The patron saint of W47th and 9th has been unceremoniously deposed — street artist Captain Eyeliner’s popular portrait of Dolly Parton was painted over this week, leaving the neighborhood without one of its most beloved Instagram moments. City Council member Erik Bottcher joined residents in mourning the loss, remarking — “It’s infuriating to see beloved street murals destroyed by vandalism. Since the start of the pandemic we’ve seen an explosion of vandalism, and it needs to stop. Graffiti hurts our small businesses and brings down the quality of life in our neighborhoods. One of my goals as a Council Member is to facilitate the creation of more street art like the Dolly mural. More Dolly, less graffiti!”
Dolly — who appeared in four-foot, sequined glory in March of 2021 on the sidewall of a long-shuttered Starbucks — managed to survive rogue defacement or city removal until this week, when she was painted over by a bubble tag. And while the value of art is subject to the eye of the beholder, the defacement brings up the question of professional courtesy among street artists.
The anonymous artist behind Dolly, Captain Eyeliner, is well-acquainted with having their work painted over, stating — “I’m sad that my Dolly tribute has been covered, but I never expected her to last forever. Street art isn’t meant to be permanent.”
In addition to the many impromptu installations around town, some of New York’s street art is commissioned — the Department Of Transportation Art Program (DOTAP) frequently helps install exhibits in the area, including Serge Maheu’s light tunnel PASSAGE which opened on Broadway this week in partnership with The Garment District. Back in 2014, DOTAP partnered to create Asae Soya’s Ringing Waves mural on W45th Street between 10th and 11th Ave. Ringing Waves also fell victim to unauthorized removal, now appearing completely painted over with tags.
Over on the corner of 10th Avenue and W50th Street, Armament — installed by artist w3rc in 2016 — was tagged over in February of 2020.
The New York Police Department has collaborated with community members to remove graffiti in the area. In April 2021, they joined in cleaning the ex-Starbucks site and other closed businesses in Hell’s Kitchen (including Pam’s Real Thai).
Some of the neighborhood’s art has remained untouched, including Dolly’s recent neighbor— a piece by artist Stephen Bliss painted on the side of the Hell’s Kitchen Kiehl’s, as well as a commission by artist fnnch at the Back Pocket Bar. Over by the West Side Highway, Space Ibiza’s well-loved mural by Spanish outdoor artist Belin was not tagged over, but did experience a recent de-branding as Club Musica moved in.
Further down in Hudson Yards, one still-standing piece has inspired a larger mystery. In October, a floral mural on W37th Street was adorned with a small, shadowy figure, with the inscription, “Money looks better in my possession!”
While many were quick to identify the work as that of Richard Hambleton, known as the godfather of street art and the arbiter of “Shadowman”, there was only one problem — Hambleton died in 2017. The New York Times was quick to investigate, finding that stealth artist Nullbureau was behind the re-creations.
Nullbureau’s insistence that Hambleton’s artistic property was meant to be reworked sparked vigorous debate on the integrity of such “tributes”. Painter and former graffiti artist Eric Haze told the Times, “The fact that one human hand seeks to recreate or capture the exact hand of another is both mathematically impossible and conceptually corrupt [….] It’s important and powerful to name and honor one’s sources and heroes, but there can be a fine line between owning the intent versus simply trading or profiting off someone else’s core value.”
But whether it’s an original or re-creation, the Hell’s Kitchen community is united in the hope that its beloved street art will survive and continue to enrich the neighborhood. Reflecting on Dolly’s life on 47th, Captain Eyeliner told us: “I am surprised that Dolly was up for so long and humbled that the Hell’s Kitchen community not only welcomed my wheatpaste, but they took care of it when it had been damaged or marked up.” Here’s hoping the next Dolly lives an equally long life in HK!