Named "New York's Wackiest Tour Guides" by the Travel Channel!

Los Angeles Graffiti and the NYC Connection

Matt, thrilled to have landed on the West Coast in search of graffiti

Ah Los Angeles, Land of sunshine, land of prosperity. Land of amazing tacos and pretty damn good Korean rice bowls. Land of . .  graffiti? And sky -high murals!? Waitasec – doesn’t NYC have the lock-down on urban street art and inner-city creative expression masquerading as destruction? Isn’t SoCal just a haven for surfer boys and Hollywood girls? Not according to the Museum of Contemporary Art and their blockbuster exhibit Art in the Streets, the most comprehensive exhibit ever assembled. Art in the Streets takes a historical perspective on street art and graffiti, from its invention in Philadelphia in 1964 to the international modern masters of the craft. And as NYC’s premier Graffiti Tour Guide, I flew out there last week to check it out!

JR’s Wrinkles of the City on MoCA’s loading doors.

First off, the Museum itself is slathered in art, from pasteups by JR to a real steamroller killing a fake Yogi Bear by Banksy.  The inside of the huge, 40,000 square foot former police car factory is divided, (intentionally?) into the past vs. the present/future. The past includes a timeline of graffiti from Philly to NYC to Detroit to LA to Paris to Barcelona to Argentina to the world. The present/future of the place is stuffed with phenomenal exhibits, where each room is dedicated to one street-art superstar or crew. Swoon has a whimsical, fairy-like tented installation. Shepard Fairey has framed OBEY Giants and a manifesto. Neckface has a creepy, fake derelict LA alleyway, complete with drunk bum in the corner. The reclusive (and recently deceased) Rammellzee has an installation that is a recreation of his LES apartment, awash in blacklight. The exhibit was phenomenal and although I spent 5 hours total there, I could’ve spent 5x that.

The exhibit and its requisite hot-button issue is topical news, because for the past month, the Brooklyn Museum had planned on hosting the Art in the Streets for its second incarnation & East Coast premier, but as of yesterday they cancelled the show, citing financial difficulty in re-producing the show. Of course, the LA exhibit itself has garnered international acclaim as well as vocal concern, in that glorifying graffiti in a museum settling leads to more graffiti, which could be equated with vandalism. Its the age-old question that Mayor Koch grappled with in NY’s dark days (but golden era, graffiti-wise) in the 1980s – is it art? Or is it destruction?

El Mac, Retna, and an LA Local pushing his wares

An interesting position on the topic comes from Dan Lahoda, the man responsible for creating some of the most extraordinary legal murals in LA today, through his project LA Free Walls. I had the exceptional experience of letting Dan drive me around most of Los Angeles on two different private tours over two days, seeing some incredible art murals, both historic and modern.

Mural Wall Arts District

Over the past few years Dan has connected international street artists with factory owners in the enormous, scattered industrial districts of LA. These owners are more than thrilled in allowing the artists to beautify their facades with whimsical, peculiar, bizarre, slightly menacing street art, be it spraypaint, pasteups, brushwork, or stencils. In creating these spectacular street art spectacles, it helps to ferment a creative, artistic bohemian atmosphere throughout formerly derelict neighborhoods, which in turn brings up the value of the real estate and the safety of the community.

Dabs & Myla on the left, How/Nosm on the right

We saw the People’s History of Los Angeles, the half-mile long mural from SPARC – the Social Public Art resource Center. We saw some El Mac and Retna. Dabs & Myla, an Australian couple made some marvelous murals alongside How & Nosm, twins born in Germany but live in Brooklyn. And we saw the ever-present, ghostly, magnificent JR’s pastes throughout the city. Many many more pictures are on our Facebook page.

The LA Free Walls artwork was too expansive and detailed to convey in this brief post. The MOCA exhibit was glorious, but it was just that – a museum exhibit. Constrained by walls and costing admission fees, it’ll never escape its four walls and a roof definition. Art in the Streets should make people think about where art belongs and how if affects changes in society. IT BELONGS IN THE STREETS, and its a damn shame that the Brooklyn Museum wont find a way to make it happen. Until then, I’ll keep leading Graffiti tours of Brooklyn and NY, and talking about where art belongs.

By Matt Levy.

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Summer Arts on the (Other) Island

Figment! On Governors Island!

It’s almost (officially) summer! But summer has (unofficially) been here for at least a few weeks, what with Memorial Day, summer concerts, the heat of the concrete streets and sudden afternoon downpours. However, my favorite indication of the onset of summer is definitely when Governors Island opens on weekends, all summer long. I love the place – I held a game of Zombies vs. Commandos on Governors Island last year and wrote a blog post all about the game and the history of the place!

I brought a Middle School from Florida out to Gov Isl as part of their tour. We enjoyed the wide-open views of the harbor, the artist-invented games of mini-golf, and the giant Mark di Suvero sculptures. Little did my tourists know, but I spent a weekend volunteering on the island before it opened to the public, when I went to build the FIGMENT pavilion.

