It seems slightly incongruous to be writing this when the Spring sun is shining through the trees and lambs are frolicing in the field outside. My rural idyll is a long way from the dark and dangerous New York City of the 1970’s & 80’s.
The other day I was chatting to someone who has left the frenetic city behind and moved out to Connecticut to find a better quality of life for their family. It surprised me to hear that after a 30 year reduced crime rate NYC is now experiencing an upsurge in violent crime, problems with homelessness and drug associated crimes. Having always had good experiences of the city when I’ve visited this was something that saddened me. That got me harking back many years and gathering up some memories from the recesses of my brain.
At the end of the 1970’s a young man was working as a manager in a burger bar. He saw all kinds of crimes being committed with seeming impunity; the police were unwilling or unable to make an impact and people were scared to go out at night or ride the subway. New York at this time was a city struggling; struggling with debt, struggling with depression, struggling with drugs. It was a dark frightening place. So this young man decided to try to make a difference to the city he loved. His name was Curtis Silwa. A city native Silwa recruited 12 other like minded people, The Magnificent Thirteen. They set out to start a fight back and were joined by many others with the same aspirations. In February 1979 The Guardian Angels came into existence. Wearing signature red berets and white t-shirts with the all seeing eye & angel wing logo the group started to patrol the streets of the city. They courted controversy and divided opinion in the world of law enforcement and politics. Some saw them as vigilantes and law breakers themselves. They weren’t averse to generating their own publicity. But at street level ordinary New Yorkers were reassured to see them on the subway at night and patrolling the streets.
Also on the streets during this era was a young English artist. He spent his days as a cycle courier and his nights painting. Sometimes he painted in his tiny studio but could more often be found getting involved with the newly emerging street art scene. Haring & Basquiat were his companions in this exciting new art form. The artists name was Sax Berlin. Circumstances saw him return to England where he settled in the south west of the country, an ancient land full of myth and legend. But New York never left his heart, it was possible to see him painting with old cassette tape recordings of the sounds of the streets of New York. The rattle of the L train or the bustle of China Town, a wonderfully evocative soundtrack for an artist to be inspired by.
Berlin creates paintings in many different and beautiful styles and his soundtrack conjured up thoughts of those steamy times in New York. It has lead to the creation of a street art inspired series of work. Iconic motifs run through this body of work but the most iconic are the paintings depicting The Guardian Angels. They bring back to him the dirty, seedy city and his pieces show how deeply he was affected by its influence. It’s almost as if the city itself has become a muse for Berlin. And now more than at any time in the last 30 years has New York needed Guardian Angels. Once more they are being seen on the streets, this time with less controversy, helping where needed and protecting their fellow citizens. And their fellow citizens appear to be glad to have them back.
Berlins Angels are as iconic as the living Angels. There is a form of cyclical creation at work here. Out of new darkness in the harsher post- pandemic world the Angels patrol the streets and the artist paints their representation.