Bridgeport Art Tower
Harris drove as we rolled through Marble Hill, cruising up the steep riverside roads. It was the third or fourth time I’d made the long trip north. But the journey didn’t stop in the Bronx — we loaded up the crew to drive to the Bridgeport Art Tower, hitting the highway for Connecticut.
The project is a collaboration between Harris Lobel and Hanz — curator and owner, respectively. I’d seen Harris’s previous work with the First City Project and the Drip Project, and now he’s brought the hustle to Bridgeport.
The massive brick-red building was a former school turned living space. It had the look of a castle. Lines of windows marked the homes inside. At the top, an empty bell tower crowned the building.
Harris pointed at it. “That’s the art tower.”
“Damn.” I said as we entered the colossal space. The entrance had a full kitchen, which opened into a two-story-tall living room. All the walls were covered in art. Miscellaneous tools of the trade were about. A ladder stood in the middle of the room. On it hung a white jacket, scribbled with all the artists who had graced the building. Names like King Bee, Sr. Lasso, Lucky Rabbit, Dek2Dx, BlusterOne, BelowKey — and that was just the living room.
Harris took me on a tour. Masato was painting the ceiling of the kitchen and later JPO showed up to paint the stairwell wall. Upstairs was a large living space, with a wide balcony and a few side rooms. Here, Dirt Cobain, Hiraku, Shei_P, and more. Up and up. Wooden steps led toward the loft.
This room was smaller, making it the base of the tower. Klops and Acroyak had walls here. Half the room was covered in crates of paint, provided by a sponsor Harris had secured — Bridgeport Artist and Craftsman Supply. (“I’m very grateful. We couldn’t have done the project without them.”) In the corner of the room, a spiral metal staircase took us up to the top. There was a penthouse view - large circular windows gave a 360 view of Bridgeport.
Looking out at the city, there seemed to be a stillness to Bridgeport. A cloudy day cast a melancholy gray haze on the rows of buildings. There was a park in front of the Art Tower — empty of people. The energy inside contrasted against the stale air outside.
Hustle Don’t Stop
Most curators would balk at the sheer size of the Art Tower — it’s a lot of square-footage to cover. But Harris is the kinda guy who steps up to a challenge. Big projects are his specialty.
Harris has had an unusual journey through the art world. As a young one, he was a basketball player, and thought sports would be his ticket in the world. Instead, Harris found himself swept up into the street art scene when Banksy came to town.
"I was one of those crazed fans.”
In a bid to be first to each unveiled wall, Harris kept his ears to the streets, scouring for tips and clues. With camera in hand, Harris investigated the city, on the trail of the illusive vandal. He documented his findings on his Vine channel, some of which would later be featured in an HBO documentary on Banksy.
After Banksy, Harris was hooked. He became immersed in the culture. One day the Bronx boy walked into a McDonald’s and saw a graffiti legend - Tracy 168.
“He was always a hometown favorite.”
Tracy was in bad shape. Harris wanted to help get the Wild Style alumni back to his prime. Harris became Tracy’s manager, and helped shape his comeback.
With Harris’ help, Tracy painted a mural with the Bushwick Collective. While Tracy’s health issues eventually led to the two separating on amicable terms, Harris continued his management career working with Plasma Slug.
“He schooled me to a lot of the game.”
Plasma was a major mentor to Harris. For 3 years, Harris worked with Plasma, helping him do shows and creating merchandise.
Although Harris was an effective manager, his time to shine came when he got the opportunity to curate the Mes Hall. A recording studio in Mt. Vernon, the Mes Hall is a massive complex, spanning several floors. Harris took to it with enthusiasm.
The Drip Project, as it was called, let Harris work his talents as a curator — he brought in dozens of artists to paint it up. He went H.A.M. on the Drip Project, flipping the drab walls into something beautiful.
On curating, Harris explained his method: "I try to aim for people whose colors and styles work together.”
While working at the Mes Hall, Harris reconnected with Layer Cake, an old friend. Layer Cake was close with Harris’s sister growing up, and had gone on to establish himself as a relevant artist in the New York scene. Through Layer Cake, Harris was once more given an opportunity to prove his hustle.
Situated in Glen Cove, Long Island, the First City Project was an empty mansion. Inspired by the Drip Project, the residence would be covered in art. Initially, when Harris came on board he could only bring three artists with him. The roster: TurtleCaps, Plasma Slug, and Infa did it big. Impressed by the work, the owner gave Harris the metaphorical keys to the castle and told him to get at it.
Harris stepped it up. For First City, he brought in the who’s-who of New York’s graf and street art scene. Harris busted his ass, working over months to bring in as many artists as he could. Every wall, every ceiling, every inch is a masterpiece. Thanks in large part to his hustle, First City features the A-list of the art world.
