4 Wheel City in New York’s Soho neighborhood. Photograph: Adrian Brune

4 Wheel City in New York’s Soho neighborhood. Photograph: Adrian Brune

New York rap duo 4 Wheel City turn shooting tragedies into a positive mission

Both shot as young men, Namel Norris and Ricardo Velasquez now rap from their wheelchairs – they’ve played at the White House and yearn for mainstream fame

AM Brune

Wednesday 17 August 2016 05.00 EDT

Staged at the United Nations headquarters in New York and performed by disabled musicians, the Beautiful Concert – in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities – aimed for an air of sedate harmony.

Following one violinist’s meditation from the French opera Thaïs and a pianist’s performance of Beethoven’s Mondschien, up rolled Namel “Tapwaterz” Norris and Ricardo “Rickfire” Velasquez. They grabbed mics, waited for the bass to echo through the sonorous arena and from their wheelchairs started rapping Welcome to Reality.

“You think you’re rough, you think you tough, you think you’re bad as me … keep it up and you’ll be sitting down like me,” exhorted the duo, known as 4 Wheel City. “Mr can’t think, read or write, Mr one to carry guns ’cause you can’t fight ... You living life the wrong way … I ain’t trying to play, trying to open up your eyes before you end up in jail or paralyzed.”

Even at the UN, 4 Wheel City pulled no punches. “We have two sides to what we do, and we try to do them both with the same mission, the same purpose,” says Norris, when I catch up with him at the 4 Wheel City booth during a recent New York street fair to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “We do music to inspire people and we do music to plant seeds. Youth need checkpoints and references when they’re in trouble. If a kid says: ‘I’m not going to touch my gun today, because those guys told our class their story and their story’s crazy,’ then we’ve done our job.”

During a long-looming crisis over gun violence in America, in which 7,845 people have been killed and 16,372 people injured in the first six months of 2016, 4 Wheel City are a vital voice. Prior to their mid-June UN appearance, the group performed their song Mainstream – whose lyrics draw the link between disability and poverty – at the White House, released a 10-year anniversary album, shot a gun violence prevention video and finished a spring tour of disability expos and arts festivals.

Their message seems particularly timely when gun control and the shooting of unarmed black men by the police are matters of national urgency. “We feel like we beat everyone to the punch years ago,” Velasquez says. “We had a meeting with the police a few weeks ago, before any of the recent violence started. We don’t have to be reactionary – they’re catching up to us.”

4 Wheel City perform at the United Nations. Photograph: Adrian Brune

4 Wheel City perform at the United Nations. Photograph: Adrian Brune

At 17, Norris, an avid basketball player and aspiring rapper, was accidentally shot by his cousin and paralyzed. His mother approached Velasquez, by then a paraplegic of three years after being struck in the street by a stray bullet, outside their Bronx housing complex and asked him to befriend her son. Norris says he “was looking for that light at the end of the tunnel after everything had been taken away.

“I had already seen that guy in a wheelchair who looked like me, and I figured we would have to have that conversation, but I didn’t want to confront the real world.” A few weeks later – prompted by his mother – Norris turned up at Velasquez’s door as he was “throwing some beats” on a drum machine. Instead of discussing their disabilities or their traumas, the two men started a conversation about the hip-hop business.

Within a few months they launched 4 Wheel records, with Velasquez producing Norris as a solo artist. Following two albums, in 2006 Norris finished his degree at Lehman College and the pair started the non-profit 4 Wheel City. Their mission: “guns down, four’s up”, illustrated by four fingers which stand for a pledge to “inspire, educate, advocate, and entertain”.

“Where we come from, people don’t talk things out – they shoot it out, they fight it out, and they end up in wheelchairs or dead,” Norris said. “The problem is the mentality of young people in the community that I come from wanting to be tough. Back in the day it used to be bats or knives, but guns are so easily available. And if you have a gun it’s like you’re cool and you’re bad.”

Velasquez feels a bit differently. “I hate guns,” he says. “We have to get rid of all of them. But what are people using them for? They want to shoot somebody and they miss their target. That’s what happened to me. I’m sitting here, and I had nothing to do with guns.”

Besides touring and making records, 4 Wheel City runs two core programs: Welcome 2 Reality, a school series in which Norris and Velasquez deliver motivational talks and rap montages to encourage teenagers to stay in school and away from guns; and Rap Therapy, which are inspirational and instructional hip-hop concerts at rehabilitation hospitals.

“I was immediately drawn to their talent and positive mission to use hip hop to spread awareness about gun violence and its relationship to disability – their unique perspective and musical talent was something I had never seen before,” said Victor Calise, the commissioner of New York City mayor Bill De Blasio’s office for people with disabilities, who met the men at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital, where they had both received treatment. “Especially for people with disabilities, the members of 4-Wheel City show that when you work hard enough at your dreams, you can accomplish anything – no matter the restrictions and expectations society may impose on you.”

The men, assisted solely by Norris’ cousin and sponsored by the New York City chapter of United Spinal Association, have nonetheless largely created their own success from rhyme to recording. “No one was coming to give us a record deal, so we decided to go out and do our own thing – be our own bosses,” said Velasquez, the more muted point-man to Norris.

Despite their challenges, the men are starting to reach their intended audience. Early successes included appearances at VH1’s Hip Hop Honors Awards in 2006, nominations for an Underground Music award, a 50 Unsung Heroes designation from the New York Daily News and the opportunity to work with Snoop Dogg on a remix of Welcome to Reality. Still, as Velasquez points out, “we’re the only act that has accomplished so much and not received a call from a record producer”.

He adds: “I think most people look at us and don’t believe two guys in wheelchairs can do what we do. You might see some musicians with disabilities, but it’s not usually a black person. That’s what I thought before I was in a wheelchair. But how can someone have a vision of something they’ve never experienced before? So we just keep going and proving them wrong.”

As the sun bears down on Mott Street and a Chinese singer wraps up the afternoon with a traditional prosperity song, Velasquez and Norris gather their CDs and T-shirts and make their way up to the Access-A-Ride pickup point four blocks north. As Norris carries the plastic boxes in his lap and films the surroundings with a DSLR camera, Velasquez hitches a ride by grabbing the back handle of his partner’s electric wheelchair. Along the way, the men stop, listen to their surroundings for inspiration and banter.

