A Storm in Staten Island’s Artist Alley: Climate Change Ain’t Nothin’ to Mess With

This article was sponsored by SAGA Street Art. SAGA is an art platform that offers management, curation, promotion, creative direction, and more.

“A New York based agency with a focus on all things street art. Our mission is to provide a reliable infrastructure to the global street art world. Working with artists and established brands, we help develop partnerships,facilitate new projects and promote visibility for artists.”

Learn more at their website: sagastreetart.com 

‘Climate Change Ain’t Nothin’ to Mess With’

Staten is an island, both literally and figuratively. It’s geographic isolation from the rest of the city has rendered Staten the forgotten borough of New York. The island’s most famous culture export is the Wu-Tang Clan. But Wu-Tang isn’t the only thing Staten Island has to offer.

Headquartered at 827 Castleton Avenue, the Richmond Hood Company (RHC) is a streetwear store that serves as the gathering place for local creatives. In ‘Artist Alley,’ a neighboring lot, RHC curates street art.

One mural in particular has taken the world by storm. ‘Climate Change Ain’t Nothin’ to Mess With’ went viral across the internet for its image of a weather advisory, warning of impending hurricane Wu. Designed by Staten artist Cody Prez and curated by Tariq Zaid of RHC, the mural is part of a community initiative to raise awareness around social issues and Staten’s art scene.

On a hot and sunny Saturday, I sailed down to Staten for the grand unveiling of the mural and to learn more about the project.

The Statue of Liberty as seen from the Staten Island Ferry

Staten Pride – Richmond Hood Company

“Part of what we’re here to do is give you fresh footwear and apparel, but we’re also here to serve as a platform for the creative community.” Zaid explained.

Tariq Zaid is the co-owner and operator of the Richmond Hood company. Recently, the RHC celebrated their ten-year anniversary, a staple of the neighborhood for over a decade.

“That’s a milestone, but I feel like we’re just getting started.”

Summer 2018 Wall in Artist Alley

When I told Zaid it was my first time on the island, he was very inviting; “Welcome, welcome, welcome to the borough!”

Born in Brooklyn, where he spent his adolescence, Zaid has lived in Staten Island for over twenty years, and takes a great deal of pride in his adopted borough. ‘Staten Pride’ is major part of the RHC brand. 

“To me, New York is the greatest city on the planet! Staten Islanders should own that and be proud of it.”

Back in the day, he cut hair for a living. In 1992, while working at a barber shop, Zaid first met Reggie ‘Redman’ Noble. Since then, they’ve maintained a “homie-homie relationship.” In 2008, Zaid, Redman, and another partner Mike Alvarez, opened the Richmond Hood Company.

Hospitable, generous, and polite, Zaid has worked hard to build his reputation with his fellow tenants. About 6 years ago, Zaid asked his landlord if he could paint the alley. He got shot down. 

“They looked at me, and told me to beat it.” Zaid joked.

But he was understanding. “First I had to show them that I was a good community partner and a good tenant.”

Zaid made it a point to take care of his community, such as sweeping the stoops of other stores and keeping the area clean.

“We’re neighborly over here… so I was like c’mon bro let me get those walls!”

Mural from Summer 2018 – Artist Alley

Zaid got a casual okay and ran with it. As someone who is socially conscious, Tariq likes to incorporate messages of social justice. The first wall they painted was a message about prescription pill abuse.

It was a beautiful mural, and Zaid noticed that people kept coming to the alley to take pictures with it. Since then, Zaid and RHC have made an annual event of painting murals in what is now known as Artist Alley. With each year, the project grew as more artists and walls were involved. Now property owners reach out to Zaid to curate their walls.

This year’s mural, ‘Climate Change Ain’t Nothin’ to Mess With’ cameabout in an unusual way. Originally the piece was a canvas by Cody Prez, that popped up on Zaid’s insta-feed the weekend of Hurricane Maria. Zaid felt weird about it. On one hand, he liked the art, but was uncomfortable about the context.

The Original Canvas in a glass display in the RHC

“I thought my friend was being insensitive… but I put that offended feeling aside. Because that’s what art is supposed to do… it’s gotta punch you in the gut and make you feel. That’s what his piece did to me.”

