Mural Imperiled by Mars Bar’s Closure

Phillip Kalantzis Cope Mars Bar and views of Ori Carino’s mural.

In the ephemeral world of public art on the Lower East Side, the longevity and unbombed state of the mural decorating the brick wall outside Mars Bar stand as a mark of respect for its creator, Ori Carino.

Hank Penza, Mars Bar’s owner, first gave Ori permission to utilize the wall in 2002. Ori’s distinctive style was already familiar in the neighborhood from the numerous murals he had designed and executed, along with art work he was hired to place on the sides of trucks, and his spray-painted t-shirts that were sold in local boutiques. At first, Ori returned annually to execute a new composition on the Mars Bar wall. The current mural has been standing since 2007. Plans to erect a 12-story apartment building on the site may threaten its continued existence.

Walking quickly along East First Street, it is difficult to fully appreciate the intense drama and rich allegorical meaning being depicted in his mural, as animal and human figures grapple with the human condition. Rather, it is necessary to slow down, pause, step back, focus on the detail, mastery, and complexity of the struggle occurring on this urban canvas to fully appreciate it.

A lifelong resident of the East Village, Ori remembers as a child playing pinball at Mars Bar while his godfather, Toyo Tsuchiya, set up the first art shows held there back in the 1980’s. At five years old he worked beside Keith Haring who was painting a mural in his preschool. As a teenager, he was drawn to local tenement rooftops where his tag became a familiar marker on the East Village skyline. Ori smiled as he remembered how he presented photos of his graffiti work as his portfolio to gain entry to the respected Cooper Union Summer Program.

Sitting in the living room of the East Third apartment where he now lives with his wife and one year old son, his artistic lineage is apparent as he shows me paintings and sculptures created by his grandfather Frank Carino, a successful commercial artist who graduated Cooper Union.

Ori peered out a window facing south and reminisced, describing the once rubble strewn Lower East Side lot on Forsythe Street where he grew up playing among the junk metal sculptures created by the band of artists who came to be known as the Rivington School. He became a part of this group, his early art work being displayed in shows at the No Se No Gallery. He completed murals on the walls surrounding the sculpture garden where many performance art pieces were staged.

After high school Ori studied painting at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After graduation in 2005 he returned to the city where the many classical references in his mural work earned him the moniker “Tiepolo of New York City.” Moving from brick to canvas, Ori’s paintings were recently shown at The Scope Art Fair by Dean Projects, the gallery which handles his work.

Phillip Kalantzis Cope The artist who painted the mural remembers as a child playing pinball at Mars Bar while his godfather set up the first art shows held there back in the 1980’s.

He opened a coffee-table sized book, “The King of the Dharma,” for which he created a series of modern paintings, drawing extensively from classical European and Buddhist iconography to accompany a set of 18th century Tibetan paintings published there for the first time. Ori’s knowledge of Buddhism is apparent as he described the deities being depicted in the paintings and their significance. He teaches classes in meditation practices at The Three Jewels, a Buddhist center located near Astor Place. The intricate detail in these works, the juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary imagery, and the placing the sacred beside the profane, are all characteristic of Ori’s art.

As we walked towards Mars Bar he explained that transforming obstacles is the central theme of the mural. Stepping from the sidewalk out into First Street to fully capture the wide panorama of this work I am drawn to the central image, a large shrouded Mother figure standing atop a naked corpse beneath which lays a pile of beer bottles, syringes and cigarette butts. Behind her is the Palden Lhamo, a tutelary deity who, Ori informs me, represents the forceful ripping out of obstacles. On another section of the wall to the right is a woman, inspired by figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, backed by a rainbow transforming itself into graffiti. A monk in the lower corner of the wall has smoke rising from his outstretched hands as he makes a fire offering.

While a few locals inside the bar imbibed an afternoon cocktail, people hurried by chatting on their cell phones, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. I wondered how the drama being depicted on the wall mimicked the one taking place inside Mars Bar. Ori related how, when he was putting up the mural, passers by would stop to chat with him. It requires from a day to three days of his labor to sketch out and paint a work like this. One regular at the bar, whom he came to know while he was working, was so impressed by his talents that he gave Ori $1,000 as a gift and claimed to be so taken by the mural’s themes that he later joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

As the message in the upper corner of the mural states, “And It Is All For You.” Ori told me that he considers his mural a gift to neighborhood residents. Now that spring has arrived you should wander over and take what may be a final look at this slice of East Village culture, likely destined for the scrapheap of history.