“I used to think that you do something and it will propel you to where you want to be in life – I hit those checkpoints and I’ll win that Grammy,” Norris said.

“Now we just work and don’t look back,” Velasquez adds. “Instead of being, we just want to be doing.”

 Ellie Covan in her domain, Dixon Place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

 Ellie Covan in her domain, Dixon Place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Dixon Place: New York City’s queer theater haven

It has hosted one of the world’s longest-running LGBTQ festivals and after 30 years, Dixon Place still makes space for the city’s avant garde performers

AM Brune

Friday 12 August 2016 04.00 EDT

The accolades hang all over the walls of Dixon Place in New York: “Greetings and love” from the Blue Man Group, “Thank you for the great home” signed Martha Wainwright and kudos delivered on the book covers of authors Eileen Miles and AM Homes. But as she walks by them to check up on some window sealing and a seven o’clock production, Ellie Covan seems neither wistful, nor nostalgic for her theater’s days gone by.

Minutes later, sitting behind her cramped cinderblock desk in the office of the Bessie- and Obie-award-winning nonprofit experimental theater – the perch from which Covan has overseen nearly every play, dance piece, book reading, music performance or mix-and-match for the last eight of her 30 years in production – she rattled off a list of several of the works currently in incubation.

“Not everything is going to be Broadway-bound, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth seeing” says Covan, a pixie-ish, mercurial 60-year-old. “Everyone has a story to tell; they just need to figure out what they want to say and how to say it. That’s where my role comes in. And I am happy to see it fly off – as long as it comes back for a visit.”

Going vogue: a performance at Dixon place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Going vogue: a performance at Dixon place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

For the past month, Dixon Place’s darling has been the Hot! Festival and Monstah Black, a self-described practitioner of “Afrofuturism soaked in psychedelic funky, occasionally topped with a socio-political twist”. His work Hyperbolic! The Last Spectacle, a dance/monologue/music pageant about extreme personalities and over-the-top self-absorption headlined Dixon Place’s Hot! Festival – one of the longest-running annual LGBTQ arts and culture festivals in the world. After six weeks, it closes on Saturday.

The festival showcased plenty more gay theater, as well, including Boys Who Tricked Me, a musical about love disguised as preteen sleepover,Ignorance is No Excuse by Reno, the standup comic and former reality star of Bravo’s Citizen Reno, andUnearthing – Plus – A Girl in Rags, a semi-autobiographical play that dissects blackness and transgenderism.

Even Covan can’t quite figure out the reasons Dixon Place still has a LGBTQ festival when the theater is imbued all year round with “the spirit of queer … community, intimacy, sensualism. What could be hotter?”

Covan is the daughter of two community theater directors and was brought up in a suburb outside Houston, Texas. After acting at university in Austin, then moving to Paris, Covan arrived on the Lower East Side in the mid-80s, when downtown theater had its second coming in New York. Dixon Place officially began in 1986, based on a poetry and fiction reading salon Covan had hosted in Paris, and named after the publisher of her favorite books.

AM Holmes says that Covan has aways been at the heart of the venue. “The secret sauce to Dixon Place is Ellie herself, her accordion playing, her eccentric and exuberant selfless joy and passion for the performing arts, for arts and performers who truly bare their souls – and sometimes a little more.”

Monstah Black says that Dixon Place enabled him to direct a show and write dialogue for the first time, describing it as “a laboratory for artists, where we can explore new places and new territory and create the chaos without having it in front of us all the time”. The place encourages artists to take risks – to push themselves and their material into places that might be uncomfortable or unknown and to do with with the full embrace of the room.

The artistic disarray, however, was one of the chief reasons Covan moved Dixon Place from her former home – a small terraced apartment whose cleared living area served as a stage and a corner kitchen doubled as a bar – eventually into its current abode in the Lower East Side.

Covan started charging about $2 for admission, giving the proceeds to the artists who included the likes of the Blue Man Group, Deb MargolinDavid CalePenny Arcade and Reno. Realizing her untenable business model, she eventually established a nonprofit, bought and renovated the Chrystie Street location and opened in 2009 with a liquor license, a lounge and space for rental, in addition to the theater.

“When it was in my living room, Dixon Place was a lot simpler and sometimes a lot more fun because there was no pressure to keep the lights on, so to speak”, Covan says, as a photograph of Arthur Rimbaud looked down at her desk. “The struggle here is to balance the sale of tickets – and to keep those as rock-bottom as possible – with the ability to explore new work that’s diverse.

“The math just isn’t there when you have a theater that costs $1,500 per day to run and tickets at $15 each. We have to push the artists to bring in people. Our donors generally understand the value of our project, but educating the public, who like to categorize things, is sometimes a different story. That’s why we have the bar.”

One a recent Friday night, visitors who found the small storefront and walked past the bar – and the same Dixon place staffer who served as hostess, bartender and occasional box office proprietor – were treated to a performance by Dandy Darkly, a burlesque and satiric vaudeville clown in a glittery 70s disco suit and platform shoes. Downstairs, Black and his troupe were vogueing through a Prince-inspired soundtrack during the “very last party on earth”.

The theater was full, as well as the bar. Saturday night would prove a bit tamer with Folking Awesome, a trio of acts on the New York alt-folk country scene, and Cleaning Out the Closet a performance based on the ways people come out.

On both nights, Covan was in attendance, if only for a little while, before bicycling to the East Village and her new apartment. “I get exhausted. It happens all the time. Then I go into the theater and get revived.”

 William Livingston: ‘You never realize what lengths the mind will go to accomplish things when you’ve taken away all the normal options.’ Photograph: Adrian Brune

 William Livingston: ‘You never realize what lengths the mind will go to accomplish things when you’ve taken away all the normal options.’ Photograph: Adrian Brune

Jailed for 40 years, a prisoner reaches the outside world with his art

William Burns Livingston III discovered he could draw after being incarcerated – now his work is being collected by the likes of punk legend Ian MacKaye

Adrian Brune

Saturday 11 June 2016 07.00 EDT

The Joseph Harp Correctional Center lies on a rolling stretch of land about 10 miles west of Lexington, Oklahoma. It’s an “open-yard” prison that houses nearly 1,800 inmates. When William Burns Livingston III received a transfer there from the Lawton Correctional Facility, a private medium-security prison twice the size and double the menace, it marked a sea change in his life as an inmate – and in his art.

