Graffiti Artist YesOne Paints Before a Live Audience at The Clemente

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This story was written by Lower East Side resident Max Rovo. 

On Wednesday evening, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI) invited the legendary Bronx graffiti artist, YesOne, to transform the courtyard of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on Suffolk St. It was part of “Street Art and the Lower East Side,” a two-part program sponsored by the local non-profit organization.

At 6:30 p.m., YesOne set up his spray paint by a brick wall at 107 Suffolk St., put on some mellow hip hop, held his sketch in one hand, eyed the wall, and then began his piece just minutes later. Guests who registered beforehand then began to enter the courtyard one by one, filling the space with banter and their appreciation for street art.

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“I came up with my name in 1983 or ’84 in junior high school math class,” he explained, while adding touches to his work. In the early 80s, YesOne first learned how to write Bronx-style burners from his mentor-RIP, Smiley 149. This particular type of stylized lettering with arrows coming off the ends was a product of its generation and continues to be recreated in New York and around the world today.

YesOne has traveled across the country — to San Antonio, Seattle, Baltimore, and to many other cities writing graffiti, so it felt like a gift to be able to watch him in action. “All I see is the wall right in front of me,” he later said, while noting that, for him, graffiti is a therapeutic practice.

In the courtyard, LESPI President Richard Moses spoke about the history of graffiti on the Lower East Side and the important role it played in the lives of so many young people during the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. New York’s hard economic times in those years, its atmosphere of discontent allowed the LES to become a bastion of creativity.  Speaking of street art, Moses said, “We don’t want people to forget about this aspect of the history of the neighborhood and the fact that the history is a continuum here, and that is all something that needs to be respected and studied and it needs to be recognized.”

Throughout the evening, YesOne continued to add purple hues, grey tones, as well as white and black paint in very detailed spaces to make the piece appear to pop off the wall. When the sun went down, Moses turned on a spotlight so YesOne could continue painting. Even though a lingering scent of fresh spray paint filled the air, it was a pleasure to watch him go from scratch to almost complete around 9 p.m. when the event officially ended.

Not bad for a sultry midsummer’s night on the Lower East Side.