By Neda Karimi and Kiki Sideris
“Let’s go to the moon.” That’s what street artist John Macchione said to his class of five on Saturday, Nov. 10, while leading his first graffiti workshop at the Welwyn Preserve, a nature reserve in Glen Cove. Nestled between the vast greenery of the reserve are dilapidated buildings that local street artists like Macchione call “a second home.”
“Whenever I have an idea in my head, it’s almost like it nags at me,” Macchione, who is also known as CBK Designs, explained. “[Welwyn] is the perfect place because I can just run in here, get it all out and move on.”
There were times when Macchione visited the reserve every week for a month to practice his art. This time, he opened his “home” to teach inexperienced participants his trade. The group took a two-minute hike into the reserve until they reached an abandoned glassless greenhouse, where individual stations were set up with an outline of each participants’ name. They were then directed to fill in and personalize the outline with provided spray paint. After that, they proceeded to a roofless room and teamed up to finish two murals of the sun and the moon.
The experience changed participant Nicole Garvin’s overall perception of the art-form. “My [prior] perception of graffiti was just that it was kind of easy,” Garvin, a trained artist, said after the workshop. “But there’s design to it, there’s thought. It’s a lot of work, standing there, holding your arm out and spray-painting something.”
The Welwyn Preserve is open to the public for exploration, so the workshop was completely legal. Welwyn was originally a 204-acre estate built in 1906 for Harold Irving Pratt, an oil industrialist and philanthropist, where he lived with his wife Harriet. After Harriet died in 1969, the estate was willed to Nassau County, but the county had no plans for it, so it was left abandoned. Today, what remains is embellished with murals and graffiti.
In 2015, Glen Cove Police announced that they would crack down on graffiti crimes in the area following an increase of graffiti-related arrests.
According to Macchione, graffiti is more than just the art, it’s about designing a unique tag — or personal signature — while considering that the law isn’t on the artist’s side.
“I don’t feel like I represent that because I never ran from the cops,” Macchione said. “I didn’t live that life.” He stressed that there’s a difference between graffiti, which involves typography and serifs, and street art, which consists of detailed murals. That’s why he considers himself a “new wave” street artist who has strayed away from traditional lettering and instead expresses his art through fantastical creatures and animals.
Last year, the First City Project transformed a historic Glen Cove mansion into a street art museum. According to Harris Lobel, a curator there, the project helped introduce a feeling of community and culture to the town.
“The element of street art in general is uplifting and can turn a grungy neighborhood into a beautiful attraction,” Lobel, who is also a street art photographer, said. “There was nothing creative going on in that area. It was a town with a lot of history, but had no real sense of community.”
But not all community members welcome the art-form.
Life-long Glen Cove resident Michael Martino, 59, who recently visited the reserve, said that he was taken aback by the graffiti there. “Nothing says ‘urban blight’ like graffiti,” Martino said. “I’m aware of artists like Banksy who use graffiti for social commentary, but tagging and the like is just vandalism.”
For the last four years, the Webb Institute, which neighbors Welwyn, has sent a student-run leadership committee to re-paint the walls of the reserve in an effort to “beautify” the area.
“For the beach area, we do not like seeing it covered in graffiti,” Reneé Tremblay, a Webb Institute student, said. “Some of the designs are distasteful. Perhaps it would be nice if the beach wall had a well-designed mural instead.”
Criticism hasn’t stopped artists like Macchione from utilizing the space.
“If it weren’t for this place [Welwyn], who knows where I would be?” Macchione wondered. “There’s going to be another kid like me that doesn’t like the typical things Long Island has to offer. If they never find these places, that could stunt their decision in life to pursue art.”