What’s Up With the Writing on the Side of Pier 40?
Issue 6, Volume 110
By Hugo Smith
Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’ve probably noticed the massive red and white words “I WANT TO THANK YOU” that dominate the view north from Stuyvesant. They’re the work of New York City-based street artist Steve “Espo” Powers, who has been creating outdoor and often politically-loaded art since the 1990s. After being prosecuted for multiple counts of criminal mischief in 1999 in what many considered a politically-motivated arrest after Powers painted a mural attacking then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Powers stopped painting graffiti and found a career in studio art. A major figure in the graffiti scene, he was part of the transition of the style from mere illegal vandalism to works that are now part of the larger art scene. Known for his distinctly bold and colorful painted letters, Powers has painted many large murals across the world.
There’s something jarring in the simplicity of the mural. It lacks complicated stencil work or the wide range of colors that Powers is known to use. Instead, he has taken a constantly used phrase that has become hollow—thank you—and made it thought-provoking. It prompts the viewer to ask themselves: Who do they want to thank? The mural’s large size allows it to tie together hundreds of thousands of people in a way that few things can. Interacting with it is almost involuntary—by the time you’ve looked at it and subconsciously read the phrase, you begin to think about it, whether you intended to or not.
The thought-provoking nature of the art is the reason it was commissioned as part of a series of 25 works by AIDS nonprofit (RED) as part of their Paint (RED) Save Lives program. Intended to raise awareness about AIDS leading up to a fundraising conference in early October, the murals are spread across the globe, with locations ranging from Oslo to Dakar. Many other famous street artists have collaborated with (RED) as part of the project, most notably Shepard Fairey of OBEY fame.
The words on Pier 40 are the title of the Alicia Myers song “I Want to Thank You” (1981), which was popular in queer nightclubs across the city during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Powers said in an Instagram post that the mural was partially in tribute to the Paradise Garage, one such nightclub just 15 blocks north of Stuyvesant, where the song was especially popular and frequently played by the Garage’s DJ, Larry Levan. At a time when anti-LGBTQ+ stigma rose in parallel with the spread of AIDS through the city and misinformation spread, these communities provided refuge for members of the gay community.
There was a more personal aspect to Powers’ work as well. He painted the mural with the help of his friend and fellow artist Mike Levy. Powers said that while the two were painting the mural, on their mind was their friend, late artist, and AIDS activist David Wojnorawicz. Wojnorawicz’s art was often provocative, sometimes casting blame on the government for how they handled the epidemic, while focusing on the horrific aspects of the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s. Wojnorawicz was also known for his murals, including “Gagging Cow at Pier” (1983), which he painted on the nearby Pier 34.
Powers’ latest mural takes full advantage of the scale of his canvas, the pier, to make a piece of artwork legible from the highest floors of the World Trade Center. It manages to unite downtown Manhattan in curiosity and brings awareness to AIDS which has largely fallen out of the American purview despite the damage it continues to cause in Africa as well as the United States. Thirty years ago, Stuyvesant’s part of Manhattan would have been at the heart of a queer scene that has since become lost between the sterile glass towers that dominate the area, and the mural offers a portal into that grittier, mostly vanished, city.