At Lawton, Livingston had resorted to drawing to while away a 40-year sentence: dark, crowded canvases featuring thin men with distressed faces, old men with mouths agape, young men looking despondent. Upon transferring to Harp, however, Livingston broadened his subject matter from depictions of prison life to dot-matrix portraits of his favorite musicians and landscapes remembered from his youth.

“My dad said he could look at my first drawings for hours,” says Livingston, a tall, bearded 40-year-old who wears his hair chin-length and his blue prison shirt tucked into roll-cuff jeans and Chuck Taylors, as he sits in Joseph Harp’s visiting room scrolling through a photo album of his recent art. “He’s not an art guy. But he said he had never seen so much feeling in a drawing before.

“I don’t relate to too many people in here – I’m a kid who grew up in Dewey, Oklahoma, on punk rock and skateboards – and I couldn’t play music, so this became my passion,” he adds. “I put a lot of the things that I miss in my art – friends, music, things that remind me of home. Before I came here, painting was just something I did at three in the morning after I was fucked up, but now I’m always trying to push the envelope, to improve, to do different things.”

Running out of space in their home for their son’s art, Livingston and his parents decided to sell it. For the past two years, Doc and Marie Livingston have traversed north-east Oklahoma, enlisting in every art fair within range to pay for acrylic paints, brushes, canvases and other supplies for Livingston and nine other men to create art during their free time at Joseph Harp.

Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the United States, at 700 inmates per 100,000 people – reaching a population of 28,095 near the end of 2015 – and few resources for the men and women who spend their years there, aside from work and offender treatment programs. But from his studio at Harp, Livingston’s work has also enjoyed some local fame. Local film-maker John Swab recently purchased Livingston’s triptych inspired by the Francis Ford Coppola gang movie The Outsiders, and Danny O’Connor, formerly of hip-hop band House of Pain, recently commissioned work for an auction to help fund the reconstruction of the house where Coppola filmed it. Ian MacKaye, a former member of post-hardcore band Fugazi and owner of Dischord Records, has also started collecting paintings from Livingston.

“I can’t think of anything worse than Will just sitting there in prison feeling sorry for himself; I wouldn’t wish this life on the devil,” says Doc Livingston, sitting in a back room of his State Farm insurance office in Dewey, Oklahoma, packaging paintings for a booth at the Blue Dome Art Festival in Tulsa in late May. “This is now the way he stays connected with the outside and the outside connects with him.”

Livingston in the library with one of his paintings in the background. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Livingston in the library with one of his paintings in the background. Photograph: Adrian Brune

On an overcast day and among vendors half their age, Doc and Marie Livingston, as well as Livingston’s two children, unload plastic containers filled with paintings. As Marie chooses whether the landscape of a long-gone Bartlesville neon sign should hang next to the Lou Reed portrait or stand on its own, Doc cuts zip ties to attach other works to a metal grid. Adorned with a sign that says Prison Art, a photocopy of Livingston’s biography and a donation bucket for prisoner art supplies, the booth stands out from its kin at the Blue Dome market in Tulsa, which retail everything from license plate sculptures to hand-made pet collars.

“One of the biggest compliments you can pay the artist is saying, ‘I want that in my home – I want to look at that painting every day,’” said Marie. “But people also want to talk. They come by, put in some money and tell us about their son or daughter or husband going away to prison.”

Doc and Marie Livingston would do – and have done – just about anything for their only child. When Livingston wanted to learn more about baseball cards, his parents helped him maintain a stand at one of the local antique malls. When he decided to pursue music, Doc helped him build a recording studio next to the family house. And despite his poor grades, drinking and recreational drug use, when it came time for Livingston to attend college, they sent him off to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. “They would do anything they could do to get me out of Dewey, which they thought would solve the problem,” Livingston says.

For a while, leaving the town indeed helped, as did meeting his former wife. While she pursued an art history course, Livingston worked as an office manager and played in local bands. When in 1999 his wife received an internship at Long Island’s Limited Arts Editions, he followed, and went from groundskeeper to print assistant, working on such prints as Green Angel by Jasper Johns.

Livingston’s parents selling his work. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Livingston’s parents selling his work. Photograph: Adrian Brune

However, Livingston’s drinking was catching up with him. After moving to Bartlesville in the early 2000s, he attended his first rehab for 90 days, then relapsed – a pattern that continued though his late 20s. The day after coming home from another stint in rehab – 10 October 2008 – Livingston left work early and started drinking, despondent over his impending divorce. Later, he decided to drive to the liquor store for a bottle of whiskey and on the way there hit a 21-year-old man, Joseph Purrington, as he swerved to avoid another car. Purrington died of blunt-force trauma to the head and body; Livingston fled the scene. The police were waiting for him in his driveway.

His parents posted $100,000 bail and Livingston returned to rehab for the next 18 months. By then, it didn’t matter. On the recommendation of his attorney and in lieu of a trial, Livingston accepted a “blind plea” – a guilty plea without the benefit of the prosecution’s approval – and was sentenced to 50 years for first-degree manslaughter, a violent crime for which 85% must be served before parole. It was Livingston’s first offense.

“I liked the idea of a blind plea because I didn’t want to act as if I was not guilty and I didn’t want to have to put Joseph’s family through a trial – it seemed cruel,” Livingston wrote from prison on handmade stationery in March. Because he took a blind plea, he cannot appeal against his sentence; he can only ask a parole board for a time cut or commutation. However, Oklahoma’s pardons and parole board usually denies all violent offenders.

“Maybe if I had stayed in Columbus or Long Island or somewhere else, things might have been different – maybe the date on someone’s tombstone wouldn’t be my sober date. I certainly wish I was serving time for a bunch of DUIs rather than the taking of Joseph’s life.”

Purrington’s family could not be reached for comment and do not have contact with either William Livingston or his parents. On a message board for victims of drunk driving, Paula Purrington, his sister, posted the folllowing: “My life will never be the same … my whole family will never be the same. Joseph loved his nieces, he was wanting a family of his own. All of that was taken away from him.”

