For years, artist Damon Johnson has been making his prolific, cartoonish mark all over the New York cityscape, including numerous works in well-known clubs around town. His latest in-situ project is a sprawling mural at the historic Webster Hall. The New York-based painter took a moment with me to discuss his latest nightlife-themed piece.
You just finished a mural that depicts the history of Webster Hall. This is an accusation, as well as a statement of fact. Tell us more. It’s in the lobby of Webster Hall and it depicts Webster Hall through the ages, from 1886 to the present. I met the owner of Webster Hall at Baird Jones’ memorial at Webster Hall [after Baird passed away last February], we got to talking …
So is Webster Hall’s Baird Jones (RIP) in the mural? Nope, but I’m pretty sure he would be happy with it. How did you research for it? Other than hitting Webster Hall ladies’ night and buying rounds of kamikaze shots for girls named Cindi? It was mostly that. But I also did some historical research, and the iconography in the mural represents the different Webster Hall eras.
It was originally an after hours coke den, right? Not exactly; it started out as a gathering place for politicians and aristocrats. Then in the 1920s it morphed into a countercultural place. The clenched fists in the mural represent that sense of counterculture. At that same time, they put on these elaborate masquerade balls and something called the Devil’s Ball. So, I painted the chick in the mask and the devil DJs — a modern twist on that part of the history. Then in the 1930s it became a speakeasy.
I feel like everything was a speakeasy at some point. Except this one was allegedly owned by Al Capone, who spent lots of time hanging out there with fellow gangsters. Hence the multiple gangsters throughout the mural. Legend has it there’s lots of Al Capone’s money hidden in the walls, which I represented with the dollar signs.
That’s quite literal, excellent. It’d be great if the dollar signs showed exactly where the money was, right? Well, when the new owners took over the spot in the 1990s, they did find tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into a disco ball.
Wow. I’m sure that wasn’t drug related. Let’s continue down memory lane. OK, so in 1951, high fidelity recording was actually born in Webster Hall. A lot of musicians recorded live there. In the 1960s, RCA was based in Webster Hall. I painted an Elvis-like figure with a guitar and mic to represent that time period. The flowers represent East Village bohemian culture of that time. In the 1970s, it was a Spanish social club, so I depicted these salsa-dancing Latin cats. In the 1980s, it was a rock venue where bands like Ramones, U2, Guns-n-Roses performed before they became big. I depicted that with the death skulls. And in the 1990s it became the mega club that it is today.
What did you use to depict that mega club era in the mural? Nothing. But I did throw in some geometric shapes to capture the rhythm of nightlife movement.
Nice. So you’ve painted murals in numerous clubs around the city over the years. The original Pink Elephant, Plumm, Quo, Eleven, a bunch of others. I admire this elaborate ploy to drink for free for the rest of your life. Ha. Not really, they don’t really hook you up like that for life. But I like painting in clubs. It’s an interesting painting environment. You work during those weird daytime hours where you get to see the bizarre inner workings of the club, and of course the carnage from the night before.
Pants Optional: Stories, interviews, photos and other blurry bits of nightlife we sort of recall.