Photo of Clayton Patterson and two artists by the author.
For this week's Mahal, I headed to the Lower East Side to check out Clayton Patterson's newly painted front door. After decades of taking portraits outside the door and decorating it with graffiti, Clayton has let two artists, Nicolina and Perola, transform it into a portal. To find out what that means, I chatted with Clayton and the two artists.
What is the story behind your front door?
Clayton Patterson: My front door, at 161 Essex Street, is one of the main places where I took photos of the people in the community. After I developed the photographs, I would mount the photos in a frame which held 32 photographs. Soon, if a person had any desire to have some fame or street cred in the hood, it became a thing to have your picture taken in front of the door and your picture in the window. The front door took on a life of its own and became known as the Wall of Fame, and the photos in the window became known as the Hall of Fame. Taking the front door photos is one of my major blessings of being on the LES. I did a book called the Front Door Book, which includes a cross section of door photos.
What were you able to learn about people of the Lower East Side through your front door?
Over the years, starting around 1985, I began taking thousands of such photos. In America, I probably have one of the largest collections of inner city people who dominate the streets. The people include: individuals, families, posses, crews, drug dealers, gangsters, graffiti writers, rock ’n’ rollers, punks, skinheads, mailmen, good guys, bad guys, in-between guys, and yes even a few cops. The LES.
Are you happy with the transformation of your front door?
To have these two young woman artists, one from Mexico and another from Rio, come to me to do the door was a first. A first, because I had always let the community graffiti people do throw-ups on the door. The streets of the LES used to be the domain of drug dealers. It was not like today where you have writers from all over the world come and do tags or bomb the hood. The streets were runs by dealers. Who needs some art type looking for fame attracting attention on the block? Each territory was run by its own crew, except for my door. I had tags from all over the hood.
However, now an outsider wanted to do the door. Okay, gentrification had changed everything. I had seen their work in the community, and I knew they were on it—good artists with good intentions. I said fine, and it turned out to be much better than fine. The door looks great, fabulous, wonderful—a real work of art. The door is still being photographed, but not only by me. So many stop to marvel at the work and take a photo before they move on. These two woman artists, Nicolina and Perola, are now a part of the legend of the 161 front door.
Photo by Clayton Patterson.
How did you end up at Clayton's front door?
Perola: One of the objectives of our portals is to bring the community together and to exhibit experimental art throughout the neighborhood as it has been formerly done with great appreciation. Clayton Patterson is one of the characters that has helped to build the cultural history of the East Village and the Lower East Side. So we ended up finding his contact through a mutual friend.
Nicolina: We called him up and soon found ourselves in the dim light of his lair surrounded by incredible artwork and photographs from many brilliant artists, including Clayton. He offered us his door. I remember wondering why we didn't think of that before. So it became our exception, the only portal below Houston street.
What exactly is the Portals Project?
Nicolina: The 13 portals are an interactive street art experience that combines ancient history, modern technology, and urban exploration. It is a combination of our passion for painting and our love for community. With the portals we've found a way to connect directly to the public through our art. The QR code acts as the virtual portal connecting the participant with the oracle. The oracle guides them on their journey and gives them clues which can help them obtain one of the 64 coveted keys that unlock the secrets to portal 13.
Perola: The concept of play is very important for this project as well as in contemporary philosophy and art. You can see this discussed in the work of Giorgio Agamben, among other modern philosophers. While playing with meanings, objects, and history, the participant can experiment with new concepts and create his or her own reality within the project. This is the real freedom. In its deepest truths, the portals leads to freedom.
What do portals mean to you?
Nicolina: Portals are gateways to other realms, to the mystery beyond the veil of this material reality.
Perola: But in order to pass through one of them, you have to achieve a new perspective, attitude, or awareness. Facing a portal is the equivalent of questioning or experimenting in life. Nicolina and I have both witnessed portals in our lives. When I was seven, I had my first mystical experience on a secluded beach in Rio. I saw a glowing portal that appeared as a spiraling mandala. At the time, I didn't know what it was or what it meant. I still don't know.
Nicolina: I saw a portal once in the Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico. I stayed the night there by myself a couple of years ago, and I witnessed the entire staircase of the Temple of the Sun vibrate and shift in a strange, mystifying way that I cannot explain. I had never seen anything like that before or since.
What other portals have you created?
Nicolina: We spent the winter in Brazil painting portals and had a stockpile of seven of them before we launched the project on July 13th. Since then we have continued to paint them as we go. Out of the portals we have finished, number three is my favorite. We were channeling oriental dragons, and the piece took on a life of its own. This was the first portal to be stolen. Then someone stole number five less than 12 hours after we unveiled it. But as Perola says, “It's part of the game.” Once the art is put up, it's not ours anymore—it belongs to the whole of the community.
Has anyone ended up traveling through one of your portals yet?
Nicolina: Yes. Someone came out of a portal once. We couldn't get permission for the location of portal two, because the owner was traveling abroad and impossible to reach, but we decided to take the risk because the spot was so perfect and had also been riddled with graffiti for years, making it clear to us that they didn't care too much about the appearance of the space. We went to install the portal very early the morning before the unveiling, 5 AM or so. We were painting over the graffiti and pulling out some nails, and all of the sudden it opened, and a man walked out and scared me half to death. He turned around to see what we were doing, and as our hearts were in our throats, he gave us a thumbs up, smiled, said it was beautiful, and went back in to go to sleep.
Perola: The ultimate portal to pass through is 13. But only the 64 key holders will make this unique journey. We have something special for them there… on the other side.