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Artist Fears Astor Place Redesign Will Destroy Mosaics

By Patrick Hedlund | February 22, 2011 7:00pm | Updated on February 23, 2011 6:21am

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

EAST VILLAGE — A longtime neighborhood street artist who has covered dozens of light poles in colorful mosaics is worried some of his highly visible work will be wiped away under a city plan to redesign Astor Place.

For a quarter of a century, Jim "Mosaic Man" Power has decorated everything from neighborhood lampposts and street planters to bus benches and building entryways with his signature tile-encrusted mosaics.

His work — featured recently on the cover of a Time Out New York issue about the East Village — stands out prominently in the neighborhood and has earned Power international recognition for his medium.

But Power's guerilla approach to the craft — he does the work without funding or permission from the city — has left his designs vulnerable to change over the years.

Now, about half a dozen of his mosaic-covered light poles and planters in Astor Place may be threatened by a large-scale redesign plan for the area that seeks to create a more pedestrian-friendly experience by closing streets and creating more public space.

"No politician ever gave a s**t about that island except for me," said Power, 63, of the current Astor Place plaza, which is bisected by East 8th Street. "That's my land."

The artist, who's struggled with chronic homelessness over years as his health deteriorated, says he created the city's first 9/11 memorial in the form of tiled planter he set atop an unsightly pothole in Astor Place.

Other planters and light poles in the area also bear Power's mark, including tributes to local landmarks like now-closed music venue CBGB and Billy's Antiques and Props, as well as the NYPD and FDNY.

"This isn't just a thing on a light pole," he said, pointing to a picture of President Obama he found online, showing the commander-in-chief next to one of Power's lampposts in Astor Place on a trip to New York.

"I'm at a big turning point here," he added, "and I do feel like I'm fighting a losing battle."

A spokesman for the Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over light poles and other street furniture, said the agency was aware of Power's mosaics in Astor Place and that the works would be taken into consideration. He also noted that the project was not scheduled to begin until next year.

However, the city has not publicly committed to preserving the works — renderings of the redesign do not pay specific attention to the items in question — and Power fears that they will eventually be removed to accommodate the project.

"I have to go to the trouble of proving how important my work is?" he said, noting that he decided to forgo a more lucrative life in commercial art to do his craft for free on the streets. "How can you squander 27 years of work?"

The Astor Place pieces are part of Power's larger "Mosaic Trail" running through the East Village, that feature dozens of tile-encrusted works mentioned in guidebooks and in numerous news articles about the artist and his designs.

That recognition, coupled with the neighborhood's reputation for championing the arts, should give Power all he needed to combat affronts to his work, he said.

"This is not New York City. This is the East Village," he said. "Opinion is run from here — not City Hall. We think differently here, we are differently here."

Power had planned to bring four new decorated planters to Astor Place sometime in the future, but has decided to speed the installation up due to the planned redesign.

"I'll build them while everyone's away for the weekend. I'm claiming that land back," he said, adding that he would unveil the new planters "as soon as the whether breaks."

"I'm not an anarchist," Power added, "but I'm going to teach people a lesson on this one."