Katie Honan, THE CITY
Special to The Roosevelt Island Daily News
From handball courts to building walls, New Yorkers have filled neighborhoods across the city with heartfelt tributes to those lost. Some murals have weathered the years, while new works bring the art of mourning to the present.
In the days and weeks after 9/11, makeshift memorials and murals began popping up across the city.
Desperate family members and friends taped up missing persons posters for their loved ones throughout Lower Manhattan, hoping for a miracle. Flowers and candles soon followed.
Artists also took their talents to walls across the city, commemorating those who died and the heroism from that day.
Nearly 20 years later, some painters — like Sotero Ortiz, 57, who is known as BG183 and is a member of the Bronx-based Tats Cru group — are still paying tribute to those lost.
“You feel that you’re giving back, and you’re giving something back to the family,” he said.
Ortiz and his friends didn’t start out trying to be community artists known for murals honoring the dead.
“I just wanted to write graffiti on the corner block or on the subway,” he told THE CITY.
The murals began for the Tats Cru artists in the mid-1990s, when they would paint a wall in The Bronx with their name and other people would come by and ask if they could put a friend or relative’s tag on the wall, too. Eventually, their work grew into walls to honor people who died in their neighborhoods and beyond.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, members of the crew watched from the roof of their South Bronx studio as Twin Towers fell. Other memorials and murals began popping up that fall and people started asking when they would do their own.
“These walls are actually part of the community,” Ortiz said. “People who walked by who never speak to each other, now they’re talking about the person who passed away.”
Months after the attacks, they spotted a 45-foot tall, 30-foot wide wall next to the 207th Street 1 train station in Inwood. They gained permission — and financial support — from the building’s landlord to produce their own 9/11 memorial.
They started with a painting of the famous photo of three firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero, with twisted metal and debris beneath them. The Twin Towers were painted in the corner, illuminated by the moon; on the other side, the Statue of Liberty’s torch hung over the pile.
As they worked, other New Yorkers came by to lobby for their inclusion.
“EMS came by and said, ‘Yo, what about us? We’re part of this too,” Ortiz said. “There were so many people who came by, and said, ‘What about us?’ So then we’re painting everybody that was a part of that day,” including police officers, an MTA employee, and a sanitation worker.
Time — and water damage — took its toll on the wall, eroding the paint.
Last year, the artists returned to the corner and started fresh, painting a new mural that includes the Freedom Tower and two different hands clasped to show unity.
They’ve also produced other pieces, like a schoolyard handball wall in memory of Angel Luis Juarbe, a firefighter from The Bronx who died on 9/11.
This week, Ortiz and another Tats Cru artist, Hector “Nicer” Nazario, 54, flew out to Sacramento to paint a new piece to commemorate the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It’s an honor when somebody asks us to paint these walls,” Ortiz said.
With the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks nearing, THE CITY traversed the five boroughs to look for murals, some old, some new, honoring those who died. Here are some of the pieces tributes we found:
In Sheepshead Bay, carpenter Ray Fiore spent six days straight in September 2001 painting on a handball court at Bill Brown Memorial Park the names of hundreds of Brooklyn residents who died in the attacks. He told the Daily News in 2011 that although he wasn’t an artist, he felt “compelled to do this wall.”
Beneath the Long Island Rail Road tracks on 61st Street in Woodside, Queens, various murals have honored those who died on 9/11. The most recent one includes the Twin Towers, a waving American flag, and the names of 34 people who lived or worked in the neighborhood, and died at the World Trade Center.
This mural in Crown Heights, on the exterior wall of a hardware store, is dedicated to 9/11 survivor Joe Conzo, a former emergency worker who was trapped in the rubble. The tribute has been mostly obscured over the years by storage shelving and an exterior gate that surrounds the artwork like a cage.
Artist Joe Indart painted a mural on the side of a building on Kings Highway and Flatbush Avenue in Flatlands in 2005, listing the names of firefighters who died and showing the presidents depicted on Mt. Rushmore wearing FDNY helmets.
Indart has also painted other murals, including one he recently created on the side of a firehouse on Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park.
A mural on the garage door of Engine 205, on Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights. The original mural painted on the garage door was installed at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum.
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