I was able to conduct an interview with legendary graffiti artist, James Top. James Top has not only been a lifelong artist, he is also an activist who uses his artistic talent to uplift people. In our exclusive interview, Mr. Top discussed an issue dear to his heart: “The People’s Wall.”
Elsie Law: Please give me a little history on "The People's Wall."
James Top: The People’s Wall was started in 1999 to bring self esteem to one block in Harlem- and that was 147st Street between 7th & 8th Avenues. The goal was to beautify the walls of an abandoned school on a block that was known for hard core drug sales. In the summer of 1999, Graffiti Artists For A Positive Cause (an organization formed by graffiti artist dedicated to giving back to the community through workshops, art exhibitions, murals and productions) in association with Neighbors Unite Block Association of 147st Street and its Vice President Mrs. Karen Woodson started The People’s Wall. The featured artists were: Duro, Stan 153, Iz the Wiz, Doms, Flin, Spar, Meres, Keo, and Star. The art director was James Top.
EL: Can you describe some of the artwork that graced The People's Wall?
JT: The People’s Wall of 147st Street featured the world’s largest portraits of Harlem icon, Malcolm X; and the greatest people’s champion, Muhammad Ali. Through the years, the wall has presented some of the greatest names in Black culture from: History, music, sports, politics, and the Harlem community. In the 2007 presentation, we honored the five boroughs and the 1977 blackout. We also painted the largest known portrait of the late Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
EL: What is the current state/status of The People's Wall?
JT: The developers have covered the wall since June with a huge green fence so the public can’t see it anymore. They continue to cut away at it, but most of the artwork and portraits remain alive and well. They tried to destroy it, and it still looks good. Help Save The People’s Wall!
EL: Wow. Okay, just to clarify, you’re saying that developers have come in and brought the property where The People's Wall was located.
EL: As one of the people who took a great effort to beautify Harlem, and lift the spirits of the residents before Harlem became a "trendy" place to live and do business for people who had been outsiders to the community, how do you feel about the gentrification that has taken place?
JT: I have no problem with any one moving to Harlem and enjoying the people and the culture of this community. I wish they would have built it up a long time ago for the people who survived the drugs wars. I wish that they would build more housing and schools for poor people in this area. They are turning this wall into a high priced condos for the rich and destroying our art, heroes, and history. This building could have served the community better as something else other then a high priced condo.
EL: What do you think should have been the proper response from the developers regarding The People's Wall?
JT: In the beginning they told us and the community that they would incorporate the wall into the interior of the building and relocate the wall; but they lied. They stopped communicating with us, and covered up the wall. We gave them a list of what we wanted from them and they would then come back with proposals that would be very insulting. They don't want to work out a settlement with us. They just want to run over the wall, and our need to artistically express ourselves in our own community. They should sit down with us and work out this issue. We are here. We are the people. They should recognize and incorporate the history of the wall in the new building design, and help in the relocation of the peoples wall for generations to come.
EL: What can people do to help make sure that The People's Wall is Preserved?
JT: People who would like to help out can email or call the developers (HCCI), their local politicians, the mayor's office, and if they like can email me at the following email addresses writersbench@gmail .com or graffitinyctv@gmail, or continue to read this blog for more details. This is our history and our culture we must unite to continue the fight always all the time.
[SIDEBAR: I will continue to post updates regarding the progress of this issue on this blog. Please stay tuned and get involved.]