At Joseph Harp, especially after a difficult or a tedious day, Livingston finds solace by plugging in his earphones and painting. He is very protective of the painting guild, since “wardens tend to cut out the program and not the prisoner if something goes wrong.

“We have a specific room to work in and we teach each other what we know. This has been instrumental in maintaining sanity around here, as well. We are really trying to do good things, not only for ourselves, but we also donate works to charities to raise funds for causes and we’re just now scratching the surface of what can be done here.”

After Blue Dome, Doc and Marie Livingston tally the sales, which came to a total of $1,600 – or at least 25 paintings of Livingston’s work – some of it bought from second-time collectors who searched for the Prison Art booth. With the money, Livingston will start on the commission for The Outsiders house restoration and then for a show to be held at a bar in downtown Tulsa in two weeks.

“You never realize what lengths the mind will go to accomplish things when you’ve taken away all the normal options,” Livingston said. “As far as the art goes, my problem with most of it is that some of the guys are stuck in drawing things like skulls, dragons, girls – flash tattoo art.

“It would be great if more were willing to get out of the tough guy shit and really explore themselves with their art.”

‘Many drag kings gravitate towards playing the most boorish, sexist, cigar-smoking men. Murray is more cheesy than sleazy.’ Photograph: Roberto Portillo/mistershowbiz.com

‘Many drag kings gravitate towards playing the most boorish, sexist, cigar-smoking men. Murray is more cheesy than sleazy.’ Photograph: Roberto Portillo/mistershowbiz.com

Murray Hill: ‘I’m more than a drag king. Why can’t you just call me a comedian?’

Known for his self-deprecating humor and stage presence, Hill has become a symbol of the growing transgender performance scene once just known as drag

Adrian Brune

Monday 28 March 2016 17.17 EDT

The businessman from Connecticut seemed game for a different night of entertainment – a variety show of sorts. He took his seat at Joe’s Pub near an older couple from Long Island, exchanged pleasantries and then watched with amusement as Murray Hill, the drag “king of comedy”, came on stage and started his annual Academy Awards show monologue.

“What do you think of the suit?! What brand is it you say?” he asked of his grey vested duds, with 70s-era bow tie and blue ruffled tuxedo shirt. “Amazon Prime! With like 13 pairs of Spanx underneath. They’re like condoms for fat people!”

Hill then stopped and scanned the room, looking for a new, bemused face – the face not in on his joke. He found the guy from Connecticut. “But see, see this guy here? This guy is thinking, ‘Is this a man or a woman up there? Well, the answer is ‘no’.”

“Are you the warden from Orange is the New Black?” he asks him. “Whoever you are, this is going to be a long six hours.”

A former fixture of the downtown Village scene, Murray Hill is making a wing-tipped footprint in the mainstream arena, traversing stages, states and seas to find his next act, whether as an emcee to a burlesque show, a standup comedian, a film sidekick or a television personality. Riding on the success of such shows as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Hill’s success has also become emblematic of the burgeoning transgender performance scene, once just simply known as “drag”.

But make no mistake, “Mur’s a guy. End of story,” says Michael Musto, the former Village Voice culture columnist, who has been a fan of Hill’s since the beginning. “He is Mr Showbiz, the hardest working man in the biz and a true delight every time he hits the stage. His self-deprecating humor and entertaining skills are legendary by now.”

Helped along by Hill, or not, drag kings are, however, experiencing a resurgence from relative obscurity in the early 2000s and tearing up conventional gender norms. Troupes such as Switch n’ Play, a queer performance collective in Brooklyn, the DC Kings, who rule in the nation’s capital, and All the King’s Men from Boston, are capitalizing on the popularity and the trail-blazed paths of those before them, such as Hill and another Joe’s regular, Justin Vivian-Bond, who have completed their metamorphoses and now identify as trans-genre.

“We encourage men to get in touch with their femininity, to think about how to become mothers, to become more nurturing,” wrote scholar and queer theorist Jack (nee Judith) Halberstam in his book Female Masculinities. “But there is no encouragement for women to express their masculinity, and that’s because masculinity is a site of empowerment. The beauty of the drag king performance makes you aware how much masculinity is performative and theatrical. Murray Hill is transforming masculinity and exposing its theatricality with profound results.”

The entertainer persona of Busby Murray Gallagher, Murray Hill – based partly on Gallagher’s love for Benny Hill – started out in 1995 as a drag king, and became the then 26-year-old School of Visual Arts student’s graduate thesis: a full-time performance as a candidate running against Rudolph Giuliani for mayor on the drag king ticket. But in the last decade, Hill decided to no longer inhabit the persona of Gallagher (in public at least), eschewed the troupe mentality of the drag kings and decided to forge an individual name for himself.

“I am much more than a drag king. I really hammered the press about this and I finally got to a point where I think when people assume that somebody is queer, or different, or trans, they always want to put something before their name. And that is what drag king has been,” Hill told David Shankbone, an independent journalist in 2007. “Why can’t you just call me a comedian like Jerry Seinfeld is called a comedian?

Hill’s first foray into a regular performance gig became the eponymous Murray Hill Show at long-deceased East Village clubs such as as Fez, Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction and The Zipper Factory. However, as clubs closed, the show evolved. A Murray Little Christmas, Murray Hill’s annual Miss LEZ Pageant and Murray Hill is 100% Polyester began showing to audiences of all stripes at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Gotham Comedy Club, Comix and Caroline’s on Broadway. He started hosting burlesque shows at venues over the world including the London’s Arts Theatre and the Bloomsbury Ballroom, opening parties for the Venice Film Festival and making guest appearances on John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus and HBO’s Bored to Death.

“When I started out, downtown was anything below 14th Street – every single night on Ave A and B, there was something going on; it’s not concentrated like that any more,” Hill bemoaned over the phone the day before his packed Oscar act. “The home crowd doesn’t happen in the Village – now it’s in Bed-Stuy, or other parts of Brooklyn. When I perform in Manhattan, it’s for the rich people, not the cool kids.

