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Artists Are Turning New York City’s Ugly Metal Gates Into Stunning Street Art

Businesses in the Lower East Side want to create the world’s largest public outdoor gallery.

When the metal security gates roll down on storefronts in the Lower East Side, it’s not unusual for them to be plastered with spray paint. Now it’s actually sanctioned by the city: More than 70 gates in the neighborhood have been transformed into street art as part of the 100 Gates project.

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“We want to create the world’s largest public outdoor gallery,” says Natalie Raben, director of marketing for the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. The goal is to cover 100 storefronts in a little over a year.

Artist and skater Billy Rohan first launched the project, then approached Raben when she was working on another installation on the street. “He said, ‘We want to give people the biggest canvases for their artworks in the coolest neighborhood in Manhattan,” she says.

The organization applied for a city grant to help cover the cost of materials and pay artists, and then took over the project. It quickly grew, and started to help the neighborhood in various ways. Some artists who’ve participated, for example, have started to get more commissions and work elsewhere. More tourists are coming to the Lower East Side just to see the art.

And, of course, it’s transforming formerly ugly metal doors–or less attractive graffiti–into massive paintings. “When you see before and after picture, it’s obviously an improvement,” she says.

Using graffiti to prevent graffiti is not a new idea–it’s increasingly common for business owners to work with artists to make complicated murals that, they hope, won’t be covered in tags. In this case, it’s mostly worked. While a few of the doors have been tagged since they were painted, the artists have quickly gone back to fix the damage.

Now other neighborhoods are considering the same thing. “There’s a lot of different sets of eyes that are now looking at the project,” says Raben. “It’s seen as a great kind of tool that perhaps the city can use–the East Village, Chinatown, different pockets of the city, or even cities outside New York. We’ve kind of created a toolkit on how to implement this.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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