Jonathan Cohen: Dean, The Institute of Higher Burnin’
Written By: Georgette Yacoub
If 5 Pointz is the graffiti mecca, Jonathan Cohen is the prophet. He is a graffiti veteran and curator of an industrial block in Long Island City that serves as the canvas to more than 400 aerosol art pieces. Referring to his tag name, Meres One, Jonathan explained, “It means absolutely nothing. It’s just the letters I did best at the time, when I wasn’t that good.” With over 20 years of experience under his belt, he said, “Now, I could do pretty much any of them.”
I was born in an era when hip-hop was created. It molded me into who I am.
On an atypically warm winter morning, 5 Pointz hosted dozens of visitors. An elderly woman posed in front of an intricate production of a jungle infested with characters that resembled Spartan zombies. The emerald hued piece was a collaboration (or “collab” in street art terms) between Meres and the French artist, Zeso, which took nine days to complete. A young couple strolled with their baby onto the loading dock, kneeled down and pointed out some of the pieces to their toddler who seemed mesmerized by the lurid art form.
Jonathan Cohen has an intimidating exterior, one amplified by the fact that he is a pioneer of an illegal art form. His face is angular with features as defined as his artwork. When he tags his productions, the letters are tangled within each other, occupying different depths of a flat canvas—as if they have been flung at the wall and frozen in the midst of a pop-and-lock dance battle.
His clothing style is 90’s hip-hop—reminiscent of a time when music was, as he puts it, “less about the dollar and more about creating music that you feel”. Now, in his late 30’s, Jonathan tries to replicate hip-hop culture’s prime through 5 Pointz. “I was born in an era when hip-hop was created and it has been a big part of me growing up,” he said. “It kind of molded me into who I am. This place symbolizes that era that I like so much.”
The large thermal shirt that adorned his medium build frame was stained with speckles of paint, the proud medallions of a working artist. His curly and dark hair is trimmed with gray strands of wisdom. For a man so pressed for time, he talks and moves with a southern swagger—focused and deliberate.
Google Maps need not list 5 Pointz. The building pierces through the urban monotony of Queens, demanding attention from all in its vicinity with a hypnotic allure. The immaculate Citibank skyscraper seems out of place sharing the same neighborhood. Under the 7 train tracks, motorcyclists put on a show for the 5 Pointz tourists. One of the riders popped a wheelie, stood on the seat, and did a little tango number. Evel Knieval would have been proud.
The name, 5 Pointz, signifies New York’s five boroughs coming to one point. According to Meres, “the name was created in the sense of having people be able to come from all five boroughs and paint legitimately without having to worry about police. I wanted to keep a name that wasn’t restricted to graffiti. I wanted to create a place where not only graffiti but every element of hip-hop would be present—DJing, Emceeing, breakdancing”. 5 Pointz is often the host of beat box, b-boy, and freestyle rap battles. The graffiti mecca is celebrating its 10th season.
However, with the possibility of 5 Pointz being demolished to build residential high-rises, the anniversary is bittersweet. The location, only a 10-minute subway ride from mid-Manhattan, is one that could bring a lot of profit to property owner, Jerry Wolkoff. Meres believes Wolkoff is simply waiting for the economy to get stronger before inciting the demolition. Over 14,000 people have signed a “Show Your Love to 5Pointz” petition in hopes for 5 Pointz’s preservation.
From Hitler to graffiti art, you have to be able to understand the past and move to the future.
When I asked Meres what he thinks Jerry Wolkoff’s intentions were in donating the building to the art form in the first place, he replied, “I don’t know. I could say he likes the press from it. He says he likes the art. My feeling is that my love for the art is different than what his will ever be.”
“Because I’m the artist. He’s not. My feeling is that you could never have the same feelings as me. It’s like you’re either an outsider or an insider. He’ll never been an insider because he’s not a graffiti artist,” Meres continued.
So, you have to labor through it? You have to go through the worst of it to appreciate the best of it?
To numerous contributing artists, 5 Pointz is widely known as the United Nations of Street Art. Different genres of street art are welcomed and displayed on the warehouse walls. 5 Pointz has become an international destination for artists from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan. Amanda Jennings, a Florida native and photographer said she visits 5 Pointz every six months because “There’s always interesting people. People from everywhere in the world.”
As I joined Meres on one of his ongoing perimeter checks, I mentioned that he has been quoted as saying, “These walls are no different to me than a canvas in a museum.” He elaborated—“It’s an unofficial museum. What validates the art in a museum is different than what validates it here.” Well, how is it different to an indoor museum like MoMA? “We are an inside-out museum. We are the walls. Our canvases are 10 times bigger. You stand in front of a mural and its triple the size of the biggest canvas at the MoMA. Other than that, it is no different,” he continued.