I still go out of my way to stay connected with the roots,” he said, but his bio name-drops Le Tigre, the Beastie Boys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Scissor Sisters, for whom he has appeared in music videos or emceed.

Even as the drag kings stage their comeback with showcases such as Beef (a Night of Manful Performances every month in Bushwick) and documentaries such as The Making of a King, don’t look for Murray Hill among them. Coming from Australia to do the Oscars Show at Joe’s, Murray is headed overseas again this spring for a round of burlesque in Europe.

“To me, Murray was always a standout. He always took being a drag king to a new level which was more fully realized than most kings. He’s a performer with a full act – not just someone who can deliver a lip-synch number,” said Lady Bunny, AKA John Ingle, a well-known drag queen, nightclub DJ and founder of the annual Wigstock event.

“The audience is in on the joke that Murray was born female, but the character is so charming that his personality and shtick overrides his sexual identity,” Ingle said.

“Interestingly enough, many drag kings gravitate towards playing the most boorish, sexist, cigar-smoking men. Murray is more cheesy than sleazy, and I think it makes him appeal to a wider audience.”

  • This article was amended on 30 March 2016 to correct a misspelling of the name Murray. The article was amended further on 31 March 2016 to delete a reference to Hill’s previous name. We removed it out of sensitivity for Hill and his preference not to be referenced as a woman.

Shepard Fairey: ‘My goal was to make art by any means necessary’

The street artist, famous for his Obama image, could get a 10-year jail sentence for vandalism in Detroit, but meanwhile has a New York gallery exhibition

Adrian Brune

Friday 16 October 2015 13.42 EDT

When the artist Diego Rivera arrived in Detroit in April 1932 – at the behest of auto magnate Edsel Ford – to create the Detroit Industry murals, he entered an industrial colossus laid low by the great depression and amplified by a chorus of conservative critics, who called his mixed-race, humanistic portrayal of the working class, “coarse in conception … foolishly vulgar, and a slander to Detroit workmen”.

More than 80 years later, street artist Shepard Fairey turned up in Detroit – at the invitation of billionaire fringe banking mogul Dan Gilbert – to paint several murals in the demolished and demoralised city. He also allegedly put up some illegal posters, which city officials described as vandalism. Now he faces 10 years in prison and fines exceeding $10,000.

Rivera was eventually renowned as the greatest Mexican artist of the 20th century. Fairey, whose most recent show, On Our Hands, is currently showing at Jacob Lewis in New York, awaits his verdict both in Detroit and the arena of public opinion. In the city, the One Campus Martius building is now home to his 18-storey mural, while the historical Wurlitzer and Vanity Ballroom buildings still have his illegally plastered posters, which feature his Obey Giant tag, adhered to their walls.

“To some people street art is vandalism, to others it’s gentrification, and either of those could be considered more legit than the other depending on your perspective,” says Fairey, an admirer of Rivera, by email. Although not permitted to talk about his current legal troubles in Detroit, for which he will stand trial on 26 January 2016, Fairey said that when outsider art was accepted, it often wound up in “the narrow bits of important historical documentation”.

“A lot of great things fall through the cracks in terms of art history or general history,” he added. “Other than that caveat, I really don’t care about the concept of legitimacy from anyone else’s perspective other than mine.”

On Our Hands, the first solo exhibition of Fairey’s paintings in New York City since 2010, coincides with Covert to Overt, a 256-page coffee-table book showcasing everything from his most recent works on paper to large-scale installations and his return to public artworks.

However, neither the book nor the show mean that Fairey has left his roots. “I went to art school and I’ve drawn and painted my whole life – my goal was to make art by any means necessary,” he says. “For a long time that meant street art and T-shirts were my only options. Now I have a lot more options.”

Rather than just gaining attention, however, for bigger and badder Obey branding, Fairey’s show has been cited by the New York Times as “considerably more complex” than his previous work. With mixed-media painting built up from layers of rich designs – the base of which consists of Fairey’s detailed stencilling of faux newspaper print – Fairey evokes communist propaganda, Barbara Kruger-style advertorials and Jasper Johns subversion. He has also ventured into sculpture, with one particularly poignant bronze, emulating a late-1950s trophy featuring a soldier in full weaponry standing atop a decorative grenade.

“I share my art through a lot of platforms, and making art pieces that I can put a lot of time into is one of the important ways I can communicate with an audience,” Fairey says. “I felt it was time to show a new body of fine art as a collection rather than disparate images.”

On Our Hands also demonstrates the disillusion Fairey – best known for his “Hope” poster co-opted by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign – has experienced in an era of promise beginning with the United States’ election of its first black president. Citing his dismay over Obama’s use of drones in Pakistan and the Middle East, as well as the administration’s continuation of the domestic surveillance programs, Fairey said he has “come to realise that the problems are not dependent on the actions of one person” but are largely symptoms of a broken system where corporations and oligarchs corrupt democracy.

Shepard Fairey’s On Our Hands. Photograph: Jacob Lewis Gallery

Shepard Fairey’s On Our Hands. Photograph: Jacob Lewis Gallery

“Americans need to stop being obsessed with personalities and start looking more closely at the principles that are at play within the dynamics of our system. The players change but the problems stay the same.”

Rivera, said in reflection of his life and controversies, including Detroit, that an artist is “above all a human being, profoundly human to the core”. If the artist “won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist”.

Fairey, too, remains steadfast in the principles and perspectives he acquired following his years at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and his ascendancy through the ranks of street art: to enable people to clearly see objects or ideas so taken for granted that they have become invisible.

“Ten years ago I thought that hard work and moving up through the various stages of societal and cultural validation would make me feel secure and satisfied,” he says. “Now, I would tell anyone that the most important thing is to be honest with yourself and be happy if you feel you’ve accomplished your vision – no matter what the rest of the world has to say.”

On Our Hands runs through 24 October at the Jacob Lewis Gallery, 521 West 26th Street, New York

 The Airline Diner, in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, in all its neon glory. Photograph: Raluca Albu

 The Airline Diner, in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, in all its neon glory. Photograph: Raluca Albu

New York’s disappearing neon signs: the city flips the switch on its colorful history

From the Times Square of old to a Queens diner made famous by Goodfellas, New York City was once synonymous with neon signs – now they are nearly impossible to find

Adrian Brune

Monday 6 July 2015 11.39 EDT

The art deco sign stood watch for nearly 80 years over the bar two stories above the subway on the corner of 60th and Lexington. Then in an instant last fall, it was gone.