Mark DiSuvero's Figolu Photo credit Jerry L Thompson for WNYC

FIGMENT is the largest participatory art festival in New York that is completely volunteer-driven. Everyone – from lawyers to nurses to teachers to Starbucks baristas – EVERYONE volunteers to make sculptures, performances, stages for dozens of bands and djs, and create an atmosphere of open-minded participation. Their motto is, “What are YOU bringing?”

Last year I brought my hot-to-trot dance skills when my friend Colleen Culley of Move Into Greatness choreographed an environmentally themed dance performance. This year, I brought my woodchip-stuffing skills in order to help create the City of Dreams Pavillion, called Burble Bup. I spent a day out on the island in mid-May with a dozen other volunteers stuffing woodchips into giant neon-colored stockings. We then tied up each stocking, creating 10-foot-long building blocks, each one weighing a good two hundred pounds!

Burble Bup by Bittertang

Governors Island is no stranger to bizarre, large-scale art, and I’m definitely an experienced member of volunteer corps when it comes to intriguing projects. Last year, I helped out at The Archeological Dig, when a Belgian theater company “uncovered” a small town on the island with history dating back to the 1600’s that had been abandoned and buried in the 1950’s. With falsified documents, photos of citizens and realistically half-buried cars and houses, I helped by duping of hundreds of visitors (who had to wear hard-hats while touring the “active archaeological site”!).

On the last ferry back from this year’s FIGMENT, it was my great pleasure to be in the presence of Ohio Mike, a friend of mine who’s performance was to create his 10,000th matchbook portrait, in just four years. In the presence of so many artistically open-minded people, I found myself just itching to get out to the grand-daddy of performance-art fesivals: Burning Man, here I come!

By Jonah Levy

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Fun-Focused Family Tours!

Matt (with the lightsaber) and his Group Tour in Central Park

Most of the time, The Levys’ Unique New York! provides tour guides who perform a NYC highlights tour for high schoolers on their class trip. We’re talking 3 to 4 hours on a private motorcoach, moving around Manhattan from Central Park to the Battery and seeing all the sites in-between. We hop off at Strawberry Fields and walk through the park; we drive down Fifth Avenue and point out all the luxe shops; we travel through local NY ‘hoods like Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen; we get out in Battery Park City and talk about the World Trade Center Site in the Winter Garden. We love it, our tour groups love it, and its the best way to make a living.

Matt and his Private Tour Group at Nathan's in Coney!

More and more frequently, we get to create Private Tours for individuals, small groups and families – like a 3 hour graffiti tour for 1 woman from Luxembourg. I just sent out a pitch for an 8 hour (!!!) eating tour of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, by foot and subway for a foodie couple from Chicago. But every so often we get the request that seems like a weird but wonderful way to spend an afternoon: a Fun Focused Family type tour for adults with kids. This is a totally different type of tour.

Last week, I received a call from The Setai Fifth Avenue Hotel to arrange a tour guide for a family of five: Ex-NYer Mark Barrocas and his Venezuelan born wife, Irina, 10 year old Sarah, 7 year old Michelle, 5 year old  Ben. Could I provide a tour of children-friendly NY, focusing on the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park, and if we had time, the Manhattan Children’s Museum? And make it energetic and engaging for the children? Sure I can!

The family are  Bostonians who visit NYC  regularly and each time they bring their kids somewhere different in the City.  This time they just wanted a guide to tell some stories to go along with the sightseeing, to have fun and make jokes and teach a little and play around. That’s me in a nutshell! I met them at the hotel  introduced myself as their tour guide for the afternoon, and we were off!

The children, were fun, very active, filled with jokes and look at me energy. When I asked if they wanted to take a taxi or the subway to the Museum, all three started bouncing up and down, “The Subway! The Subway!”

Matt, Sarah, Irina, Ben, Mark and Michelle, attacked by dinosaurs!

We took the subway to the American Museum of Natural History. We saw the dinosaur exhibit and the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life (more popularly known as the Blue Whale Room.) We pretended like the dinosaurs were going to swallow us whole. We stared at the still-life panoramas in the Biodiversity Hall and made up names for the monkeys. We got scared by the jellyfish and marveled at the walruses.

After the AMNH  it was off to Central Park enjoying the brilliant weather as I taught the family of five (or at least, the two interested adults) about the history of the park and how its been changing life for NYers for over 150 years. We sat down by The Lake  and hunted for fish and turtles.  We made our way over to the assorted sugary stops on W 72nd street (Buttercream Bake Shop, Coldstone Creamery) and I helped them flag a cab to bring them back to the hotel.

Matt teaching the ins and outs of Graffiti to two very young art stars.

Proof that we truly can customize a tour for any size or age group. In fact, the above pic is a Graffiti to Galleries tour I hosted for a 9 and 7 year old (and their folks!) Proving we can create ANY tour for ANY tour group! Hey, we’re not called The Levys’ Unique New York! for nothing!

By Matt Levy

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