Wall Tetris with Alison Wallis: How the Welling Court Mural Project Transformed Astoria

Written by Michael Lodato

Curating murals is a constant game of slotting art into the just the right place. “It’s wall Tetris,” said Alison Wallis, who co-founded the Welling Court Mural Project. The project has been a massive effort to secure permission to use tons of wall space, recruit street artists, encourage creative collaboration, and ultimately, transform Astoria.

When I met Alison Wallis in Queens, she was in tour guide mode. She pointed to murals big and small, some tucked into a nook and others spanning an entire facade. On our walk she struck up a conversation with an auto shop owner, who pointed out some unwanted graffiti on his building. Alison took some time to listen and engaged him in a conversation. At the end, she offered to find someone to paint over it, assuring him it would be something professional and beautiful.

The Welling Court Mural Project is at its heart a community-building project. Astoria’s murals have transformed the neighborhood. Alison remembers the huge cinder block walls wrapped around a school bus repair lot, covered in scrawls. Now you are likely to see dozens of murals on a short walk around the block. The murals have given the neighborhood a distinctive look and have served as opportunities for residents to be creative together. That is no small accomplishment.

Alison remembers the huge cinder block walls wrapped around a school bus repair lot, covered in scrawls. Now you are likely to see dozens of murals on a short walk around the block.

Prior to the project, Alison had a lot of practice at community-building. She co-founded the first street art gallery in Bushwick, Ad Hoc NYC.  She emphasized that Ad Hoc was more than an art gallery. “It was a community hub,” she said. Efforts to clean up the neighborhood, like Trees Not Trash, placed benches along Bogart St near Ad Hoc, and the gallery quickly became a hangout spot. Bushwick was full of new energy, Alison recalled. She set up a bulletin board so people could share events. She remembers posters cropping up around the neighborhood that celebrated lesser-known activists throughout history. The series, called “Celebrate People’s History,” was organized by the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative—Alison later featured Justseeds’ work at Ad Hoc.

“When we were there from 2006 to 2010, it was this renegade lawless time. The neighborhood was packs of roving dogs and burnt cars, but then rapidly changed.” Bushwick became a center for alternative art. Ad Hoc housed a silk screen production studio and even showed movies—it was the meeting place for Bushwick Film Club in its early years. Alison proudly recalled a show with two iconic women in the street art scene, Lady Pink and Lady Aiko. “We were representing the underbelly of the art world of New York, which a lot of mainstream galleries in Manhattan would not touch at that time,” she said, “we’re talking graffiti, street art, protest art, tattoo, lowbrow, and pop surrealism.” On the late 2000s Bushwick scene, The Philadelphia Inquirer said, “the artists may try to bend your mind with their latest works but they don’t bite.”

 “We were representing the underbelly of the art world of New York, which a lot of mainstream galleries in Manhattan would not touch at that time,” she said, “we’re talking graffiti, street art, protest art, tattoo, lowbrow, and pop surrealism.” 

Alison was drawn to Astoria after she was approached by Georgina and Jonathan Ellis. The couple had an idea for a new project in Astoria. Welling Court residents, including Georgina and Jonathan, decided together that they wanted to beautify their street. With so many kids growing up in the neighborhood, the couple was concerned to see so much gang-tagging, according to their interview with 30th Ave. Still, Jonathan had an affinity for some of the graffiti. Alison, Georgina, and Jonathan began collaborating, and in 2009, Ad Hoc recruited dozens of graffiti artists to paint the walls. The first artist to contribute a mural was M-City. Countless more followed.

The Welling Court Mural Project began hosting block parties where partygoers could see street artists in action. “The first year was off the charts,” Alison said, describing a warm gathering of proud New Yorkers, socializing and appreciating the new murals. True to form, Alison contributed her skills as a community builder. “I was always like the den mother. Those walls get hot,” she said, “I was making sure that everybody was fed, had water, and knew their spots.” The project recruited major street artists, many of whom Alison had known since her years at Ad Hoc. Lady Pink even painted a Welling Court mural on a 2021 episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The murals have had more than a visual impact—they were sources of beauty but also community strength. For example, a pandemic-era mural by Queens-born artist John Fekner reassured New Yorkers, reading NY IS OK. At one party, Alison was struck when she heard attendees say that they moved to the neighborhood for the murals. She took pride in the idea that “people were making lifelong decisions about where they want their children to grow up.”

Alison has always understood that artists in this format need plenty of wall space, but they also need a stable income. The mural project expanded organically throughout Astoria, attracting street artists as well as social media attention from all over the city. Social media buzz, Alison remarked, is often a foothold for making a living as an artist. 

A theme of Alison’s career has been her commitment to strengthening the art community by helping artists build sustainable businesses. “I don’t know of any art school that actually teaches a business class for artists,” she said. Alison, who holds an MBA, felt she could help fill that gap. Having spent time in the restaurant industry, she had a strong grasp of inventory management, accounting systems, and the like. “I often would talk to people about just how they could structure things, so they could have their own businesses,” she said, “when you’re an artist, you yourself are your own business.” Her business experience has been a major reason why Alison prioritizes community engagement so heavily. “The locals keep the lights on,” she said, another thing she learned from the restaurant industry.

“I was always like the den mother. Those walls get hot,” she said, “I was making sure that everybody was fed, had water, and knew their spots.” 

When I asked Alison about the legacy of Welling Court, she said she told me that other mural projects are now underway in Woodside and Jackson Heights. She expressed an interest in uniting disparate mural projects. “I just think that there needs to be some kind of an outdoor museum to help showcase this type of work because of its importance to New York’s history,” she said. But today, the transformation of Astoria is going strong with another lively event slated for this summer.

Art by @vk.nyc.art & @enzoartworld

Alison has continued her game of wall Tetris, hunting for desirable space for artists to work out their ideas. “We’re losing walls because some of these new buildings are just floor to ceiling glass,” she said, pausing for a moment. “But we can still paint on glass!” This year the Welling Court Mural Project will launch on June 29th, 2024, marking their 15th anniversary.

Michael is a Brooklyn-based writer, independent tutor, and former philosophy instructor. His comedy has appeared in McSweeney’sThe American Bystander, and Current Affairs. He is passionate about using humor to teach big ideas and has contributed script writing to educational YouTube channels like Crash Course and Wisecrack. He is perhaps best known for the time he accidentally offered an edible to a former Bush administration official, who politely declined.

Instagram: @magnesiummike

Website: mikelodato.com