Local artists explore a growing social problem, through tattoos, photographs and videos
They’re on our trains and our street corners, holding handwritten signs, asking for food, money, shelter, compassion. Sometimes we drop change into a paper cup. But most times, we walk by, unfazed, as though the homeless aren’t there.
But for some local artists, addressing homelessness is not only a social issue, but a creative endeavor.
Andres Serrano, a photographer and native New Yorker who first photographed homeless New Yorkers in 1990 for a series called “Nomads,” has witnessed homelessness in New York City his whole life, but noticed more people living on the streets this past year than ever before.
With the support of More Art, a nonprofit dedicated to socially conscious public art, Serrano photographed homeless New Yorkers on the streets during 2014’s brutal winter. Some held signs—‘Homeless But Hopeful. Broke Not Broken’—and many huddled in blankets and wore thick layers. A few had companions, but most of Serrano’s subjects were alone. The resulting portrait series, “Residents of New York,” was installed in the West 4th Street subway station and other public spaces in the city, where advertisements are usually plastered, and runs through June 15.
“In general, people aren’t looking at advertising most of the time,” Serrano said. “We’re all on autopilot, not only with ads but with the homeless themselves. We see them but we don’t really pay attention to them.”
For the city, homelessness is a perennial issue, and getting worse. More than 60,000 people are homeless in New York City, and the de Blasio administration seeks increased funding for rent subsidy plans and transition programs to help lower the record number of people who turn to local shelters.
But for Serrano and other artists, their tasks are simpler. Two years ago, Matt C. Ellis, a portraitist and tattoo artist, met a homeless man named Jeffrey in Herald Square.
“All these people were walking by him, and I wanted to just spend time with him,” said Ellis. “I wasn’t interested in asking him why he was homeless and what his views were, I was interested in him just solely as a person.”
He drew Jeffrey’s portrait, and tattooed it onto his friend’s bicep for free, which led to calls from clients who wanted similar tattoos; Ellis has since done four more tattoos of homeless portraits.
“People tattoo portraits of famous people and people they’ve never met on a daily basis,” said Ellis, who calls the homeless men and women he meets his friends. “It was a piece of artwork, and a piece of artwork that has a purpose, which is bringing more awareness and making people question identity and our social values.”
In 2012, advertising creative directors Nick Zafonte and Thompson Harrell founded the Starving Artists Project after noticing an abundance of witty, artistic signs drawn by the homeless in the East Village. They collected around 90 signs and exhibited them in a Brooklyn gallery, and brought the artists to the opening. They also tapped photographer Andrew Zuckerman, who’s known for his portraits of celebrities and public figures, including Clint Eastwood, Willie Nelson and Desmond Tutu, to photograph the artists.
“Imagine if you walked around saying something and were just ignored constantly,” Zafonte said. “Homeless people experience that every day. They’re standing there asking for something and people just walk right by.”
Serrano gave his models $50 and had them sign release forms. Zafonte provided cab and train fare to bring his artists to the gallery opening.
Ellis, whose “Homeless Project” is ongoing, often starts conversations by asking if he can take a photograph in exchange for a few dollars—but he always talks with the models before snapping their pictures. Sometimes he spends a whole day with them, other times only a few minutes. He remembers their names and calls them all his friends, even those he’s only met once.
“What I found intriguing about them was this rawness,” Ellis said. “It seemed like there was a lot that they had to offer that was face value. Whereas people you run into in every day life for the most part are either selling something to you or want something from you or put on some type of mask. And with these individuals that I met on the street, I connected with them in a different way.”
With an issue as significant and pervasive as homelessness, dropping a dime in an empty Starbucks cup can seem futile. Michelle Tolson, director of public relations for New York City Rescue Mission, said that even saying hello to a homeless individual has value, and that altering perception is important. Her organization recently worked with advertising agency Silver + Partners to produce “Make Them Visible,” a video in which everyday New Yorkers posed as homeless and became unrecognizable to their families. The video went viral, with more than 4.3 million views.
“It’s someone’s mother, someone’s brother, someone’s family member who’s out there,” she said. “We forget they’re human beings.”
Serrano doesn’t see himself as an advocate, but an artist paying homage to those who are struggling. He wants people to notice his work, he said, though he hopes that the portraits will awaken viewers to the number of homeless men, women and children they see on their commutes and during their lunch breaks.
“My criteria are not as a crusader, although this project has an aspect of public awareness,” said Serrano. “I’m an artist. This is what I choose to do. I choose to follow my muse and follow the subjects that I find interesting.”
One of his recent models was 28-year-old Ryan McMann, whose friends called him Red. When Serrano photographed him, he noticed the whites of his eyes had turned yellow, a side effect of a liver condition. He had gone to the hospital and gotten medication, he told Serrano as he sat for his portrait.
Two weeks later, another homeless man approached Serrano on the street and told him Red had died.
“It’s sad because some of these people will disappear, and we’ll never know what happens to them,” he said. “A lot of these people will disappear and we won’t know anything about them except for maybe some of the photographs I’ve taken.”
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