Just for One Day: When I Painted ‘David Bowery’ as Tribute to David Bowie
Today, on the first anniversary of David Bowie’s death, the anonymous artist behind the now-infamous “David Bowery” tribute street sign tells all. This is the real story of how it came to pass, in his own words.
Like most great ideas, it wasn’t mine.
Stuart Wilson went to pay respects to the David Bowie tribute outside his apartment on Lafayette Street and as we were walking around the neighborhood, he made a passing comment that it would be nice if the city renamed Bowery as David Bowery as it was only a few of blocks away from his home.
Like most great ideas, to make them a reality, there has to be someone willing to act on them and a set of circumstances that perfectly align. The first requirement was easy. I’m certainly no Banksy but have a history of anonymously creating thought-provoking work in various forms, including street art. I’ve painted anti-rape message on a duvet and hung it outside a Meatpacking District nightclub where they ply underage girls with free drinks, created free art on clothing to help Occupy Wall Street protesters keep warm in Zuccotti Park and of course visually and publicly expressed the disgust for Trump in many, many ways over the last few months.
There is an underlying theme of injustice but I worked out during my younger, angry years that subtlety and humor could also be perfect ways to communicate ideas than confrontation. My motto is not “Why?” but “Why Not?” As in, why not take Stuart Wilson’s initial idea and wait for the perfect storm?
And so it came. “Winter Storm Jonas” or simply “Snowzilla” was NYC’s 2nd largest blizzard on record (34 inches of snow dumped on Jackson Heights). Traffic was banned, and I spent the day enjoying the empty streets like everyone else. On heading back to the Lower East Side with two friends, I found myself walking down the Bowery and suddenly it all clicked into place. Street artists love events like Hurricane Sandy or the Blackout because it is a rare opportunity to express yourself while the rest of the city is distracted. I had been thinking about making a fake David Bowery sign and bolting it onto a lamp post but this was my one chance to literally make it big. Bowie was both hugely talented and hugely loved, so he deserved a suitably sized tribute. I stood freezing in the snow and stared at the large BOWERY sign swinging wildly in the blizzard 15 feet above me and wondered how the hell I could get up there. My friends quite rightly ridiculed my idea of climbing up and shimmying along the pole with a brush in hand and we set off back home.
The Lower East Side is a magical place for many reasons but one of them is that there are still hidden pockets of land and gaps between buildings where all sorts of things have been abandoned. Walking down Ludlow Street, I suddenly remembered that there was an old forgotten ladder that might just work. It was banana shaped and had broken rungs but was just about stable enough to help with one last paint job. I grabbed a brush, got a coffee can, punched holes in it and tied it with string so I couldn’t drop it, filled it with white paint and persuaded my two friends to help.
One friend helped me drag the ladder and the other friend went ahead as a look-out.
It took at least 40 minutes to drag this heavy ladder like a sled up Ludlow Street and along Houston to Bowery. It was cold and windy and there was a constant worry of being stopped by the cops. Lots of passersby asked us what we were doing and started taking photos, including Gregg LeFevre, a local sculptor who took the previously unseen ones you see here. Everyone wanted to help. The only vehicles allowed out by order of the Mayor were police cars, so bystanders positioned themselves to look out for any headlights approaching from blocks away in every direction. After a few scares, 5 or 6 people hauled the ladder up to the Bowery sign. The bent ladder was sitting on a foot of snow and ice, it was resting on a curved pole which was swaying with the weight and the Bowery sign was swinging in the wind. And it was a blizzard. I practically ran up the ladder and lay on it as I painted ‘David” on the sign. The adrenaline was rushing and I figured if I fell, at least the snow drifts would break my fall. There was a huge cheer as I finished and got back down safely. We took the ladder and put it in the construction zone in the middle of Houston Street, safely out of the way and enjoyed the moment. It had all come together perfectly. We hoped David would have been proud.
We then swore a pact of secrecy, headed to a bar, and can’t remember buying a drink all night. I was a hero. Just for one day!
The next day (Sunday), it all started blowing up online. I knew it was illegal to deface a street sign so I tried to be as considerate as possible. I used easily removable paint and only painted on the side opposite the flow of traffic so there was no way anyone would be confused where they were while driving through that intersection. I hoped the cops would show the same understanding as they were with all the flowers and candles obstructing the sidewalk and the messages written on the walls outside Bowie’s apartment. We had a pact of silence just in case and any way, this wasn’t about who did the graffiti, it was about New Yorkers celebrating David Bowie’s genius. And yes, of course we knew this wasn’t how he pronounced his name!
The interesting thing is how it went viral. It seemed to be a focal point for people not to grieve, yet also to celebrate Bowie and how much he meant to his fans.
It started as individuals posting images online, the L.I.S.A. Project reposted it on their street art instagram and all of a sudden everyone was giving them credit for organizing it. Because they gave credit to Gregg LeFevre as one of the photographers, he was suddenly named by those who reposted as the artist who painted it. Gregg contacted me because he is famed for creating legitimate street sculptures for the City (such as the literary walk by the Bryant Park Library) and obviously was horrified that the city would never collaborate with him again if they thought he was defacing city property. I contacted the the L.I.S.A. Project and they edited their post to make it clear they were not involved and that Gregg was just the photographer, which they were happy to do. However so many journalists and bloggers lazily copy and paste existing online stories, so it became an impossible task to contact and correct everyone. By Monday, the story was top trending on Facebook and covered across the world. The main reaction across the world was that New York was a city where people had the imagination and courage to do an outlandish thing that hurt nobody but celebrated one of their own. It became a joint tribute to Bowie and New York.
Thankfully Gregg suffered no repercussions from the whole episode. The sign was in place for nearly a month, and despite Stuart Wilson emailing several City departments offering to buy it or donate money to charity for it, this piece of graffiti/pop music history is either in the trash or hanging on some Sanitation Dept wall. I hope it is the latter.
A year after his death, I feel proud to have played a small part in enabling people to express their grief and admiration for a true legend. In this current political climate, we should all remember how much better this country was to provide a welcome to the immigrant New Yorkers David Bowie and his Muslim Somalian wife Iman.
We should also remember that, as manager of the Sex Pistols Malcolm McLaren once said, “Anyone can have an idea but it is doing something with it that counts.”
All photos are by Gregg LeFevre, most have never been published.