Story Ave: Every Wall is a Door

Written by Andi Schmitz

Art by Hera

In the new independent film “Story Ave,’ the walls of the Bronx are a major character. On these walls, the borough’s residents can celebrate their culture, mark their territory, and release emotion. For the movie’s protagonist, Kadir, played by Asante Blackk, they are an opportunity to escape and change his life trajectory. Walls hold stories, and walls are doors.

Written, produced, and directed by Aristotle Torres, the movie morphed into a feature film after the short film of the same name gained recognition at the 2018 Manhattan Film Festival. In the 2023 feature, Torres went to great lengths to ensure the art and culture were represented authentically, including bringing in professional street artists to advise and work with the actors. One in particular, Hera of herakut, served as the artist behind the protagonists works.

The narrative of Story Ave is that of the need to escape and the desire to be more than your environment prescribes. It is a portrait of Kadir, a young and gifted artist who blames himself for the loss of his little brother in a horrific accident. Feeling isolated by his grief, Kadir must literally and figuratively break down doors to learn how his artistry is a vehicle for change.

Angry at his circumstances and trying to find his place in the world, Kadir turns to the streets and a graffiti gang known as “OTL” or Outside the Lines. Unleashing his frustration via tags and throw-ups, he tries desperately to be initiated into the group. Leader Sean “Skemes” Hernandez, played by Melvin Gregg, gives Kadir a gun and tells him to rob someone to prove his worth and commitment.

An unsuspecting MTA conductor, Luis, played by Luis Guzmán, falls victim to Skemes’ scheme and encounters an armed Kadir at the fictional Story Ave. subway platform. An unexpected friendship forms and Luis takes him under his wing in an attempt to show Kadir how his artistic talent can open doors. Encouraged by Luis, Kadir launches himself into his art, hoping to get into Pratt, the prestigious New York art college.

Story Ave starts and ends with a door. The door that Kadir has to break through at the film’s beginning to try and save his brother is the one he transforms into his art piece for his college application. Torres sought the German-Pakistani street artist, Jasmin Siddiqui, or Hera, to harness Kadir’s artistic voice and vision on-screen.

Torres and Hera met at Art Basel in Miami as she finished a mural and wrote a phrase with a paint roller over a door. Insightful quotes or musings almost always accompany Hera’s animalistic sketch-style murals. Her unique technique and vision perfectly accentuate how Kadir differs from the graffiti writers around him who operate in the standard bubble letters and fonts.

Artist Hera

In her work, Hera often refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Every wall is a door,” from his essay “The Poet.” As a muralist, her canvasses are city walls, each representing a storied past and infinite possibility. In opposition to the belief that walls are barriers, to Hera, a wall can open the door to a new realm of understanding.

I spoke to Hera about her experience working with Torres and the actors on the Story Ave set and how walls mean something completely different to her than most of us.

“A wall just feels more alive, instead of getting a canvas that’s crisp, industrialized, clean, leached out, and without a story. [A canvas’] only history is of trees being cut down to accommodate you. A wall is a surface with so much energy because it already holds a story,” Hera explains.

Throughout the film, you can see shots of Kadir’s sketchbooks, filled with harsh pencil strokes and portraits of his brother Malik. What Hera and Kadir have in common is that they both draw through their emotions.

“When I was young, I used markers. I used to be very harsh with my strokes on paper, almost breaking through the page. I was unhappy living an invisible life, and since the character is also unhappy, I tried to channel those feelings into his sketchbook,” Hera tells me.

When Kadir is drawing his own face, his scribbles are very harsh and dark, but when he is drawing his brother or best friend, his sketches get more detailed and much lighter. Hera wanted to convey his emotions through his varying pencil or brush strokes.

Melding her painting style with the actor’s process was an integral part of the exercise of meshing Hera’s style with that of the character of Kadir. Her methodology melded well with Asante Blackk’s, who watched her as she painted, sprayed, and worked to inhabit her movements and match her creative intensity.

“I was on set with the Asante Blackk, and he was watching me paint. I explained a movement as I splashed something. And I said, ‘You know, that’s something you could actually do; that’s how I used to feel when I was younger. I used to take red wine bottles and smash them against the wall onto my piece.’ And then he copied that. The moment he understood my move wasn’t rehearsed, he was replicating the feeling, adding realism to the character as an artist. And I am really glad that moment is in the film.” Hera explains, smiling at the memory.

Harnessing Kadir’s inner rage, self-hatred, and guilt was important to Hera. In the film, her sketches and paintings feel out of place against the rough tags and bombs created by the OTL crew. This is because Kadir feels out of place; his artistry makes him different.

Hera, as a German-Pakistani woman, and the character of Kadir, an artistic black kid in the Bronx, share the otherness we see represented on screen. They share being misunderstood or pigeonholed into what society tells them they should be and the desire to break out. Channeling Hera’s art through the character of Kadir works perfectly; it’s unique, just like they are.

While the walls of Kadir’s environment can represent the systematic subjugation of African Americans in the Bronx, they also represent his opportunity to escape. The appropriation of subcultures for the capitalistic benefit of the elites is well known in the graffiti world, and director Torres makes sure to include it in Story Ave.

OTL leader Skemes tells Kadir he should “celebrate our culture… a culture that is a scar for us but is now conveniently a commodity for them.” Kadir leaving the Bronx to attend art school is seen as abandoning his family and discarding his neighborhood and culture for something better. Selling out in the graffiti world is one of the worst things you can do after covering up someone else’s work with your own.

Billed as “a story by the Bronx,” the film describes the hardships felt by the borough inhabitants – but it also inspires hope. It teaches us that if you can adjust your perspective and open your mind, the things that once restricted you can actually liberate you. Walls hold stories of the past, but they open up a whole new world if you can see them the way Hera does, as rich canvases with infinite potential.

The film closes with a voiceover from Kadir, who says, “Truth is my artistry is my voice. I get that now, and it doesn’t need to be loud or with big bubble letters.”

Story Ave is now available on demand on AppleTVVudu, and Kino Now.

Andi Schmitz is a writer, artist and recent American expat. Born in Dublin, Ireland and raised in a smörgåsbord of places, she has recently relocated to Berlin, Germany. Lifelong writer and artist, she is recovering from former corporate fintech life by self-induced art immersion. Her hobbies include painting, a good whiskey sour, and exploring art as a form of social outcry.