Many people had complained about the Subway Inn: it had long attracted the wrong types so close to its upscale neighbor, Bloomingdales. It was a glowing eyesore on a prime commercial block, and the declining interior long outweighed the drink value. But when the neon sign disappeared, the overworked, consistently distracted and famously busy city stopped and paid attention.

“In the past few years, we have been able to save three significant signs, and we saved them because all the businesses that had these signs also owned their buildings,” said Jeff Friedman, a craftsman with Let There Be Neon, the go-to rescuer and creator of custom neon in New York. “The care and interest of these signs is never there when the new owners take over the buildings.

“A lot of people were watching that sign – no one wanted it to go the way of the Kentile Floors sign in Brooklyn or the old P&G Bar sign.”

When Earle C Anthony installed his luminous Packard neon sign – the very first in the United States – outside his Los Angeles car dealership in 1923, “liquid fire”, as neon was then dubbed, had already spread across Europe but not quite grabbed New York by the collar. Ten years later, the city of New York distributed 3,400 permits for “illuminated signs”, and sign makers from the esteemed EG Clark to a Yiddish-speaking sign painter from Russia named Charles Karsch set to work on re-creating Manhattan’s cityscape.

Throughout the Great Depression, a second world war and the baby boom years, neon signs invited patrons to drink, hawked goods and helped weary travelers find their way to the nearest Times Square hotel. In a city with a history of bulldozing and building over its past, however, there remain just a few of these signs left in the five boroughs – some pristinely preserved over the decades, whether by serendipity or the deep, sincere dedication of the owners who love them.

“Russ & Daughters is a New York icon and our neon sign is a part of our history – not having that sign has never even been a consideration,” said Niki Russ Federman, one of the fourth-generation proprietors of the famous specialty food shop on the Lower East Side. Although no one knows who built the 1951 sign featuring two whitefish in downward-dog pose bookending the store’s vibrant name, when Russ & Daughters opened a cafe down the street in 2014 it chose to “painstakingly make a new neon sign inspired directly from the original”.

It costs $25,000 a year to keep Nathan’s neon signs lit. Photograph: Adrian Brune

It costs $25,000 a year to keep Nathan’s neon signs lit. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Most neon preservationists who want to revive a sign turn to Let There Be Neon, founded in the early 1970s by New York’s patron saint of neon, Rudi Stern. In addition to establishing a shop in which sign designers, tube benders and chemists could restore and re-create signs, Stern authored three editions of the neon bible which bears the same name as his store, a chronology and a tribute to classic signage.

“There was a time when neon was a trade that demanded design expertise and precision through many stages of a handcraft process,” Stern wrote. “As artistic feats of technical virtuosity, these electric sculptures were indelible features of our American landscape.”

New York had several virtuosos in the early days of American neon.

As prohibition ended in 1933, bar owners who had previously kept their establishments underground wanted to make a statement. Prominent sign maker EG Clarke Inc gave John Carway, the Irish owner of the Dublin House bar on West 79th Street, a 12-foot green harp whose red name is visible two blocks away.

Meanwhile, downtown, Karsch updated his skill set and started making some of New York’s best known neon pieces: the sign for White Horse Tavern in the West Village; the former P&G Bar at 73rd and Amsterdam; and one of the most technically difficult signs in the city, the Gringer GE Appliances sign on First Avenue and Second Street, commissioned by Philip Gringer in 1953.

Although unanimated, experts consider the sign a breakthrough in design due to not only the highly unusual band of yellow lettering at the bottom, but also the swirly blue GE logos – a feat of technical prowess rarely seen in earlier advertisements. “The Gringer sign is so loved by the owner, after we refurbished it, he started cleaning the porcelain face with Turtle Wax,” Friedman said.

Throughout New York’s boom and bust years, developers have taken down many classic signs as buildings change owners and aesthetic. These include some of Friedman’s favorites: the animated Fuji film sign in Times Square; the Planter’s Peanut sign, also in Times Square; and Monte’s restaurant in the East Village.

Outside of Manhattan, animated neon art such as Astoria’s Airline Diner sign – a staple of the LaGuardia-area neighborhood for more than 50 years and a notable landmark in the Scorsese film Goodfellas – and Nathan’s 70-year-old hot dog sign face gradual destruction not from zealous new landlords, but from weather and wear. Every time Queens has a hard rain, the neon outline of the flying airplane needs replacing, according to Isaac Paschalidis, one of the owners of the Airline Diner, and electricity bills can run upward of $1,000 a month.

“We have a good name, but the sign helps; people see it from all over and want to come in,” Paschalidis said on a particularly blustery June night, before gesturing toward the sign’s recently busted tubing.

Nathan’s has continually extinguished any rumors that developers would take down the signs that adorn the classic hot dog stand on Coney Island. A company spokesperson said the tourists taking photos underneath the signs make the $25,000 a year that the company pays in electric bills worth it.

But both Nathan’s and the Airline Diner own their buildings and therefore their signs – a rarity in Manhattan. Luckily, however, the owners of the Subway Inn paid for its sign and, when forced to relocate to Second Avenue, took it with them, installing the new version in March.

The owners of P&G Bar also paid for their Karsch sign in 1947 and removed it when forced to vacate in 2009. But P&G floundered for several years in its new location and closed for good without ever displaying the sign again.

“The developers in this city, they say they will save the signs – the history – if the business moves, but in the end they just don’t care,” Friedman said. “It is the New York way to tear it down and start over.

“The sign will take care of them, however, if they just take care of it.”

The Gateway to Freedom sculpture by Ed Dwight, Riverside, downtown Detroit. Photograph: Alamy

The Gateway to Freedom sculpture by Ed Dwight, Riverside, downtown Detroit. Photograph: Alamy

Ed Dwight shows ‘the angst, all the emotions’ of black heroes in sculpture

Picked by JFK to be America’s first black astronaut, Dwight found a second career as a sculptor, memorialising in grand public artworks the struggle for civil rights

AM Brune

Thursday 28 May 2015 07.00 EDT

In nearly 40 years of imagining clay into models and casting models to bronze, sculptor Ed Dwight has amassed not only a significant body of work, but also a sizeable library to inform his concepts.

