Franco the Great
Street Art tours typically focus on Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but Harlem has Franco the Great painting life and character onto its walls and sidewalks.
Franco Gaskin, also known as Franco the Great or the “Picasso of Harlem,” paints the metal security gates that cover the storefronts of Harlem at night. He lives by the motto “the world is my workshop” as he paints vibrant mermaids, dancing lovers, and inspirational political figures in the once dismal, now joyous, heart of Harlem.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, riots left Harlem in a sad state. Franco saw an opportunity to use art and try to single-handedly turn the neighborhood around. When he saw a closed store, Franco would paint murals over the security gates protecting the store at night. These murals depicted what Franco hoped for Harlem’s future. Over the past 40 years, he’s painted over 200 murals, and seen Harlem turn itself around. So loved is Franco’s work in Harlem, that DSW actually commissioned Franco to paint an indoor mural in their 125th street store. DSW claimed the murals gave them local credibility in the neighborhood. Harlem is a tight knit community of traditions and family owned stores, so a large corporate store moving into the neighborhood wasn’t necessarily welcome. Franco’s murals helped them assimilate.
Franco did not always show the promise to bring life to a once forgotten neighborhood. When he was just three years old and growing up in Panama, he fell several stories and landed on his head! This left him in a coma for a month and with a swollen head. Effects of this injury left him feeling extremely introverted and having trouble making friends. He discovered his artistic skills could help him overcome this, and in 1958 his grandmother sent him to NYC to pursue his artistic talents. To help establish himself as an artist, he tried to donating his artwork to different organizations. His artwork quickly garnered favorable reviews and he became a revered NYC artist. By 1978, the work he is best known for, his “Harlem Gates,” was born.
Today if you walk along 125th street you can see about two dozen of his gates. The rest have disappeared with changing laws. The solid flat metal gates that Franco used as his primary canvas are now being replaced with see-through metal gates which the law now requires. A campaign known as “Save the Gates” is trying to get Franco’s remaining gates moved to Triboro Plaza and preserved for future generations. Don’t worry about Franco though. His works still grace many cement walls which won’t be going anywhere. He keeps on paining and travelling around the globe sharing his vibrant hopes and dreams.
You can follow his works on the official Franco the Great Facebook page.