After about the third perimeter check, we entered the loading dock. I noticed that a secondary title for 5 Pointz was emblazoned on the wall: “The Institute of Higher Burnin’”. A burner is the highest form of graffiti, a name saved for masterpieces. The play on words signify Meres’s desire to open a school for aspiring aerosol artists, where they can be taught technique and history. “From the most positive history to the most negative, you have to study it. From Hitler to graffiti art, you have to be able to understand the past and move to the future. To me, graffiti art, whether you see it as negative or not, is a part of history. You have to recognize that. It happens to be an art form and to try to silence an art from is when they kill it. It won’t happen, but you know,” Meres said.
Meres is a bit of a celebrity in the street art arena. As we drove around the block in his green Chevy, our conversation was punctuated by regulars who wanted to say hi, praise him, or needed supplies. One of the artists working on the outskirts of the block approached the car, “Yo, I need a black can.”
“I don’t know if I have one,” Meres replied, as he handed him keys to a supply closet.
We made a U-turn for another round of checks when Meres said, “Like going to a war with no bullets.”
Meres was born in the Bronx but grew up in Flushing. Raised Puerto Rican and Jewish, he says he’s not religious at all. “I believe everyone’s temple is within themselves. You have a right to do good, and that’s it. I don’t really believe in an afterlife or all that.”
We are an inside-out museum. We are the walls. Our canvases are 10 times bigger. You stand in front of a mural and its triple the size of the biggest canvas at the MoMA.
His mother, a former retail employee, now works for an exterminating company. His father used to be a printer. Their feelings about Meres’s relationship to graffiti have evolved over the years. Meres said, “It has grown as I’ve come to be able to make money out of it. You know, they’re old-school minds. They understand now why I love it the way I do. They just want the best for me, you know? The fact that I am able to make money off of it, it makes them relieved.”
Any profit that Meres makes through graffiti isn’t from 5 Pointz. His work there is a “labor of love”. The payoff comes from instances such as when a mother wrote to him expressing that her child’s visit to 5 Pointz was the best moment of his life – “Things like that are what help me continue staying here and not get paid and still be able to run it. Those are the things that help.” Meres makes a living by freelancing as an artist. Companies such as Mercedes-Benz, ABC, and Def Jam Records commission his work. He does ads, video shoots, canvases, houses, and galleries.
Meres started dabbling in graffiti in ’87 or ’88 when he was just tagging. “The negative aspect of it was what lured me. I started doing it because I was into the adrenaline rush of doing it illegally,” Meres said. From there, it was a matter of getting better and transitioning from tagging and throw-ups to piecing and productions. In Meres’s words, “There have been different chapters of graffiti in my life.” But, he has always loved every element of it.
Like many other “graff” writers, Meres went to college. He was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology and majored in illustration. Somewhere down the line, however, he decided to halt his pursuit of a degree.
Did you just not like it?
“No, it’s just somewhere along the line I was doing this place and taking illustration. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do so I was like, ‘You know what?’ I love this place. I love the graffiti art. I think I want to put all my energy into here,” Meres said.
Before 5 Pointz’s inception, the building was known as the Phun Phactory. Opened in 1993, the Phun Factory was a similarly based organization where graffiti writers were able to practice their craft without worrying about fines or some mandatory vacation time at the Rikers Island Inn. It was the place where Meres started doing productions and eventually became attached to the place. As Meres was explaining this, a group of young adults walked onto the loading dock while listening to an older gentleman explain the history of 5 Pointz. Meres hushed midsentence, listening to the man.
“I love listening in on tours and to all the incorrect facts they give, “Meres said. “I was here the other day and he was saying ‘Oh yeah, they scaffold the whole building’, which isn’t true. So I started talking to them and he was like ‘Oh, what’s your name?’ I was like ‘Meres’. And, he goes, ‘Oh wait, you wrote it. Would you like to give a few words?’ I don’t like to do it because they give these tours and charge these people. I don’t want to give them information. If you don’t know it, it’s bad enough you’re making money off of us.”
After the closing of Phun Phactory in 2001, the warehouse was abandoned by everyone except vandals. After typing up a two-to-three page proposal for Jerry Wolkoff, the property owner, Meres began running the place. “The easiest part was that,” Meres said. “The hardest part was being able to run it – being able to deal with all the bologna I have to deal with out here. You have to watch the walls, you have to watch the roofs, you have to make sure there are no fights. You’ve got to give tours. It’s a little bit of everything. I also have to deal with the scribblers and taggers and make sure they kind of respect what we are doing.”
Does that happen often?
“It happens here and there. I actually found a wall on the other side, someone must have found a scrap can and drew a penis is one of the characters mouths. So, I got to fix it up,” he said.
You could take wax and make a record, candle, or sculpture. That’s the way I am. I could work in the commercial field, with fine arts, specific graphic work, or something abstract.
