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East Harlem Group Looks to Restore Community Murals

By Jeff Mays | September 2, 2011 7:49am

HARLEM—The red, white and blue colors of the "Dos Alas" mural at 105th and Third Avenue in East Harlem aren't as vibrant as they once were.

A random graffiti tag is a blemish on the Puerto Rican flag while a rust colored water stain has leaked into the quotations from the two revolutionaries — Che Guevera and Don Pedro Albizu Campos— depicted in the panorama, created in 1999.

Tourists come from the other side of the globe to see the colorful murals of East Harlem. Murals such as  the massive "Spirit of East Harlem" are well-known icons that celebrate Latino culture and history. Some honor heroes, both anonymous and world-famous. Others, such as some by street artist James De la Vega, depict the fight against gentrification.

But after years of enduring New York's blazing summers, icy winters and leaky 100-year-old bricks, the elements and graffiti taggers have begun to take a toll on these sprawling works of arts.

Now, as part of a plan to preserve East Harlem's rich history of murals, a group has begun an effort to restore some of them starting Saturday from 12 to 8 p.m. with "Dos Alas," which translates as "Two Wings" in English.

With efforts from some of the original "Dos Alas" artists from an art collective known as the Ricanstruction Netwerk, members of the now defunct youth organization Puerto Rico Collective and the general public, the plan is to not only restore the mural, but to recreate the spirit in which the mural was painted. Local musicians and advocacy groups will also do outreach at the event.

"This is part of the culture of East Harlem that needs to be preserved and honored," said Marina Ortiz, the founder of East Harlem Preservation and a member of Luisa's Liberation Artists Making Action, a collective of groups that are seeking to preserve the murals.

The group, which is made up of Ortiz, political rapper Not4Prophet and artist and musician Xen Medina, is named after Puerto Rican labor organizer, feminist and anarchist Luisa Capetillo.

There is a sense of urgency around the project. The Ricanstruction Netwerk installed at least 10 politically-themed murals around East Harlem in the late 1990s. Many of them are now gone, either whitewashed or torn down as part of the many new residential construction projects in East Harlem.

"These murals make a statement about gentrification. They were created in spaces that were vacant, empty lots. The lots were covered with cinder block walls," said Ortiz.

Preserving New York City's many outdoor murals is often a difficult task, said Jane Weissman, New York City chair of Rescue Public Murals and co-author with Janet Braun-Reinitz of "On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City."

"Outdoor murals are a very fragile public art form. We know they are vulnerable to the weather, structural issues with the building, leaks, they can get razed or if they are facing a vacant lot, a building can rise up and hide the mural," said Weissman.

In 2009, the "Spirit of East Harlem," located at 104th Street and Lexington Avenue, was defaced by graffiti. East Harlem artist Manny Vega Jr., who helped Hank Prussin paint the mural in the 1970s, was called in to restore it.

In Central Harlem, Franco Gaskin, better known as "Franco the Great," is fighting to preserve the remaining murals he painted along the corrugated gates of stores along 125th Street.

Preserving Gaskin's murals and the ones in East Harlem is important because they are a way of publicly documenting the history of a community and making it accessible to all, said Weissman.

"The murals are a way of looking what's happening in a community at a particular point or time," she said. "They are a window to the unofficial history of the neighborhood. Whether people are celebrating or protesting, it's about what's going on in the neighborhood."

"Dos Alas" depicts a melding of the Puerto Rican and Cuban flags. Both Guevara, an Argentine who was a central figure of the Cuban revolution and Campos, president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who was jailed for dozens of years for his efforts at gaining Puerto Rico's independence from the United States. The two are symbols of the independence movements of the two islands.

The mural was purposely produced without permission from the property owner as an act of defiance. The imagery of the two leaders is part of an effort break down prejudice while reaffirming the political connection of the African and Latin American diaspora, said Ortiz. The style is also reminiscent of Russian artistry.

But because it was created partially using aerosol paints, it's simply not holding up well.

The artists and the public will use brush-applied paint to restore and protect the mural, which has also become a gathering spot, said Ortiz. When Puerto Rican nationalist Dolores "Lolita" Lebrón Sotomayor died last year, a memorial service was held in the shadow of "Dos Alas."

By moving now to preserve and restore these murals, Ortiz said she hopes they can be saved.

"East Harlem's buildings have served as the canvas for these works of art for 50 years. It's part of a legacy that needs to be preserved," said Ortiz.