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Gritty Painter Captures People and Places of NYC

By Mary Johnson | September 4, 2011 10:07pm | Updated on September 5, 2011 11:55am
Lee Erickson, 61, paints street corners, buildings and landmarks around Manhattan.
Lee Erickson, 61, paints street corners, buildings and landmarks around Manhattan.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

MANHATTAN — Lee Erickson has painted 300 pictures of Pete’s Tavern on Irving Place in Gramercy.

He reckons he's painted 250 New York City street corners — his goal is 1,000 — and he is known to perch in one location for days at a time, painting and repainting the same scene with different people.

Passersby always comment on the buildings and the businesses in his paintings, but those folks don’t get it, Erickson said. Those are just details. The people are what matter.

“I always wanted to paint people," he said.

"I always wanted to paint the social interaction. What I’m really doing is I’m painting New York City.”

Erickson is 61 with a bushy gray mustache, round-rimmed glasses and a black beret. He has always painted, but he hasn’t always been a painter. Twenty-five tattoos inked across his body document his previous life as a fisherman and commercial scuba diver.

“They’ve got stories,” Erickson said of his body art.

He designed several of his tattoos, including some that swirl around his right forearm. A patch of primroses on his left arm are good luck for sailors, Erickson said, and he has the logo of his old dive company permanently printed on his backside.

“I got it tattooed there so I could moon my boss without getting in trouble,” he said, laughing.

“Yeah, he loved it.”

Erickson describes his life thus far as “colorful,” the details of which could fill an entire book.

He was born in Bridgeport, Conn. His father was an illustrator, and an alcoholic.

When his parents divorced in 1957, his mother raised Erickson and his younger brother while going to college.

“At that point, I was sort of expected to be a respectable adult,” Erickson said.

But he wasn’t. For most of his adolescence, Erickson was drinking or on drugs, “a general in the psychedelic revolution,” he describes it. 

So his mother signed him up for the Army when he was 17. After a year, he got kicked out.

“They just figured I was too much trouble,” he recalled.

“Fired from the Army," he added, "that’s pretty cool.”

Erickson spent a year at an art school in New Canaan, Conn., and eventually made his way south. He took jobs on boats in Louisiana, Seattle, Alabama and Texas. He fished and dove, working hard and making little money.

After almost 20 years, he moved back up to New York. Erickson said he always wanted to be a painter, and he thought New York was the place to do it.

Plus, he hates the suburbs.

“They’re too nine to five,” he said. “I can’t do nine to five.”

Erickson, who lives in City Island, the Bronx, estimates that he was either drunk or high from the age of 11 to 44. His father drank himself to death that year, he said, a loss that prompted Erickson to quit boozing.

That’s also the year he gave up working to paint full time. Now, his art, which fetches anywhere from $400 to $800 per work, are his soul source of income.

“It put me in a place that I believe that I can make a living in fine arts,” he said.

Erickson said he doesn’t care too much about money, although it would make life easier. He said he works 60 hours a week painting. His 28-year-old 750 Honda motorcycle is constantly breaking down, but painting takes his stress away.  

Erickson, who counts Degas, Delacroix and Picasso among his idols, paints mainly in watercolors. He puts up his easel on a street corner or in a park, sets out a rack of paintings in case someone wants to buy, and paints what he sees.

“There’s nothing cutting edge about what I do,” he said. “It’s not like I invented anything.”

He refuses to budge when businesses occasionally try to force him to move. And if a spot is profitable, he practically moves in.

“If I sell it, I paint it again. That’s how Pete’s got painted 300 times,” Erickson said.

One of those paintings now hangs on the walls of Pete's Tavern, and the restaurant has even agreed to route any interested buyers Erickson's way. A sign beneath the painting intructs patrons looking to buy a print to inquire within— although manager Andrew Chao said he isn't sure if anyone has ever asked.

Chao said Erickson seems to prefer the corner just south of the restaurant when he stops by to paint.

“He’s pretty much a fixture,” Chao said. “[But] he hasn’t been here that much this summer.”

That, Erickson clarified, was because scaffolding has covered Pete’s for several months. Erickson frequently rails against scaffolding, the nemesis of a painter who thrives on unobstructed views of New York.

Instead of Pete’s, he’s been spending a lot of time at Butterfield Market on the Upper East Side. It’s an area with lots of mothers, lots of women in general. Erickson has a particular fondness for women—something two ex-wives and a string of old girlfriends haven’t cured him of.

“I’m just an alpha kind of male. I’m attracted to women, and I like to paint them,” Erickson said. “You know how guys hang out on a street corner and watch women? Well I get paid for it.”

Women of all shapes and ages dot his paintings, but men are in there too, and babies. He pulled one painting out of his case and pointed to two toddlers in strollers holding hands.

The people make his paintings, he said, and people are everywhere, making it impossible for him to pick one restaurant or bar or street corner as his favorite place to paint.

“If I had a favorite, that would ruin the whole thing, sort of,” he said. “I would miss out on diversity, the constant change that I get.”