As someone who cares about the environment, Tariq makes a point of practicing good habits. He is a stickler for recycling and shutting the water off while you brush your teeth.

“Little things make a big difference in the long term.”

With this in mind, Zaid proposed the idea to Cody of painting the mural as a public art piece to raise awareness around climate change. As they got rolling, they got in touch with the Staten Arts Council to help secure funding. Zaid also got Redman to bring Wu-Tang support on board.

Zaid explained the situation to Redman and educated him on the dangers of global warming. Zaid laughed talking about the first time he discussed climate change with the rapper. Redman was alarmed; ‘this is some serious shit!’

Zaid and Redman, who is a parent, believes in speaking to the younger generation about the issues affecting their future. With him on board, Zaid also connected with William A. Morris Middle School (IS61), an Arts & Letters magnet school to assist in painting the mural. Wu-Tang is after all, for the children.

As the project took off, it grew and gathered more and more support. Photos of the mural went viral, trending on Google and even gaining a national feature on The Weather Channel.

“It’s humbling and to see the interest being taken in it… both from the hip hop community and the science community.” Zaid said.

As we were finishing up our interview, Zaid shared with me his favorite scientific tidbit on why the island is the best borough.

“Staten is cooler than Brooklyn…” He grinned. “…By 5 degrees!”

He explained, as the city’s most southern point, the weather systems on Staten Island tend toward lower average temperatures than BK… by roughly five degrees.

Castleton Corridor Mural by Reme_821

Castleton Corridor

For the event, the team brought in Color Brigade Media, an art P.R. firm to help promote the opening. The organizers had put out coffee and donuts for the press. While sipping on a cup of joe, I talked with Ann Marie Selzer, a project manager for the Staten Island Arts Council.

Each of the boroughs has its own arts council, which are funded through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA). The purpose of each is to help fund arts and cultural projects within their respective boroughs. Selzer had worked with Zaid and Prez to assist in applying for a Premier Grant, worth up to $3000. It was granted.

Given the success of the project, Selzer was now planning to work with the team to apply for another grant, this time from the Small Business Services (SBS) association. Another of the myriad of New York institutions designed to promote economic growth in the city, SBS offers loans and grants to assist local commerce. 

Backyard Mural in Staten – Artist Unknown

Small businesses throughout the country are imperiled by online giants like Amazon, as it is difficult for them to compete with the convenience of online shopping. However, the advantage local stores have is physical space for shoppers to experience. As such, local businesses often rely on foot-traffic for patrons.

Unlike the other boroughs, Staten is largely suburban and has no subway lines. As such, most travel the island via car. The hope is that by creating art spaces, it will encourage people to explore around Staten rather than just drive by.

“It’s hard because [Staten] is suburban… we want to get people out and walking around and touring the borough.” Selzer explained.

Castleton Corridor (so named for the avenue it’s on) is a strip of bars, barbershops, and boutique stores that form a local community. After speaking Selzer, I got an informal tour of the neighborhood by none-other-than Staten’s own Kwue Molly.

Mural by Kwue Molly

As we walked around I noted that several on the street had art painted on their patios and gates. Tattoo parlors, bars, beer gardens, and restaurants. Kwue took me to the back of Anthony’s, an old-fashioned barbershop. Behind the building were murals and the backroom had a lounge full of canvases.

Walking around, I was struck by how neighborly the people were. I met Jodi Dareal and Shawn McArthur, two other artists who had painted a map of Staten Island in the style of Super Mario World. Everywhere I looked, there was a strong sense of community.

Super Mario Map of Staten

The Provocateur 

“I like free thought. Being grounded. Being myself. … I like to be provocative.” Cody Prez said, explaining his philosophies and what inspired the climate change painting.

Prez was thinking about new project ideas and watching the news when Hurricane Maria hit. It inspired him to paint.

Prez isn’t afraid to shock people into awareness. 

“As an artist I always try to install a hidden message or conversation piece, whether people like it or not. Dark or happy.”

Local FDNY admiring the mural

Prez been painting for over 25 years, exploring different styles. A graffiti artist as well as a traditional painter, his three favorite mediums are graffiti, air brushing, and a paint-brush.

“[Painting] to me, is like being a drug addict who needs their fix.”Prez uses art as an escape for life’s troubles. “When I’m under pressure, or I’m stressed, I tend to produce 10x more art-work.”

