Michael Alan is New York’s Past, Present and Future

Michael Alan In conversation with Markella K

(The American Legend, Image courtesy of Michael Alan)

It’s time to question the nature of a city when everything you loved or heard about it has changed so much. NYC now has changed into a huge playground with high end food prices, fancy cell phones and luxury condos. I came here full of dreams just like everyone else, hoping to fit in and to see what Warhol left behind.

I came here for the stories I read in art history, the pictures and the sensations of a New York that just is not the New York of now. In time I was lucky enough to meet Michael Alan and see his Living Installation, bizarre punk art projects and paintings. Michael speaks like a New York comic book character and he looks like an old New York, Irish, cane walking, cobblestone street punk. His jam packed studio is a wild scene from an old art movie, everything is paint splattered, including himself. His lovely partner, the quiet, beautiful and strong feminist master mind Jadda Cat is the modern day Marilyn Monroe (without the drugs), some kind of kindred spirit of Ewoks and Frida.

I needed to interview Michael Alan, to get the real experience, to find out what it was like to be born here and grow up into a native, New York fine artist, and how these experiences have affected his work. I was looking at and talking to an authentic survivor of the New York Art art scene, who has morphed into a variety of different states of careers and periods of work.

I just wanted to know what New York really was like from a painter who lived a rough life and came out on the other side. How and why did this place change so much?

(Michael Alan drawing on the subway. Image courtesy of Michael Alan)

MK: Hi Michael Alan

MA: Whoop!

MK: Tell me about the tastes, smells and sounds of New York when you were a kid?

MA: I had an odd childhood with strange experiences and vivid memories. For me, my first memories are drawing and being born during the blackout. I didn’t have any friends as a young kid, I had bad health issues when I was born and my parents were constantly moving all over New York. My eyes were wide open, I was a very curious kid and I would ask my parents,” Why this? What This?” We were always traveling around New York and I was drawing everyone and on everything. New York, from whatever area you are from, was an intimidating place filled with grey skies, insane energy, stimulus, and endless possibilities. People were always into something, there was never a dull second. You name it, it was all happening at once. For better or worse the city struggled with crime on every corner, mixed with flashes of amazing graffiti art by pioneers, it was filled to the brim with so much, that you either loved it or hated it. I loved it, it was great for a kid who drew, it was my inspiration.

It also smelled like piss, nothing was clean, and everyone was robbing everyone with the next scam. You would go to buy a TV and go home with a brick in a box. The city was so vivid, so loud, but the art was not mainstream, graffiti was graffiti. I know many people came here to make it big. I came from nothing, so being a kid with nothing, in a hard city with no connections I would basically equal out with not much. NYC also had a strange magic of people inviting you into their worlds, with great generosity and talk, but it was extremely hard to be a part of the high art societies, I just wasn’t. The sounds were raging punk, hip-hop at its prime, and wild techno. Music was beyond good, the art was the top, the sights, sounds and the magic were more real and raw, and you had to learn defense or you would just get vamped.

(Michael and his mother at Washington Square Park in the late 70s, Image courtesy of Michael Alan)

MK: How early did you get started? Who inspired you?

MA: No one started me, it just was what I did as a kid, I didn’t even know it was art, I was just the strange kid drawing, I couldn’t do and didn’t do anything else. At that time not many kids I met drew, so it was off and out. My parents inspired me as my mom was a writer, and my dad was into me drawing, he collected some Dali’s, and knew him. My outlook was one of “this is what I do”. I didn’t play sports, or have kid buddies. My family passed away quickly in BK and Queens. We drifted to the side of the highway by Wutang, in front of the Verrazano Bridge, and by chance people started to pay attention to me, and they asked me to draw them things, and do their names, and even started buying my art. I call that chance, the art of drawing 16 hours a day, seven days a week. This was around the same time I worked in the club scene, at age 16.

MK:16? Club scene? How did that work and what was that like?

