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Robert Janz: artist, poet, poster warrior
BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | The nature of New York street art is a constant battle for territory, and Robert Janz has been fighting for his space for years.
“Are you ready to see me liberate my artwork?” Janz asked before tearing a glossy ad off the blue, plywood wall fronting a construction site at Reade St. and West Broadway.
With a satisfied grin, the 82-year-old street artist crumpled up the slick image of a supermodel and admired his own work — a minotaur figure he painted directly onto the plywood — revealed behind it.
Originally from Belfast, the artist and poet moved to a Tribeca studio on Duane St. in 1979 — at a time when, as he recalls it, the neighborhood was a “wasteland and I was part of the waste.”
Now, as the swanky neighborhood booms with renovations and new construction, the plywood walls lining the sidewalks have turned the streets into a studio for Janz. He and other street artists who constantly grapple for space and prominence — against each other and the ads for bands and fashion labels that overtake their work every morning.
Janz fights to keep his work visible — though he admits that his art has always had a transient quality.
“I started on the beach,” said Janz. “I was doing drawings in the sand and the waves were erasing them.”
He has created art by drawing with chalk on sidewalks and streets, arranging chairs in patterns in a Parisian park, and even pouring water on rocks.
Janz traveled widely before returning to Tribeca for good, and despite setting down roots, he decided to keep his art ephemeral.
“When I finally decided I was living here, I started thinking of the street as transient also,” he said. “I do things in the street and they disappear.”
Janz refuses to take the subway, opting instead to walk around Tribeca and other parts of Lower Manhattan when he needs to get someplace. Strolling through his neighborhood with him is to see it in a whole new light — a battlefield where territory is usurped from artists by early morning bill posters and reconquered by them during the day.
Some of Janz’s day is devoted to “liberating” his work from behind the posters plastered over them in the wee hours on walls selling space for ads.
But even construction walls that explicitly forbid posters end up hosting Janz’s art.
“I started doing these alterations of the ‘post no bills’ too,” he says. “At first, just fooling around. I would see them and so would start changing a few — ‘post duck bills.’ ”
Janz continued to appropriate the stenciled admonitions, but it really took hold of his imagination after a friend suggested he incorporate the phrase “Buffalo Bills” — meaning the Upstate football team — but Janz’s mind immediately went to the e.e. cummings alliteratively titled poem “Buffalo Bill’s” about the Wild West icon.
“It all clicked — I started doing my own poems in alliteration,” he says. “I took the ‘post no bills’ and turned it into ‘post protest poems.’ ”
And so it went from there, branching into many variations of the three-world alliterative form, such as “mad modern moods” and “soul sinews strain.”
In September, Janz released his first book of poetry, titled “Post No Bills Poems,” featuring photographs of his street-art poetry in the wild.
Meanwhile, the octogenarian street artist has created so many works around the neighborhood — and taken enough direct action to “liberate” them from behind crass commercial posters — that he says the police now know him on sight and sometimes harass him.
No matter, Janz will continue to remake Tribeca streets as his own artistic palimpsests.