When First City opened, over 1500 people attended the party.
“Probably one of the greatest art experiences in my life.”
Harris credits his success to his strong work ethic.
"You gotta go out there and get it. Honestly, it’s just hustle and drive. Don’t stop until you achieve it. Don’t let anybody tell you, you can’t do it. Go out there and get that grind going.”
Harris is bringing that hustle and drive to the Bridgeport Art Tower.
“All this art inspires me"
Back at the Art Tower, I wandered around. I rotated through the tower, exploring the different nooks and crannies, finding something new wherever I looked.
I bumped into one of the residents. Jess had recently moved into the tower, amid a quarter-life crisis. Prior to coming to Bridgeport, Jess had a successful career in banking, but she felt unfulfilled. Jess is a creative spirit – a songwriter. On a whim, she decided to more, to the Art Tower, to spark the creative side of herself once more.
We marveled at the art, and I peppered her with polite questions. The thing that struck me most was what she kept coming back to – how living here made her feel incredibly inspired. I could see why.
Mid-afternoon, JPO rolled up to paint. JPO cut some outlines on the stairwell wall, as he sized up how to kill it. He needed more paint. Harris led us to the crate room. The three of us got to talking about life.
JPO had grown up in Bridgeport, and so the project had special meaning to him. Bridgeport was rough, a resource poor city often overlooked. It had the symptoms of urban stagnation — the crime, the fights, the poverty. The conversation led me to think about transformation and growth.
One of the ambitions I admired most about the Bridgeport Art Tower is its positive spirit. The building symbolizes the power art has to sparking new life.
Urbanization, Gentrification, and Beautification
Hanz, the owner of the Bridgeport Art Tower another Bronxian from Marble Hill, is a down-to-earth guy.
He owns a tattoo parlor. Back in the day, he’d done some graf. From his days of tagging, he knew guys in the scene. Via a mutual connection, local graffiti writer Cone, Hanz and Harris met.
“Cone will forever be the dude.” Hanz said.
Hanz has had family living in Bridgeport for several years and would often visit. About a year ago, he bought the penthouse condo that would become the Art Tower. Initially, Hanz got it as a place to live. But as he looked at the empty rooms, a vision began to form.
“Once I saw the space, I was intrigued with it.” Hanz explained. “I noticed that in the area, there needed to be a spark, there needed to be some color.”
He decided to transform the condo into a collaborative creative space.
Hanz enlisted Harris, and the two brainstormed. Last September they cracked open the first spray cans. Since then its grown. The idea was to let artists bring their own “organic input” to curate a positive vibe.
“We want to encourage the creatives. To bring people who will bring a positive energy to the space. It’s imperative.” Hanz mentioned. This is the mission of the Bridgeport Art Tower. “Art can breathe new life into a community.”
The art spark is a curious power. It has led to whole-sale transformations of streets, neighborhoods, and cities. But with growth, comes change. Harris and Hanz talked about gentrification versus beautification.
“The difference is that we’re gonna give back to the community. We’re gonna give help to the homeless. We’re gonna create art classes." Hanz explained. His ambition is to make the Art Tower a center for creativity for the Bridgeport locals.
Harris added: “beautification is for people in the community, not just to gentrify the area. The difference is that we’re not doing it back-handed, just looking to set up condominiums. We want to inspire neighborhoods that are struggling.”
For Hanz, community engagement is a key part of the Art Tower’s business model. He talked with different local leaders and stakeholders before painting. They had an enthusiastic response. Hanz related a story of a man on the street who told him, “yo, this is exactly what the community needs.”
The project is the first of Hanz’s real-estate company, Art Your City. Hanz has invested his own money into the project to make sure it is a success.
“We’re not gonna take money from people who will manipulate the vision.” Hanz explained. “I’ll take my own risk – learning by trials and tribulations.”
The Bridgeport Art Tower is a different kind of living situation, as both a co-working and co-living space. Creativity and art are meant to foster an understanding between tenants. Living in the tower functions both as an artist residency and as a communal environment. Before Hanz will lease a room to someone, he vets them to make sure they bring positivity into the project.
“We want people to create something [at the Bridgeport Art Tower], that will inspire others. … It’s about sharing a vision and giving an opportunity."
Harris is a curator with a hard drive, whose enthusiasm and energy has helped bring dozens of talented artists to the tower. With Hanz and the artists involved, he has helped curate a positive spirit. And my visit to the Bridgeport Art Tower was all good vibes. There was a magic in the air – as Jess put it, it was inspiring.
The Bridgeport Art Tower is an innovative approach to living and working creatively. Hanz and Harris are planning an exhibition this summer to showcase the tower once it’s complete. The Bridgeport Art Tower will spark new life into an old city. In a way, it already has.
Photo courtesy of T.K. Mills