If you ask Meres, he’ll tell you that everything has happened at 5 Pointz—weddings, engagement parties, music videos, and the likes. The worst day at 5 Pointz, he’ll tell you, was the day that a flight of stairs collapsed. In April of 2009, Nicole Gagne, a jewelry designer and friend of Meres, was leaving her indoor studio when an external stairway had collapsed, thrusting her to a three-story tumble. “Not only was [she] almost tragically killed, but it really put everything in the air. That led to a whole chain of events where the building got repainted and I wasn’t sure if they were going to keep it open,” Meres said. From what Meres hears, Nicole moved to a warmer place and is still recouping. Now, the inside of the 5 Pointz warehouse serves solely as storage space. Before the stair incident, 110 artists used the indoor studios to practice and display their crafts.
Marie Flageul, a 5 Pointz volunteer and owner of an event company, remembers another memorable day at 5 Pointz—one she describes as sad and beautiful. A few years ago, a kid, Jake, was getting into a lot of trouble with the law because he was illegally tagging in Brooklyn. His mother, a college professor, reached out to Meres and asked him to provide some guidance and hosting to Jake at 5 Pointz. Meres didn’t develop a personal relationship with Jake, (otherwise known by his tag name, Drip) but would say hi, give him a spot, and check on his progress. One day, as he was heading out for school on a bicycle, a van hit him. He passed away on the scene. Jake’s parents called Meres asking him to host a memorial for him at 5 Pointz. Meres and Marie questioned whether it was appropriate to host a memorial in front of a warehouse, amid dumpsters. But, they couldn’t say no. They arranged the delivery of 300 chairs and Meres gave Jake’s friends a wall to honor the art form and a kid who adored it. Jake’s parents asked Meres to speak. “He just gave a few words and got so choked up as if it was a true friend or little brother,” Marie recalls. “It wasn’t because he knew Jake. It was because of his value of life that was showcased in the speech he gave. He’s been in touch with the parents ever since. That’s really a life lesson – how you are here today and can be gone tomorrow. It’s really representative of the way, I think, Meres looks at life.”
Marie Flageul has known Meres since 2006. She is one of core volunteers who have dedicated so much time to the demanding 5 Pointz with no prospects of personal gain. “Unfortunately with nonprofit, when you’re dealing with volunteers, there is a lot of deception when people will come and say they want to help. After two months you realize people are in it for the wrong reasons,” Marie said. Because 5 Pointz gets a lot of press coverage, celebrity interest, and internet presence, some volunteers just want to be affiliated with 5 Pointz for exposure to sell their music, clothing line, or paintings. Flageul says that Meres has developed a prepared attitude—“Now he’s just welcoming the help for what it’s worth and how long it’s worth, and if it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Through her years of working with Meres, Marie has come to learn that, “he has the ability to enjoy things that don’t have a dollar value. He’s much more about human interaction and creativity for no gain”. What makes him happy? “Good, old-school house music, anything cheesy—as far as food, a beautiful day with no rain or cold so that he could paint, kids, dogs, and people in general,” said Marie. What makes him tick? “Competition, in the poor sense of competition. Not self-motivation to do better, but ego fights over a wall or piece or who’s better. He has a very, very low tolerance of self-interested people. And, he has a zero tolerance for liars,” Marie continued.
Christian Cortes is a contributing artist to 5 Pointz who has known Meres since the early 90’s. His former tag name was WAQS, a play on the word “wax” because of his “shape-shifting” abilities. Christian said, “You could take wax and make a record, candle, or sculpture. I realized that’s the way I am. I could work in the commercial field, with fine arts, specific graphic work, or something abstract.” Christian believes one of Meres’s most defining characteristics is his sense of humor. “He doesn’t take himself seriously at all. He never has. That’s why he makes those Joker characters,” Christian said.
It is draining. It is exhausting. But, it’s such a part of him and he is willing to fight for it on a daily basis. It's in his blood.
Although there were no Joker pieces up during my visits to 5 Pointz, I saw photographs. Meres’s current pride and joy is a production of Fire Marshall Bill in all his maniacal glory. Fire Marshall Bill is a humorous character from In Living Color whose safety advisories are against imaginative scenarios such as outbreaks of mentally ill elves. The production is especially interesting because it is interactive. He happily unveiled it for my viewing. The crowds of tourists gathered around, hoping to take pictures in what looked like a real-life volcanic scene. Meres urged some of the shy girls to pose in better-fitting fashion (“Pretend you are going to push her in the lava! Act scared!”) He gently positioned a toddler in the exact place where the three-dimensional effect of the piece would be most potent. The only thing Meres loves more than his art is the appreciation for it.
