Jim Power, the East Village Mosaic Man, Teams Up With 23-Year-Old Apprentice to "Keep the Arts Alive"
"Wake up, New York! Are we kidding? I will be the #1 tourist attraction in this place, and that includes the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty," boasts Jim Power -- a/k/a, New York's Mosaic Man (so dubbed in a 1988 Voice article) -- who has been affixing colorful tiles to East Village light posts for 26 years. Power, 62, is a Vietnam veteran who has been homeless on and off for decades and now lives in transitional city housing in Harlem, a far commute from his downtown canvas. He has bad vision, a sense that's failing behind thick glasses, and a worse hip; he hesitates with pain as he stands up from a chair. Yet, or perhaps because of, his physical frailties, his fervor for building and refurbishing his mosaics has continued unabated. "When I got into this, I was immortal all a sudden," he says. This stuff will be around for a long time."
Mosaic Man Jim Power and his dog, Jessie Jane
Like the stories he tells to anyone who has the time to sit down and listen, his mosaics have varying themes. Some spell out the names or slogans of businesses, like the poles and planters near Crif Dogs; some honor the NYPD and FDNY and commemorate 9/11 and the blackout; others denote Village landmarks, spelling out Astor Place and St. Mark's Place. One light post at Astor Place reads: "All the colors make it more beautiful, not just some of the colors. Wake up, America."
Though quietly recognizable to anyone who has spent time in the area, the mosaics have yet to make Power famous to anyone but longtime Village locals. He's never made any significant money for his public work, though he had had some recognition: City Lore, an organization that supports New York's cultural heritage, honored Power in its 2004 People's Hall of Fame, and photos of his work have been published in various New York City guide books. He has also created the occasional "private" mosaic for pay -- for example, at Coffee Shop in Union Square, China Club in Midtown West, and at downtown speakeasy PDT -- but his primary interest is in improving and expanding his public works. "The bottom line is, this is one of the greatest public projects that was ever in the city of New York," he says.
In the late 1980s, Power set out to make the Village an arts destination with a trail of 80 light post mosaics. At various times, he had a few people helping him, some of whom were on mind-altering drugs and some of whom ended up in jail. "I had a pretty wild crew," Power says, but he kept working, most of the time by himself.
At the height of the project, he was up to 70 light posts. Fifty were removed under the Giuliani administration for being a form of graffiti, he says. Having weathered the last two decades, several of his remaining mosaics are now in disrepair. There was even a point in 2007 when Power began tearing down his own work, frustrated that he didn't have the money to restore the poles, or even a consistent place to live. (He's still bitter that the city spent millions on the New York City Waterfalls -- created by a Dane, Olafur Eliasson, two years ago -- while ignoring Power's homegrown works.)
But even when Power complains about the city's public art choices or, more extremely, when he tells stories about intimidating drug addicts by spinning a hammer in his hand and screaming threats, he has a spirit of the positive about him that underscores the harshness of what he's saying. "I could be falling off a cliff and have a sense of humor. It's unfortunate," he says.
Power believes that part of the reason he's had trouble getting funding is because he is unable to complete the formal application process. He can read and write, but not well enough to write a coherent letter: "I would say it definitely stopped me...I don't read and write on a writer's level at all. In fact, I spell words the way I pronounce them, and I don't pronounce them right." In the past, he has called the Public Art Fund and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to get support, but nothing has come of it.