BLOG*October 20, 2010

Photos by Spalenka

Street Artists make a living selling directly to the public.

When I was in New York last week for my lecture at the Society of Illustrators Educators Symposium I had an opportunity to walk around SoHo. When I lived in Manhattan during the 80’s the blue chip art world of Leo Castelli, and Mary Boone ruled this corner of the Big Apple. Since then the art arena has moved around to different parts of the city, yet some galleries still remain on the streets of SoHo, literally. Walk along Prince st. and vendors line the sidewalks selling clothing, jewelry, incense, nick nacks, and art.

Generally I walk briskly past most of these fold out tables piled high with stuff, but this time I came to a realization that stopped me in my tracks! What I was seeing here specifically with the artists were mini art empires in the rough! I decided right then and there to interview a handful of these budding entrepreneurs and find out more about their story and methods. The following sheds some light on the businesses of eight artisans who make their living selling art on the streets of Manhattan.

When it comes to real estate we know the importance of Location, Location, Location!

It is no different in the world of street art. Mathew Courtney’s “Steps To Nowhere” Gallery was organized neatly on historical cast iron stairs near J.Crew. How do the shops feel about artists selling their wares next to their location? Mathew smiled, “We get along.”

Mathew utilizes markers, colored pencils and watercolors to create art over newspapers, cardboard, and other found objects. He laughed, “I make art on just about anything!”

A daughter of one of his patrons came by to see what new works he was showcasing! I mentioned to him that I have found fans to be very loyal and he replied, “Yes, some people return many times to see what new art I have created.”

Kurt McRobert

Some of the artists I spoke with were veterans of seven years or longer, others like SVA graduate Kurt McRobert were out for the first time. “I got tired of waiting around for illustration jobs and decided to set up shop and see what happened.” He threw up some fold out trays and rigged up a table of super heroes and girlie pics.

Did they need special clearance from the city to sell art on the sidewalks? “You just need a sellers ID number,” he said. That’s it!? “That’s it.” I was surprised that you could set up shop so easily on the streets of NYC.

Comic book characters appeared to be big sellers in this market. This was the weekend the New York Comic Convention was happening and I attempted to inspire some of these artists to go to it. “You can make some great connections and open a new market for your art,” I suggested. A few of them said they were too busy holding down the shop, and besides the “weekends are the best selling days, can’t afford to miss that opportunity,” was the response. They had found their niche!

Most of these artists were focused on selling and had not thought much about social media promotion, or even simple business tools such as business cards. When I asked Pedro (?) if I could see him online or if he had a business card, he patted the pockets of his paint spattered pants and said, “I got to make up some cards. Don’t have much online yet, checking out Flikr, but haven’t put up a website, blog, whatever.”

“Not much time for advertising. Don’t really want to. I’m too busy painting.” Most of his acrylic pieces were created on stretched canvases. Finished paintings (no frames) were stacked in front of each other, lined up on the ledge of a building.  He stopped working for a moment on a Batman painting which was securely fastened to a fold out easel and took a drag on his cigarette. “Don’t have much time for anything else.”


Others like the graffiti artist Optimo painted on just about everything, with everything. People would bring him license plates, signs (city, private, etc), pieces of wood to make art on. Of course walls of all sort were game too, but he could not bring those to his street shop. If it can be painted on, it can become art. “Graffiti is beautiful, because art is beautiful. Just because other people can’t see the fuckin beauty, doesn’t make it so,” he said passionately.

Optimo was setting up shop with a table on the street side of the sidewalk and art propped up next to the building across from him. “Sometimes the cops ask me where I got the signs (city owned) to paint on and say that what I am doing is not art. It’s art, I tell them. Generally they don’t bother me but I have to watch out for them.”

When I took his picture he did not want his face shown much, so he covered it with his hand. A picture is not going to hide an artist with this much passion, especially when its crowned with a top hat! But I felt his sincerity when he said, “I love making art. It’s what I do.”

When I asked most of these artists if they actually made a living selling art this way, the consensus was they did pretty good. “Recently sales have been slow because of the economy, but people still buy,” Pedro confided.  Optimo added, “It’s always up and down, but I have a little girl to take care of so I must be out here.”

How much do these guys make in cash amounts on a day to day, week to week basis? You will be surprised at the answers which will be revealed in the second part of this post next week. I can give you a hint… it’s as much and more that most animators and concept designers in the film industry make!

Wrap your brain around that one.

To your creative empowerment,