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.

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