It contains neither volumes of masters Bernini or Brunelleschi, Rodin nor Remington. Rather, it holds narratives of American black history, with anecdotes both well-known and overlooked by both the general public and even the patrons who pay for Dwight’s work.

Yet Dwight still finds stories beyond the books to tell in three dimensions: the legend of Denmark Vesey, whose 1822 slave revolt led to the founding of the Citadel in South Carolina; the saga of Sam McCullough, a free black man who fought first for the liberation of Texas from Mexico, then land rights for his fellow black men; and the tale of a slave owner who gave her land to an abolitionist to form a university in Virginia.

 Statue of Rosa Parks by Ed Dwight at Grand Rapids. Photograph: PR

“There’s always a fine line that divides hostility from neutrality, and I don’t want to pass that line,” Dwight says from his studio in Denver, Colorado. “But sometimes the happy endings on my sculptures have two meanings: the white folks come away thinking ‘Hey, we fixed something; things are now cool,’ while the black folks know we transcended, that we overcame; we won the game.”

Although nearly 82, Dwight doesn’t feel as if he can retire anytime soon. At work at six or seven commissions at a time in his 30,000 sq ft studio, he has crafted more than 120 memorials, monuments and public art installations, as well as some 18,000 gallery sculptures ranging from seven statues of Martin Luther King; to Hank Aaron in full home-run swing at the Braves Stadium in Atlanta; to several renderings of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad.

All of these were textbook, according to Dwight – a requirement of the American public art canon. His works of the past 15 years have quietly subverted it.

Dwight has just come from Richmond, Virginia, where he unveiled his latest work, a lengthy and detailed memorial to commemorate the 150th anniversary ofVirginia Union University. The institution was formed when Mary Lumpkin, the freed black widow of scorned slave dealer, donated a slave jail to help Nathaniel Colver, an ageing, abolitionist Baptist minister, train newly freed slaves as clergy.

The sculptor will soon finish, for the state capitol in Austin, a monument to Texas black history which – on panels to the right and left of the centerpiece of a man and woman breaking the chains of slavery – show pre- and post-emancipation events beginning with the arrival of Estevanico de Dorantes, the first African to set foot on Texas soil, through the election of Barbara Jordan, the first southern black woman elected to US Congress.

 African American History Monument by Ed Dwight, State Capitol Grounds, Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph: Alamy

 African American History Monument by Ed Dwight, State Capitol Grounds, Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph: Alamy

A shift in Dwight’s work came in the late 1990s, when he “got exercised of the idea of all this black history is lost and that nobody wanted to talk about it”. With the South Carolina African American History Monument, installed in Columbia, Dwight depicted tormented slaves on auction blocks in early 17th-century Charleston and included a section called Middle Passage, which highlighted the port city’s role in facilitating 40% of the slave trade in America.

“White people visit the memorials out of curiosity and see it in visual form versus written words. They find it unbelievable,” Dwight said. “But I have to show the angst, all the emotions, so people can get a sense of placing themselves in that position. I can’t abstract pain and suffering.”

Dwight soon took up the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in a commission he received from the state of Oklahoma to commemorate one of the deadliest race riots in history, which resulted in the killing of more than 300 black people and the razing of the thriving Greenwood business and cultural district. Dwight built a 25ft Tower of Reconciliation, which portrays the history of black people in Oklahoma from their relationship with Native Americans on the Trail of Tears to a “climb” to freedom.

The tower stands just past three bronze figures, all sculpted from photographs of the riot: a white gunman, a black man surrendering to the white marshals and a Red Cross worker holding a rescued baby. At night, the tower is lit from the bottom with an orange hue – a significant flare that marks a separation between North Tulsa, traditionally inhabited by black people, and South Tulsa, the largely white district.

“We wanted to project that we have this history and that somehow African Americans are forgotten about – that the true story is not told very often,” said Julius Pegues, the chairman of the John Hope Franklin Center of Reconciliation, which raised an additional $1.3m for the center when the state balked on fully funding the $5m work.

Shortly after the unveiling of Tulsa, Dwight set to work on another monument in South Carolina, this time in Charleston, to memorialize the life of Denmark Vesey. Vesey, who bought his freedom in 1799, was hanged with 34 other black people in the largest civil execution in US history for planning an insurrection in 1822 that would have liberated hundreds of slaves and transported them to the newly freed Republic of Haiti.

“African American history has been so marginalised, it’s as if we made no contributions to the state of South Carolina,” said Henry Darby, a member of the Charleston County council who helped see the 18-year effort to fruition. “Whites want to tell us who to have as a hero; we want to select our own hero. We want more monuments to African Americans and we have a long way to go in South Carolina.”

Until the late 1970s, Dwight said he “walked around like a white guy in dark skin” and knew little about black history. Originally from Kansas City, he joined the US air force in 1953, where he served as a fighter pilot and was appointed by President John F Kennedy to train as the country’s first black astronaut. He left in 1966, he said, after racial politics forced him out of Nasa and back into the regular officer corps.

An engineer by profession and by the 1970s an IBM sales executive and successful construction entrepreneur, Dwight occasionally “built things with scrap metal”, but harboured no serious artistic intent until Colorado’s first black lieutenant governor, George Brown, asked Dwight to create his statue for the state capitol building in 1974. When he finished the job, at age 45, Dwight enrolled at the university of Denver to earn an MFA in sculpture and embark on a second career memorialising black heroes – a role that hadn’t yet been filled as the US emerged from two decades of civil rights unrest.

 Ed Dwight: ‘I walked around like a white guy in dark skin’. Photograph: Ed Dwight

“The lieutenant governor had a big plan for me and my life. He said blacks have done all this wonderful stuff and nobody is recording [it],” Dwight said. “He told me to drop all these different things I was doing and chronicle what happened to black folks in this country.

“I thought ‘Who cares?’ And he said, ‘The world will care if you do it right.’”

