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A STIRRING ICON THAT SHOOK THINGS UP TURNS 20
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
|in: New York Times, April 29, 2002|
At a Lower East Side art gallery not long ago, a show was held to mark the 20th anniversary of a piece of graffiti. The gallery sold dozens of paintings featuring the symbol in the shape of an upside-down martini glass, all created by the man who devised the image.
Anyone who has spent much time on the Lower East Side during the past two decades is probably familiar with the martini-glass symbol, which is widespread and often accompanied by slogans like, "The Party's Over." The man who created it is Peter Missing, an artist and musician who was once leader of a band, the Missing Foundation.
The upside-down glass is one of several political symbols, including a jaggedly drawn encircled "A" representing anarchy, that appear on the streets of the Lower East Side. But it has also turned out to be a source of income for Mr. Missing -- an odd twist for a symbol with such anti-establishment overtones. With the recently concluded show at the Clayton Patterson Gallery on Essex Street, as well as a potentially lucrative but ultimately unconsummated licensing deal, the symbol seems on the verge of resonating with a new generation concerned about the issues that prompted its creation -- gentrification, development, homelessness in a city of plenty.
"I believe art can be used as a weapon," said Andrew Castrucci, a Lower East Side resident who teaches at the School of Visual Arts and runs a cultural center called Bullet Space. "And Pete's symbol was successful in that it helped scare away developers and slow them down."
Mr. Missing, a slight man with spiked dark hair covered by a billed cap, sat in the gallery recently and spoke about the genesis of the symbol and life on the Lower East Side, as well as the reasons he had settled in Europe rather than New York.
Born in the Bronx and raised there in the 1950's and 60's, Mr. Missing declined to divulge his age, saying, "I want to be ageless." He started a band called Drunk Driving in 1980 and created the upside-down glass as the group's symbol, explaining it as a reference to what he considered broad invasions of privacy as illustrated by drunken-driving checkpoints, which he regarded as pretexts for searches by the police.
In 1985, he founded the Missing Foundation, which included 20 or so musicians over the years. The band became known for an anti-authoritarian stance, playing abrasive songs that criticized gentrification and treatment of the homeless while predicting the collapse of mainstream society. Mr. Missing shouted polemics through a megaphone, accompanied by the relentless pounding of multiple drummers. A 1988 review in The New York Times described the band's sound as "mood music for urban chaos."
Mr. Missing was part of the squatter movement, and members of the band took part in a clash between the police and protesters in Tompkins Square Park in August 1988.
For many, the band's emblem was a call to action. "The martini glass became a symbol of causing trouble," said Seth Tobocman, an editor of the urban political comic book World War 3 Illustrated. "To a lot of people it said, 'Start something.' "
Clayton Patterson, the gallery owner, said: "The peace symbol was one of the most heavily graffitied political images of the 20th century. On the Lower East Side, the martini glass has the same kind of force."
Mr. Missing hung out with the rocker Patti Smith. Mick Jones, a guitarist for the Clash, watched him perform, then wondered if he had witnessed a music show or a political protest. Mr. Missing also met Allen Ginsberg, who included the Missing Foundation in a poem.
Yet some attention was unwelcome. Mr. Missing said that the police were hostile to him, and that his views were often misunderstood. "We were not looking for simple destruction," he said. "We wanted to bring focus to certain issues and provoke solutions."
In 1993, Mr. Missing left New York for seven years, moving to Berlin, where he lived in a squat and worked on art installations and music.
Returning to the United States in 2000, he spent time in Wisconsin to be near his daughter, who lived there with her mother, then came back to New York last winter, earning money by selling paintings with the martini-glass theme. The show on the Lower East Side included about 50 pieces -- upside-down martini glasses painted on canvas, on metal signs and on pieces of billboards sawed into sections. Roughly 40 were sold, at prices from $25 to $400.
While the show was going up, a skateboard manufacturer in California expressed interest in licensing the symbol. The notion of the anti-corporate image as a marketing tool would have once been unthinkable. But Mr. Missing said he was tempted by money, something he had always found in short supply.
He said that while he would not create a new image for an advertisement, he might license the image because it had already served its political purpose. Ultimately, Mr. Missing said, talks fizzled, and his earnings from the symbol have remained small.
After the show ended in early April, Mr. Missing moved back to Europe, which he said is more congenial. "New York isn't a place for artists anymore," he said. "It has been taken over by the rich."
Still, Mr. Missing sees himself as more of an optimist than a naysayer. "Of course I have hope that the world will improve," he said. "I have an 18-year-old daughter."
After leaving the gallery the other day, Mr. Missing and a collaborator, Cyril Mazard, walked up Avenue A. At East Fourth Street, Mr. Missing paused next to a large white truck. Taking a silver marker from his pocket, he quickly scrawled an upside-down martini glass on the side of the vehicle.
"When I first drew this I thought of it as just a logo for a band," he said. "Now I know this symbol will outlive me."