Artist Erik den Breejen spent most of his 37th birthday earlier this week on the corner of Elizabeth and Houston streets in Manhattan, with a paint brush in his hand.
He was finishing a 10-by-13-foot mural portrait of David Bowie, commissioned by clothing manufacturer Rag & Bone for the side wall of its Nolita boutique. Based on a photo from the late 1970s, the image is composed of about 900 words from two Bowie songs, “Fashion” and “Heroes.”
Den Breejen, using shades of blue, red and pink, is taking a week to complete the portrait at the rate of about 120 words a day, 44 lines in all.
“In the studio I can get more elaborate,” said den Breejen, his round face sweaty and red at the end of a humid, hot Monday shift. “Here I am working as fast as I can.”
He developed his method eight years ago. The text is evenly spaced and color-coded, creating depth. From across the street, the image reads as graphic and iconic. Up close, it falls apart into words and colors, becoming almost abstract.
“I want people to wonder how it’s done,” he said. “But I can tell you, I don’t use any stencils.”
The 6-foot-6 redhead coped with rain delays and passersby stopping to take photos and chat with him.
“Today I got my wife to field all the questions,” den Breejen said, pointing at a slender woman, another redhead, sitting on a chair nearby. “People constantly ask: ‘Is this JFK? RFK? Reagan? James Dean? Today I got my first Obama.”
As if on cue, a man in a car stopped at a red light called out, “That’s Bowie, right?”
The artist, who used to play in a band until two years ago, has been long drawn to music and musicians as subjects. He has used text to paint portraits of Harry Nilsson, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. His largest canvas, 7-by-9-feet, was composed of the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
In December, den Breejen’s solo booth at Untitled art fair in Miami sold out during Art Basel Miami Beach with prices ranging from $7,000 to $20,000, according to Nick Lawrence, owner of Freight and Volume gallery, which represents the artist.
Things weren’t always as smooth. Earlier last year his gallery received a “cease-and-desist” letter following den Breejen’s “Smile” exhibition, named after the Beach Boys’ legendary album and including several canvases with its lyrics. The formal complaint was dropped, but many of the paintings remain unsold.
Lawrence hopes that Bowie won’t take similar measures.
“The text is one of the components of Erik’s process,” Lawrence said. “It’s really about conveying music through images, shape, color and text.”
Erik den Breejen’s David Bowie mural, “Fashionheroesbowie,” is on view on the Elizabeth Street side of the Rag & Bone boutique at 73 East Houston St. for about a month, according to the store.
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, Jeremy Gerard on theater and Jeffrey Burke on books.
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