While he is happy to use art as a medium of awareness, not all of his oeuvre focuses on social justice. Much of his art is born from a need for self-expression.

“It’s a story of who I am.”

Born and raised on Staten Island, Prez has a lot of feelings about his home borough. While proud of the island, “we’ve had a lot of talent come out of Staten besides the Clan…” he also has a critical eye. “Staten has a separation, almost like a high school lunchroom. Very clique-y…” 

Staten has the largest Republican population of the city, and was the only borough where a majority of voters chose Trump.

Prez explained, “It tends to be because they’re looking to come out of the concrete jungle… People with money looking to live that suburban life.”

The major cultural divide on the island is between the north and south shores. Prez grew up in “Park Hill, Concord area” on the north shore, a predominantly black neighborhood, although Prez is white. This “outsider” experience shaped his outlook on the world.

“I learned to be empathetic to things other people don’t even wanna acknowledge exist, such as racial profiling or the class structure that privileges one community over another… the world isn’t as peachy as people wanna think it is.” 

Prez shrugged. “I never wanna knock my fellow Staten Islanders, I love them all, but the one thing I find concerning about Staten is that people don’t always have an open mind.”

It’s this close mindedness that Prez takes greatest issue with. A voracious reader, Prez seeks out multiple perspectives and comes up with his own conclusions. He makes it a point to do his research and invest time in developing his own opinions.

“People are too afraid to acknowledge they’re wrong… But we never stop learning as people.”

On climate change, Prez had fiery words.

Message on Climate Change

“Whether you wanna argue its man-made or naturally occurring, it’s happening. It’s gonna be 107 degrees tomorrow. Every summer is getting hotter and hotter. That’s climate change. That’s facts. It doesn’t matter what you want to argue. It exists.”

Prez shook his head.

“The consumption, the wastefulness, the arrogance… I feel bad for the children of this generation. What’s gonna be there for them?”

Despite his outspoken views, it’s the little things in life that keep Prez going.

“Enjoying the blue sky, the beauty of the green trees, the birds chirping… it’s the simple things that are exciting to me, that most people take for granted. We all need clean air to breathe.”

Way back when, almost 12 years ago, Prez met Zaid through mutual friends, when Zaid was his barber. Since then, the two have often worked together on different projects. Prez has a great deal of respect for his friend. “He’s doing great things for the community.”

Often, people don’t neglect each other on purpose, rather it’s that they have a hundred things on their plate, worrying about bills and their family, to pay attention to one another. It’s these small gestures, saying hi to your neighbor, talking to one another, and getting past the digital disconnect that mean the most. 

“As simple as it sounds, that’s what a community is — a common-unity.”

An unrepentant provocateur, Prez is unafraid to be himself. Whether that’s painting a mural about climate change or debating with others about current events. 

Prez grinned. “I’m a loud mouth, I’m a voice. I speak my mind. And no one can ever take that from me.”

Artist Alley

A ceremonial ribbon had been set up and a crowd gathered around Artist Alley. Families, local firefighters, artists, the press, and other members of the community watched.

Zaid cutting the ribbon

Zaid gave a speech, thanking everyone and warning about the dangers of climate change. As if to evidence the point, the heat was scorching as the sun beamed down upon us. Still, Zaid gave an optimistic vision of a world where people respect the environment. The audience applauded as the ribbon was cut.

The DJ began playing Wu-Tang and the mood was fun despite the heat.People handed out free ice cream from inside the Richmond Hood Company and the crowd checked out the colorful array of murals. The alley featured local Statenites, but also other New Yorkers, and out-of-towners. The pieces shimmered in the sun.

Staten is an island, both literally and figuratively, which is best known for the Wu-Tang Clan. In spite of this, those that visit will find more than that. Around Artist Alley, they will find streetwear boutiques, classic barbershops, hip tattoo parlors, beautiful art, a message on climate change,and soon, a new mural is slotted to be painted. But most of all, you will find a community.

View of the Statue Liberty on the return ferry ride

Story Written by T.K. Mills  / Photos by T.K. Mills

For more by the author, check out tkmills.com

To learn more about our sponsor SAGA Street Art, visit their website.

For footwear, apparel, and other streetwear, visit the Richmond Hood Company’s store.

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