some very specific headgear. Why top hats?
OPTIMONYC: The top hats represent what the characters have in common. The characters represent the “WE,” the WE representing the community of Chelsea being of all sorts. The top hats are uniting them because they all love Chelsea. I’m piecing these familiar faces together, so that they fit to create the neighborhood of Chelsea, with love.
CCNews: Some felt the simplicity of the message was all the mural needed. What is it about the WE LOVE CHELSEA message and design that compelled you to put these other images on top of it?
OPTIMONYC: The WE LOVE CHELSEA is the foundation of the mural, which is a work in progress. Therefore, the WE LOVE CHELSEA will reappear at the end of this project.
CCNews: How does it feel knowing the work you do can fade with time or be destroyed due to it being considered graffiti or illegal/unauthorized?
OPTIMONYC: Nothing last forever.
CCNews: How much did the mural cost, and why did you do it out of pocket?
OPTIMONYC: I’m still working on the mural, so the cost is ongoing until I’m done. I’m paying for this mural out of my own pocket because I believe in myself, my passion, and vision that must be seen. It’s like spending money on an amazing outfit: It may be expensive, but it will make you stand out and be worth every penny.
CCNews: Say anything else you want, that was not covered above.
OPTIMONYC: This mural is being done from my heart. I truly love Chelsea and know many share similar feelings. I want to give back to the community that raised me. I’ve painted murals in many places, states, and different countries. Chelsea is home to my heart and deserves the best of my artistic abilities. It’s my “Thank you,” for teaching me many life lessons
WE LOVE CHELSEA Timeline: A Daily (more or less) Document
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