MA: I started to gain popularity from drawing, and I got offered to promote some small clubs in exchange for 5 bucks a person, so I brought in about 500 people. Before you know it I owned my own place, Michael Alan’s Playhouse, then started working for The Palladium and Club Expo, doing the door, hosting or running random art shows. I was just so young, I was just kinda bored at the parties and drawing all the time so everyone would say “Why are you even a club kid? What are you doing? Why make music? Go and be an artist,” and I just did. I met so many people from that work, people already wanted to show my work, plus I was showing work at major clubs with celebrities, rappers, punk bands, writers. It was never planned and I didn’t even know this was an option as a fine artist, working, but I was glad to retire from the nightclub scene and work full time as a painter.

(Blue Skull Mind Chatter / Based on the Cellphone, Image courtesy of Michael Alan)
(Coney Island Carnival Ride, Image courtesy of Michael Alan)

MK: So did this inspire you?

MA: Everything did. I’m a visual person. I take things in and I let them out, I don’t care if people like it or hate it, I just am inspired. I’m not a salesman or business man, I just wanna create, create, create and bring that energy hard, the rest isn’t that important. It’s what you do with the time given to you.

MK: S Speeding ahead, what are you doing now?

I’m a painter. I represent the human condition. I represent change and making spinning, living, images. I want the world to be more open. I want strong energy in NYC art. I’d like to see more work about the human condition, more from the soul and less from an assistant. I’m a full time, working fine artist showing and working in New York. I’m making a series of flower paintings, and a series of surreal, hybrid, pop image paintings, large mixed media paintings/drawings, line drawings, painting on my clothing, The Living Installations, and an ongoing series of energy portraits. My most recent energy portrait was of my friend Norman Reedus, which you can see on his page. He is a great artist.

Ride, Image courtesy of Michael Alan

MK: There has been a lot of talk lately about people being pushed out of New York due to gentrification and raised prices. From your perspective, how has this affected the NYC art scene?

MA: This could be a whole book, with many subtopics. To simplify it a lot of great artists and great people just lost their spaces, had to move, or passed on due to the wear and tear of the city. It’s not easy to continually adapt to changing situations, but one must, in order to survive in general. That’s life. NYC is a completely different place now. You had a way smaller downtown art scene where people could survive with not much money, and make their dreams happen with less promo intent. Some of that still exists and that will always be NYC. It’s a very raw and authentic place.

We’ve been through the A.I.D.S epidemic, the crack epidemic, the Giuliani epidemic. Our historic cultural melting pots, outside of institutions are gone, (Club 57, C.B.G.B.’s, Limelight, The Palladium, The Factory, major hip hop clubs, Liquid Sky, and the list is epic). Graffiti has changed, trains filled with murals and active raw street art have changed. The laws became so strict with a camera on every corner. For a great graffiti
writer such as Jest, Ket, Cost, Crash One, or Ghost the penalty wasn’t so high, but now it’s a felony.

The fact is every time artists move to an area and make it happen, very soon after the rent goes up, and new buildings are put up and artists are then pushed out. On top of that a lot of people who were born here get to a certain age, and it becomes too expensive to raise a family, so they move out, or just need a break. I admire them. An apartment in Bushwick in 1977 was $100, now it’s $3,000. I’m just happy to still be alive and painting and I love my city for the ups and downs. In the end, the city is wild no matter what year, and that’s just not for everyone.

(Faded City, Image courtesy of Michael Alan)

Are you doing any art about New York?

Yes, I draw a lot of historic parts of the city, I draw Urban Decay, I sit daily on the street or on the train and draw the people, and most of all I run The Living Installation , an Old New York performance art project with Jadda Cat.

Will you always be a New York artist?

Yes! Of course, I consider that an honor and I’m here to spread that magic. Most of all I’m an artist, not just NYC, my work continues to travel world wide, this is my base.

(Endless, Image courtesy of Michael Alan)

Markella K is a freelance writer, artist, and art collector living in East New York. Vegan, dog lover, English major, and worked in graphic design before taking an interest in journalism. markellak78@gmail.com