By James Maher
Name: Elizabeth Atnafu
Location: 2nd Street and 1st Avenue
Date: April 5 at 4:45 pm.
I’m from Ethiopia originally. I moved to Washington when I was 14. I finished high school and university and then moved to New York. I met very good people — musicians, photographers and other beautiful human beings, many older than me. They were like an extension of my college teachers in a way. They gave me more ideas.
I’ve been in this neighborhood for 21 years. I’ve always been interested in this neighborhood even though I have lived in different neighborhoods. I used to live in Chelsea, Tribeca and Soho, but this neighborhood brings a lot of interesting people from all over the world.
What interests is there are a lot of older creative people who couldn’t afford the city and moved here. There is all types of diversity. Another is the gardens and the people who work together on them. A favorite thing is there’s no judgment — wherever you sleep, on the floor or not. It has the originality of a long time ago. It has that touch.
Now it’s changed. People came from everywhere, and they look at you like you do not belong. They are afraid. It is OK, that is part of life too. When you approach people with a sense of humor, that breaks the line. The neighborhood is a human being too. You push it. There is anger too — there is disappointment here. We are mixed.
This neighborhood is trying to give the creativity. Most of the tourists who come here, they see all kinds of crazy outfits and crazy people — things that are different from what they’re used to. That by itself is an art gallery — a street art gallery.
I’m an artist. I’m a storyteller. I am inspired by people. I used to have a studio at 285 E. Third St., but now the rent is so high that it’s gone. I use to volunteer the studio by inviting kids there. As for me now, I’m a nomad artist. I travel to different places and paint and live and come back to New York. Not that I have money – it’s based on invitations in exchange for work.
I like to collect a lot of things. I have 52 things collected from the streets to make the art out of it. I went to a cigar store and there were a lot of empty boxes for sale. They told me, ‘We are trying to send city kids to a camp,’ so I said, ‘OK I’ll buy 50.’ And then when I got home, I didn't know what to do with them. Finally, I started breaking them and painting them, and collecting anything I find interesting in the street, and I put them together.
So I invited different people — whether it was the Chinese deliveryman, the intellectuals, the kids. I said, pick the piece you like and write about it, but I tell everybody to speak their own language. If you are Spanish, write in Spanish; if you are Chinese, write in Chinese. And they don’t understand, but that means we are becoming together. You’ll see that book in the future. The book is called "East Village Universe."
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.