Some blocks in Brooklyn are known for their crime. Some are known for their brownstones. And others are known as “The Greenest Blocks in Brooklyn.” One such block is Lincoln Place between Nostrand and New York Avenues whose streetscape gardens rival all others. Sure, the block is tree-lined and potted plants are fixtures on many a stoop. But it’s the flowers planted in a wooden bed frame, porcelain toilet bowl, patio chair, and a stainless steel kitchen sink that sets the street apart as one of the greenest (and most unique) in Brooklyn.
The man behind these green displays is Michael Blue. He is an artist whose story and personal character is just as surprising and delightful as his work. We had the chance to sit down with Blue (on one of his hand-made sidewalk benches, in fact) to hear how he went from an incarcerated teenager with a record for stealing cars, to the generous artist he is today.
One of the first things you might notice about Blue is the patch of long, blue hair in the back of his head… also the tattoos on his arms… and his wide smile. He greets just about everyone who passes by us that afternoon, and he holds the literal gate key to what seems to be a coveted outdoor storage area where he keeps some of his paintings.
Originally from St. Vincent, Blue has lived in Brooklyn for most of his adult life. He was an intelligent kid growing up. He got into Automotive High School and used his smarts to apply those lessons to a new venture in stealing cars for cash. With a few misdemeanors on his record, his mother eventually sent him to live upstate with some family. It was there thatBlue was incarcerated for a crime that, in this case, he didn’t commit.
“I did so much I never got caught for. I got caught for something I didn’t do. That almost crushed my whole life.”
Blue spent three and half years in prison and was let go on bail after his trial date which was set for September 11, 2001, never materialized. “I never got that time back. But it was a lesson learned big time.”
In prison Blue made a drawing of a blue, mopey-looking dog on a card for his mother with the words, “Time without you makes me blue! Missing you.” She kept the card, and after Blue was released, he painted the same dog with the same words on a slab of wood that is now part of the beautification structures on Lincoln Place.
“Most of my art,” Blue says, “came from when I was incarcerated and I didn’t know how to express myself through words, so I expressed myself through my art… If I’m having a bad day, you’re going to see that in my art. That’s where my emotions go.”
His most recent brand of paintings called “Hang Man,” depicts various prominent men hung from a tree. A stark contrast from the cartoony dogs, Blue says that even though people have been taking these hangman paintings seriously, they are not that serious to him. He started the brand when Trump came in to office. He said that was a time when his friends got scared and he got paranoid. He didn’t know how to express that feeling, so he decided to express it through the hangman series.
After spending some time with Blue, it’s easy to conclude that this is a self-reflective young man who has been through a lot, but has taken the time to make sense of it and move on.
For example a couple years ago, two of his best friends were shot and killed. For about a month, he said, he shut down and didn’t talk to many people. He said he went to the store and bought some magic markers and then drew an elaborate drawing on a large slab of wood as he was processing the loss of his friends. The piece was stolen by someone on his block and sold to a stranger. Blue said he wasn’t bothered that it was stolen, because he had gotten his pain out on that particular drawing. But with some persuasion and help from his friends, Blue was able to track down the drawing. The buyer was willing to give the piece back to him, but Blue insisted on buying it back. He told the guy, “You thought that much of my painting to buy it, now I want to buy it back.”
Blue still doesn’t sell his art work. Instead, he gives it away to friends and family as gifts. One of his greatest gifts could arguably be the structures on Lincoln Place to the neighborhood of Crown Heights. The household fixtures embedded with lush flowers makes the sidewalk feel like a home away from home. Another structure is a tribute to his six Rottweilers (two of which have passed). This is the same piece that has the painting of the blue dog from the card to his mother. It also holds a small koi pond with live goldfish and koi.
It’s all a testament to Blue’s ability to respect his loved ones, acknowledge his pain, and turn it into something that surprises and delights. “I don’t like to hold on to stuff too long. If something happens I want to fix it and move on.” This attitude seems to afford him the freedom to create. Keep on moving on, Blue!
– Katie Baker