I noticed in my conversations with Meres and other contributing artists that they refer to themselves as writers, more so than graffiti artists. “Graffiti is a negative term. It was a term that was given to writers that means scrawling. Graffiti artists called themselves writers because they wrote, they wrote their name. It wasn’t until the media created a negative term to label us…” Meres said. The correct term is aerosol art, although Meres’s laissez-faire character doesn’t incline him to prefer either term to the other.
So, what’s your writing process?
Meres pulled out a box of chocolate-creamed Oreos from his center console. Between the muffles of his chewing, he said, “A lot of the times, when I paint, my mood will be reflected in the piece I create. Sometimes I’ll be in a bad mood and I paint, and it makes me feel better.”
I’m almost surprised that Meres is able to maintain an intimate relationship with his craft despite the constant demands of 5 Pointz. Christian Cortes, the man to credit the more demonic 5 Pointz pieces with, has a mental image of Meres “running around, making sure everyone is doing alright and trying to paint with one hand while holding a phone in the other.” It’s rare that Meres’s phone isn’t demanding his attention. In the midst of our time together, between the requests of visitors and artists, Meres’s phone rang nonstop – one time from a documentarian who missed a scheduled meeting (“Yo, what happened man? You got kidnapped by aliens?!)
Marie, the volunteer who moved to New York because of her affinity with its ugliness and “urban magic”, believes that 5 Pointz is Meres’s greatest joy. “That’s why he’s able to do it and is able not get discouraged. It’s because the reward is so much bigger than the task for him. It is draining. It is exhausting. But, it’s such a part of him and he is willing to fight for it on a daily basis, “ she said. “That is quintessential to him. It’s in his blood.”
New York City Councilman, Peter F. Vallone Jr., has been coined ‘Graffiti Public Enemy No. 1’. He passed legislation that makes selling graffiti supplies to minors illegal. “I’ve always been ambivalent about graffiti, at best. If it’s legal, in that case it’s art. On the other hand, it rewards vandals who have made their name ruining other people’s property,” he said. “I’ve seen some pieces that I would consider art. I’ve seen some that are still just disgusting tags. Art is in the eye of the beholder.”
So, what makes graffiti art?
“Let’s just say, you know it when you see it,” he replied.
Commenting on graffiti’s negative connotation, Meres said, “It is what it is. I don’t get that. I understand there’s some people that write illegally on someone’s property. They don’t like that. For the most part, people come here and love the place.”
If the economy was right and it was something he wanted to do right now, it would be gone. It’s just a matter of time.
The negative stigma is one that has stuck in the art world. Meres explained, “These artists that are successful in the art world don’t want to be labeled as graffiti artists because sometimes there’s a negative stigma attached.”
Famous street artist, Michael De Feo, disagrees with the negativity that surrounds street art. He believes that street art and graffiti are whimsical in their essence. “By the sheer nature of having something in a place that wasn’t there before—and your walking on your way to work or school and bump into something—you’re just like ‘Wow’,” he said. In 2007, Meres asked Michael to paint at 5 Pointz. They have a mutual respect for each other’s work. “I know he likes what I do. That made me feel really good because I value what he does with that building very much,” De Feo said.
Graffiti in the 90’s was largely possessive. According to Christian Cortes, “It was like, I own this block. You own that block.” If someone disregarded the territory lines, things could get violent. 5 Pointz’s mission is to create an open space where artists from all walks of life could contribute and create more complex pieces of craftsmanship. A nonnegative, nonviolent place like 5 Pointz contributes to the evolvement of graffiti’s acceptance as an art form. “That never existed,” Christian continued. “You have people slowly developing a new way of seeing graffiti culture – not seeing it as some dirty, disposable type of art.” Meres is the peacemaker and promoter of the environment where that happens.
Meres is confident that graffiti with eventually gain acceptance in the art realm. “It’s just a matter of when. You wait for some higher up to say ‘Oh, I validate this art’,” Meres said in an overly proper, mocking voice and stiffened posture. “Then it’s in every museum. Every art form takes a while to be accepted.”
With the future demolition of 5 Pointz becoming more imminent, I asked Meres why Jerry Wolkoff has changed his mind in donating the space to graffiti. “There’s no change of heart. He’s just not at the stage where he could develop it yet. If the economy was right and it was something he wanted to do right now, it would be gone. It’s just a matter of time,” Meres answered.
If 5 Pointz were to be demolished, graffiti art would be forced underground again. Buildings and private property would be painted illegally and the community would likely spend more money paying for cleanups instead of just having a space solely dedicated to it. Meres, for one, will not stop his craft. Luis “Zimad” Lamboy, a contributing artist to 5 Pointz who has been painting for 32 years, said Meres, “has a dream and he won’t let anyone stop him from pursuing what he wants.”
When I asked Meres what’s next for him if 5 Pointz closes, he answered, “I will continue doing [graffiti] regardless. Whether I’m doing it here or illegally. The show must go on.”
Zimad was right.