Many Chinatown business owners feel helpless about the unsolicited graffiti that appears outside their shops and on their signage. Those illegible and inartistic scrawls have had a serious effect on the overall image of Chinatown’s business district.
But recently a large-scale mural appearing on the corner of Allen Street and Division Street has won widespread approval from Chinatown shopkeepers.
The Chinatown mural, which is the work of a graffiti collective known as Smart Crew, whose members include DCEVE, SNOEMAN and ELMO, is unlike typical street art. City Hall selected the group from a number of graffiti collectives and gave Smart Crew official permission to commission the project.
But because graffiti is not something favored by Chinatown business owners, many parties had fought and debated over where to paint the mural. Only in the end did they decide on Chinatown.
The China Press recently visited the mural, at the intersection of Allen Street and Division Street. Around 33 feet long and 6.5 feet tall, the lively, bright-colored mural is eye-catching. The nine letters of the English word “Chinatown” make up the main part of the work, which is centered on the wall.
Inside each letter is an image symbolizing the distinct features of Chinatown. There are red lanterns, which are strongly redolent of Chinese culture; the cute Maneki-neko, a Japanese figurine cat usually found at the entrances of shops and restaurants to bring good fortune; China’s delicious Tsingtao beer; the dragon mascot representing more than 40 years of history for The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory; the Manhattan Bridge, which cuts across the sky over East Broadway; and the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, New York’s first dim sum restaurant, which has appeared many times in movies.
Also unexpectedly appearing are images of fake designer bags sold on Canal Street, a distinct feature of Chinatown tourism, and the hardworking Fung Wah Bus, which is always rushing back and forth with Chinese-American passengers. Both images are part of the collective memory of Chinese-Americans and appear in the mural.
From the mural, it becomes clear that DCEVE, SNOEMAN and ELMO have a deep understanding of and a special place in their hearts for Chinatown. The mural’s vivid and modern style has brought out the distinguishing features of Chinatown.
A woman surnamed Lin and her daughter were among the many residents who stopped to take in Smart Crew’s work. Lin, who just happened to be using her cellphone to take a photo of her daughter standing in front of the mural, said she very much welcomed this new street art.
“This type of graffiti does have meaning,” she said. “It tells the story of Chinatown, and it looks pretty. I just came from picking up my daughter from school, and when we walked by, it was my daughter who first discovered the mural. She liked it and kept telling me to take a photo of her and the mural.”
A man surnamed Liu, who runs a hair salon on East Broadway, said he was happy and satisfied with the new mural.
“This kind of graffiti is art,” he said. “It’s not like other graffiti that is spray-painted and drawn all over the place in a mess. In the future, if there is more attractive graffiti like this, it should bring even more popularity to surrounding stores.”
Many community groups have been untiring in their efforts to clean up graffiti and to give the public a Chinatown that is tidy and pleasing to the eye. Chinatown Partnership is one such group, which has devoted itself over the long term to cleaning up graffiti in Chinatown and to providing free graffiti-cleaning services to affected stores.
But Executive Director Wellington Chen enthusiastically welcomed this new large-scale Chinatown mural.
“This graffiti mural is street art,” he said. “Its appearance has made for new scenery in Chinatown and will add value [to the community].”