The Daily Heller: The True Confessions of a Street Art Vandal

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Let’s go back to 2018 for a moment. What do you do when you learn that Aretha Franklin has died at 76 and you are a grieving, huge fan, and you also happen to be a street artist known for interventions with urban signs? Give up?

If you are Adrian Wilson (ironically known as @plannedalism), you plan a clandestine outing to the Franklin Street subway stop in New York City. You walk down the stairs and survey the surroundings for interruptions.

You notice the stairs are free of unnecessarily clever urban advertising—you wouldn’t want to deface anything, would you?

Then you notice the beautiful, doubtless recently renovated Franklin St. mosaic tile sign. A light goes off in your resourceful mind and you rush back to your studio …

… Where you find sticky-backed sheets of yellow vinyl, some adhesive gothic letters, a ruler, X-Acto and Sharpie. You begin to put the pieces of your plan together …

… Return to the staging area, and surreptitiously, yet with care, position your first sign of admiration for the departed diva. Then wait …

Restless, you find another venue for another expression of remorseful gratitude, and affix further offerings of R-E-S-P-E-C-T …

Then you are done for the night. Right? Maybe!

The other day I asked Wilson whether it was as easy as that. His response: “As you can see, if it is complex, like the Aretha Franklin piece, where I had to measure all the tiles and stair riser heights, I have to go to the station first and measure things up; plus check on security cameras.” He uses paper currency for determining spacial relationships. “Dollar bills make good standard measure tapes.”

Wilson offered to work with the MTA to produce “fun tributes” in different stations but they passed—even though they made the “RESPECT” tribute permanent. “I also offered to do a line of merchandise for free that they could sell to raise much-needed funds, but they passed on that too, as it is hard for them to condone what technically is vandalism.”

Wilson insists that doing this @plannedalism work ain’t easy (as if we couldn’t have guessed). “The first subway piece I did was Prince Street,” he confides, “which was done as a photo print, and I messed up the sign; however, nobody complained, and the fact it was the wrong size made it stand out more. Things shouldn’t look exact, but I didn’t want them too different, and my skills and experience have improved a lot. A fan even sent me the MTA Graphic Standards Manual as a gift!”

To celebrate the election of President Biden (46) over No. 45, Wilson sent me the above: “Thought you might like to see how much effort goes into the big mosaic pieces,” he wrote in an email. All are hand-done—the ’46th Joe’ took me about three hours, and at the end I shoot the artwork and mock it up to see if it will fit. They are made so the mosaic bleeds larger, and then I cut it down exactly once I am at the station. I made the ‘Joe’ [sentence case] instead of capitalized on purpose because it seemed more friendly after four years of Trump’s tweets!”

“The sign stayed up maybe an hour because it went viral,” he notes, “until a couple of cops went down and removed it.” Wilson was happy, though, to do a tribute to a living person, “rather than it always being a tribute to someone who passed.

“The best thing about this is that it has inspired others to do their own tributes. Someone sent me an ‘Aretha FranklinStrasse’ sign from Germany and another artist did a ‘Kobe Bryant Park’ white marker tribute when he sadly died.”

Wilson is not just a denizen of the underground. He works overground every chance he finds, often at night for obvious reasons.

And speaking of timely tributes, on the dark day of David Bowie’s passing, Wilson took a dangerous leap in order to create the “David Bowery” sign in the middle of Houston and Bowery streets during the height of a raging snowstorm. Chilling!

He also often works in the broad daylight for reasons I still cannot fathom.

All of this will lead you, dear reader, to wonder: What is the life expectancy of such signs? “Lots of factors affect it,” Wilson enumerates. “If it is a busy station, if they are easily reached, who they are related to, how subtle it is, how quickly it takes off online and if it is seen as bothering passengers. … I did a Bowie makeover to the entrance of Broadway Lafayette and someone tipped off the @mta on Twitter and they replied, “It is a great tribute and we know nothing about,” and allowed it to stay there a week. The Thompson Street sign alteration [as seen a few images above] is still running after 10 days.” Still, even if it lasts two minutes, it doesn’t matter, but ideally, “you want the public to see and post their own photos so it is obvious it isn’t fake, though people don’t really care if it is real or not if it is a good idea. I have done so many, people assume they are real anyway, plus I tell people that Woody from Toy Story is just a digital file and nobody complains about that. It is fun art, not fake news trickery.”

Recently, Wilson adhered the above subway door sign, which, he assumes, will probably remain in place for quite a while because it is a very subtle change.

Nonetheless, when asked the perfunctory “what is next?”: “I considered doing, like, 10 station changes this April Fool’s Day, but I am pushing my luck already,” he answers with a sly grin.

Predictably, Wilson can’t help himself. This new piece arrived just after this DH post was published. He just couldn’t resist the perfect visual/textural pun . . .