At one point, Dwight, who helps many organisations find funding for the memorials, tried to form a consortium of black artists to continue the work as the commissions continue to arrive, but couldn’t reach a consensus on its direction. Most of his bronzes have covered only the specific, early eras of black history in the US – slavery, emancipation and post-reconstruction – leaving dozens of stories still to tell as generations of Americans continue to grapple with race relations.

“White folks have said if we do this or that memorial, people are going to think we’re animals. And black folks have felt if the memorials show too much, the white folks will be mad and they will suffer repercussions,” Dwight said. “I try to be a realist about the situation; my work is really just about the flow of ironies.”

Out in the Night: New York City’s racism and anti-gay bias plays out on screen

In August 2006, four black lesbians went out for night of fun but what they got was a conviction for fighting back against an attacker. They finally tell their side

Adrian Margaret Brune

Monday 27 April 2015 15.34 EDT

Ilike to go to the Village because it’s nothing but gay people. It’s a safe haven for us. You got old, Chinese gay people, like people I never thought would be gay,” says Renata Hill, one of a group of New Jersey lesbians who star in new documentary Out in the Night. “You go to New York, it’s normal. Like, nobody’s not going to look at you any different.”

“That’s not true. That’s what happened to us,” replies Hill’s friend Terrain Dandridge, referencing the evening in August 2006 that forever changed the lives of Hill, Dandridge and two of their friends.

Out in the Night puts the racism and anti-gay bias of the New York criminal justice system in full-view, by following the lives of four black lesbians from Newark, who came to the West Village in August 2006 to “bar hop” and “girl shop”, and wound up in jail for defending themselves against gay bashing. Eight years later, three of the four friends who became known as the New Jersey Four for their dissidence, reunited once more following prison, appeals, eventual release and parole. Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson and Terrain Dandridge arrived on the 15th floor screening room with its floor-to-ceiling skyscape of the city and hugged their supporters, took selfies against views of the Empire State building, signed posters and talked about that summer evening.

“There are not enough pre-release programs in the world to prepare you for what we went through, but someone should have stepped in and said ‘This is what you’re up against,’” Hill said over drinks in Times Square before participating in a panel discussion that followed the screening. “We kept thinking, ‘damn, when are we going to get our second chance’ – our chance to show people that we’re not guilty of the things we were accused of?”

Shown nearly 80 times at international film festivals and college campuses since its Human Rights Watch film festival debut last June, Out in the Night kicks off the 2015 season of PBS’s independent documentary series POV (Point-of-View) in June. The United Nations’ Free & Equal campaign recently chose the documentary – the first feature by Blair Dorosh-Walther, who started shooting just after finishing her NYU undergraduate degree in film – for its Global Film Series, which aims to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide.

And although the film has largely been cited by gay rights advocates for depicting the problem of harassment toward gay women, it has strongly resonated with the black community, especially LGBT people of color, for its unveiling of blatant prejudice by police, prosecutors and judges, even in one of the country’s most tolerant cities.

“I didn’t even think that race had anything to do with it until some people in jail kept saying we were discriminated against because we were black,” Johnson said. “They kept saying that the cops were biased, the trial was biased, that we wouldn’t be in this situation if we had been white girls.”

Hill added that it took some significant thought – and trust – before the women agreed to have Dorosh-Walther make the documentary. “It’s not like we said, ‘Hey, welcome to our lives, just go ahead and start filming.’ But nobody came to us to get our side of the story – black or white – and if Blair hadn’t, we wouldn’t have our side of the story told.”

The film essentially begins with footage shot on four cameras placed around the IFC Film Center, where, as the four women made their way to Christopher Street, 28-year-old Dwayne Buckle began taunting and harassing them after one told him she was gay. A fight breaks out. Four minutes later, it ends. Both parties walk away, with busted lips and swollen faces. Then, following a 911 call placed by a bystander, the New York police department descends.

The next day, in headlines just as stark as those announcing the grand jury’s refusal to indict two police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last fall, the New York press incriminated the New Jersey Four for the stabbing of Buckle. The more genteel New York Times downplayed the incident with its article “Man is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger” over the Post’s headline “Girl Gang Stabs Would-be Romeo” and Daily News’s “Girls Gone Wilding”.

The New York district attorney’s office charged the group of lesbians with gang assault, assault and attempted murder following Buckle’s hospitalization with a small stab wound in the stomach, allegedly inflicted by Johnson, whose older brothers encouraged her to carry a knife in Newark for protection. Although they faced 25-year sentences, Hill, Dandridge, Johnson, and their friend, Venice Brown, fought the felony charges, claiming self-defense against a hate crime.

“If you’re standing there and just watching a man beating on one of your friends and then you turn around and he hits you, you have a right to defend yourself.” Johnson said. New York supreme court justice Edward McLaughlin, who has presided over a steady stream of gang assault trials in his career, disagreed. After they were found guilty, he sentenced the women to prison terms of three to 11 years – Johnson received the lengthiest.

Out in the Night also brings forth key evidence not presented during the original trial, including camera shots showing Buckle ripping the dreadlocks out of Brown’s head, a photograph of the scar on Buckle’s stomach presented during the trial – a trauma incurred during from elective gallbladder surgery, not the stabbing – and finally, a follow-up call from 911 to the police, during which an officer on the scene told the operator that the incident was “all nonsense”.

Now that all four women are free, they face society as convicted felons. “Housing, they’ve denied us that; assistance, they’ve denied us that; and you can only get a job from someone who knows someone who knows someone,” Hill said. She just recently found a permanent home with her son after two years in the shelter system. “Not only is it a felony, it’s a gang-related felony and nobody wants that,” she said. Additionally, Buckle has sued each of the New Jersey Four for damages.

Yet, all remain determined to persevere. Hill, Dandridge and Johnson are in school and touring with Dorosh-Walther to speak about their adversity and overcoming it – when they are allowed by parole officers to leave the New York area. Hill, who says she wants to become a social worker, hands out business cards with a rainbow heart on them and her contact information, in which “NJ4” and Out in the Night figure prominently.

Although, Johnson said she “discovered the world got meaner” in prison, she and the others have decided to “reclaim” their future. They even attended the HRW Festival at the IFC theater where “it took four minutes to turn our lives upside down,” Hill said. “But it only took 74 minutes for us to take them back.”