Say you’re heading out to commit street art. You’re dressed in your favorite art-making garb, you’ve got your sketches and spray paint, maybe some stencils, or wheat paste, or other accoutrement. So what’s the playlist best suited to inspire you and an audience in this shared artistic enterprise?
Well, more than likely you’d choose music from one of the two genres that came of age along with the graffiti art movement decades ago: hip-hop or punk rock, both of which share the art form’s outlaw ethos. But Kris Hull, who has emerged in the last year as New York City’s street art pianist, has other ideas. When he attends street art events, whether it’s live painting, a video shoot with artists, or a party, Hull brings two things: his trusty 1964 Baldwin upright and his repertoire of etudes and nocturnes by the 19th century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.
Over the last year, Hull has brought the classical to painting projects and other events by some of New York’s top street art talent.
Over the last year, Hull has brought the classical to painting projects and other events by some of New York’s top street art talent: Shepard Fairey, Chris RWK, Tito Ferrara, Lexi Bella, Jerkface, LeCrue Eyebrows, Vewer, Jim Tozzi, to mention a few. He has performed at some of the city’s most important street art venues like Freeman Alley, First Street Green Art Park and the Park Avenue Tunnel. He has played at art show openings and, at least once, at a tragic closing: the recent demolition of the outlaw 188 Allen Street Gallery. Video of all these performances can be seen on his Instagram page: @pianisterrant.
“How can I bring music that will add to the beauty of the art? Most often, it’s Chopin.” – Kris Hull
“If I see a work of art on the street, something that catches my eye, I try and figure out what piece of music goes with this. How can I bring music that will add to the beauty of the art? Most often, it’s Chopin,” Hull said in an interview with UP Magazine.
Take for example the stunning tribute to Mahsa Amini, the Iranian woman who was beaten to death by police for not wearing her hijab correctly in public, that was painted last fall by prolific street artist Lexi Bella at the First Street Green in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For the collaboration, Hull chose Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor.
“I instantly knew what the piece would be to go with that art,” Hull said. “The melancholy of the piece is something that went perfectly with the tragedy of Mahsa Amini’s story. Lexi Bella’s piece is painted with a palette that’s imbued with loss and hope at the same time. And this piece by Chopin is too,” he said. The video Hull and Lexi Bella created became an internet sensation, racking up more than 2 million views globally.
“The music adds that element of time to visual arts.” – Kris Hull
“It really established the legitimacy of what I do, adding this third dimension of music to a two dimensional work of art on a wall. Video of a work of art doesn’t make any sense by itself because there is no element of time in an image alone. The music adds that element of time to visual arts,” Hull said.
“When you add the beauty of Chopin to a mural, people have no choice but to take some time and examine the piece more closely.” – Kris Hull
“When you add the beauty of Chopin to a mural, people have no choice but to take some time and examine the piece more closely. It imposes the discipline of spending time with a work of visual art that doesn’t otherwise exist,” he added.
And that’s why Hull can be seen pushing the full-sized acoustic instrument, which probably weighs upwards of 500 pounds, around the streets of lower Manhattan on a steel frame he designed himself mounted on industrial casters reinforced with heavy duty anti-vibration air conditioner pads. The frame is designed not only to absorb the ups and downs of lower Manhattan’s notoriously rugged terrain, but also so the piano can be played without removing it from this bespoke conveyance.
Hull’s love of music, especially Chopin’s catalog of Romantic Era hits, came late in life.
Hull’s love of music, especially Chopin’s catalog of Romantic Era hits, came late in life after other pursuits, like becoming a professional cyclist, gave way to his devotion to the piano when he was in his 20s. Born in Washington DC in 1974, Hull was raised in Kenya and Greece by a wildlife photographer father and a doting mom who encouraged his changeable passions.
At 14, he bailed on the family’s next move to Indonesia, opting instead to enroll at the prestigious Deerfield Academy, in western Massachusetts, before going on to study architecture at Rice University. He dropped out of Rice to pursue his dream of becoming the world’s first and only self-taught concert pianist.
He called this alter-ego the Pianist Errant after the famous fictional “knight errant” of La Mancha, Don Quixote. Hull first moved to New York from Morocco in 2002 to study with concert pianist Bruce Levingston. (Hull does have at least one punk rock connection, Levingston taught him at his home in the Hotel Chelsea, the room where Sex Pistol Sid Vicious killed girlfriend Nancy Spungen in 1978.) In the mid aughts he spent a few years in Berlin before landing back here for good in 2009. A decade later he had a wife and son at his side.
But it wasn’t until 2022 that he had a street art epiphany of sorts as he rolled his piano home from a performance at South Street Seaport. Hull had been frustrated in his search for an appropriate venue for his performances in New York’s fine art world. Then, passing the venerable Bowery Wall, one of the street art world’s most storied locales, it hit him.
“It was almost like a lightning bolt, a revelation.” – Kris Hull
“I was pushing the piano home along Houston Street and passed underneath the Bowery Wall and it was almost like a lightning bolt, a revelation. This is public art that could benefit from the addition of public music and New York City is the epicenter of the world for this sort of thing” he said.
“From that moment on, I didn’t do anything except play along with street art. At last I found where I’m supposed to be and that is playing music in the street with street art as my collaborator, my partner,” he added.
While it is clear that Hull long-ago apotheosized Chopin, the composer whose work he says goes with the creation of public art better than any other, he does make exceptions from time to time. When Shepard Fairey was installing his Bad Brains Mural last December on Bleecker Street across from the long-gone location of CBGBs, Hull performed a transcription of their song Right Brigade. He did the same with Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind for an event with Chris RWK.
“Like street art, Chopin’s music draws from a palette that has all the colors in.” – Kris Hull
But most of the time, he remains loyal to his muse. “Like street art, Chopin’s music draws from a palette that has all the colors in. It has every single human emotion in it, so there is no mood you can’t capture with Chopin,” Hull said.