Wayne Rada had spent years knocking around the entertainment industry in LA and New York, doing comedy, representing comics and working with clubs when he lost some of his best clients. Suddenly, in 2012, he found himself looking for a new challenge.
That’s when he was struck by the idea of linking property owners interested in beautifying their buildings with street artists looking for places to create. And since he was living in the East Village, where the ghosts of some of history’s legendary street artists still prowl, he decided that street murals were the way to go.
Ten years later his brain child, the LISA Project, has been responsible for brightening the landscape of all five boroughs and beyond with vibrant and engaging murals by some world class talent. At the same time, the registered non-profit has raised big bucks for charities like Make-A-Wish America, PETA, the United Nations, Heritage Of Pride, children’s art programs and many others.
With little more than an idea, an existing network of friends, entertainers and artists and seemingly limitless nervous energy and drive, Rada set about the task of establishing a sort of clearing house to link artists with building owners hungry for a street art look. His first step was to get his husband Rey Rosa, aka DR¡F, onboard. Rosa, already an established street artist and muralist, brought the artistic sensibilities and street art cred that perfectly complimented Rada’s unbridled entrepreneurial enthusiasm.
The partners then assembled an unlikely task force that included Ron English, known as one of the godfathers of street art; Adam Lucas, the street art punster known as Hanksy; Anne Lewis, the artist known as GILF!; RJ Rushmore, the writer, curator and photographer; and Little Italy businessmen Robert Ianniello Jr., owner of Little Italy’s historic Umbertos Clam House, and Ralph Tramontana.
Their first murals – English’s “Temper Tot” and Hanksy’s “Stark & Recreation” – went up in 2012 on Mulberry Street, in the heart of Little Italy. The project, by the way, has no living namesake; LISA is an acronym for Little Italy Street Art. It all took off from there, slowly at first.
“We did a walking tour and some of the Little Italy businessmen, they took note of it and they asked if we could do a couple more of them.” – Rada
“We did a walking tour and some of the Little Italy businessmen, they took note of it and they asked if we could do a couple more of them,” Rada said.
In 2014, the LISA project got another shot in the arm when it captured the attention of the Wall Street Journal which ran a photo essay under the headline: Nonprofit Helps Street Art Become a Fixture Downtown. The piece focused on the installation of a mural on Bowery near its intersection with Broome Street by Shepard Fairey. The mural, which survives today, contains an inscription that could very well be a motto for the LISA Project itself: “Transform our world with creative response.”
“They (murals) are becoming recurring fixtures all over Little Italy.” – The Wall Street Journal
“Street art and graffiti, once symbols of subversion and urban decay, have long been accepted as artwork in mainstream culture. Today, they are becoming recurring fixtures all over Little Italy,” the venerable and editorially conservative Journal wrote.
“After that it was off to the races.” – Rada
“After that it was off to the races,” Rada said, grinning like a supervillain whose diabolical plan just worked to perfection. By “the races” Rada meant a flood of deals that benefited property owners by giving their street-fronts new looks and artists by giving them exposure. Soon, the brands, like Coach and Guess, came knocking which gave the enterprise funds to spread around to charities and artists.
“The spaces that go to brands are a lot easier to sell because they are going to get money for their wall space,” Rada said. That money is split among the property owners, the artists, with 20 percent going for LISA Project overhead and the rest going to charities,” he said.
“The artists, people that work at the site, the property owners, they’re all volunteers for the charity. That’s what keeps it self sustaining.” – Rada
“The artists, people that work at the site, the property owners, they’re all volunteers for the charity. That’s what keeps it self sustaining. That and the 20 percent from our commercial jobs that goes into the coffers of LISA,” he said.
In 2019, the LISA Project did 50 murals, 10 in each New York borough as part of a Pride project at a cost of $1 million. And, since the sponsor of the Pride march that year was a bank, HSBC, “everything had to be triple documented with a cc to legal,” Rada said.
Contrary to street art’s outlaw ethos, the LISA Project does everything by the book, often many books. “We were very organized right from the beginning. We do everything right, we get the right permits, cross all the Ts, dot the Is. We really try very hard to get along with the NYPD and all the other city departments,” Rada said.
He added that despite the laid-back outward appearance and the anarchistic tendencies that are baked into many street artists, the LISA Project is a pretty grown-up enterprise. They tend to be more like business people than artists, which, Rada said, is a key to The LISA Project’s success. “We show up on time for work,” he said.
“We have a lot of supporters and guidance from people in the art world, who have given us advice on all sorts of things.” – Rada
But they hardly do it alone: “We have a lot of supporters and guidance from people in the art world, who have given us advice on all sorts of things, like who we should work with and who we should steer clear of,” Rada said.
As far as selecting the artists, The LISA Project looks for artists that, along with essentials like talent and drive, bring a commitment to the art to the table.
“Of course we look for people that have buzz about them in the art world and someone who is committed.” – Rada
“Of course we look for people that have buzz about them in the art world and someone who is committed, not just doing it as a hobby. We don’t ask if a particular artist is going to be an artist for life, but we always look for someone who wants to create. And, of course, we seek to maintain a lot of diversity in our roster,” he said.
While its successes have been many, the LISA project has had to deal with dissatisfied property owners from time to time. “When you deal with property owners, they become a part of the process. So when we come up with a concept we look at it to decide if it fits in with what the project is about. Then we show it to the owner and they either love it or hate it. But it’s all done in an open and respectful way. Even in the rejections, they are never just like fuck off,” Rada said.
The work of the LISA Project crews hardly ends when the stencils are removed or the last can of spray paint is applied. They also maintain the works, which is why LISA walls always look brand new. Recently, for example, the Blek le Rat tribute to street art legend Richard Hambleton on Ave. A received a gaudy red tag. The LISA project team was on hand to repair it in less than 24 hours.
“The only thing that came from Rudy Giuliani that I believe is the broken window theory,” Rada said. The theory holds that if a window is broken in an abandoned building and not fixed, other windows will soon also be broken. If the window is fixed, however, no more panes will be broken. Same goes for repairing vandalized murals.
After 10 years and hundreds of works, the LISA Project is continuing to grow and has already created art projects in some far flung areas of the United States and beyond.
One ambitious plan that is in the works is a joint project to show U.S. solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The plan involves a pair of Shepard Fairey murals on walls at the corner of Ave. A and 14th St, one in Fairey traditional colors like red and gold and one in Ukraine’s blue and gold. Then, one would be installed on the border of Ukraine facing Russia.
And this year, to mark its 10th anniversary, the LISA Project will be instituting a new silkscreen print release program that will highlight and memorialize several of its historic murals. Participating artists will include Ron English, Indie184, John “CRASH” Matos, Chris “DAZE” Ellis and Shepard Fairey. The silkscreen editions will be printed by silk-screen guru Gary Lichtenstein and published by West Chelsea Editions.
“A lot of times the neighborhood itself is the most important factor.” – Rada
As it expands, though, the LISA Project persistently bows to its humble beginnings in Little Italy, always keeping the needs and desires of the neighborhoods front of mind. “We balance who we work with with what we’re about. A lot of times the neighborhood itself is the most important factor,” he said.
But is it street art when it’s done in such an organized and legal way? Well, yes and no.
“We don’t do street art, technically. We do muralism,” Rada said. “But it comes from street art or graffiti art. The artists all came from working on the streets so that’s why we call it art for the street.”