Longtime Greenpoint resident and artist Damen Corrado is adding another credit to his resume: Author.
Compliments of Chicagohoodz: Chicago Street Gang Art & Culture, Damen’s new book, which he co-authored with James “Jinx” O’Connor, uplifts a language, preserves a culture, and sheds a light on the Chicago street art of his youth.
This street art — too soon replaced with corporate advertisements on nearly every available surface in urban areas — dictated a gang’s status, members, rivals, and more. After years of research, Damen — aka “Mr. C” — has given life to a vibrant and ever-evolving form of expression.
Here, Greenpointers chats with the local artist to learn about his process, living as an artist in Greenpoint, and how growing up in the Midwest shaped his Brooklyn success.
Greenpointers: First a check in, where have you been living during this time and how have you been?
Damen Corrado: For the past 10 years or so I’ve been living in the Astral Apartments on Franklin Street in Greenpoint. It was built in the late 19th century in the “Queen Anne” style as housing for an oil company and is now a New York City landmark. Some people call it the “Dakota of Greenpoint,” which is does resemble — at least from the outside! Kate Christensen wrote a novel about it, The Astral. I work down the street in Brooklyn Art Studios, within the old Leviton factory building off of McGuinness Boulevard. I’ve been hanging in there, quarantining, trying to stay productive.
What was your journey like from Chicago to Brooklyn?
I was born and raised on Chicago’s North Side, where I attended the Chicago Academy for the Arts studying drawing, painting, and sculpture). I then moved to the Bay Area in the late 90s and enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute to study film and video. I moved to NYC in the fall of 2001 and began writing scripts and shooting short films. I initially moved to East Williamsburg -although everyone called it Bushwick, for some reason- shortly thereafter; that neighborhood was a lot different back then. I then migrated over to Greenpoint. I love it here.
What was it like to co-author a book with Jinx? What was that collaboration like?
To end up meeting and working with a Chicago legend like Jinx has been an incredible privilege and honor for me. He had initially suggested putting together a very simple collection of gang business cards, which we thought might only take a few months or so to assemble. I proposed the idea to the late, great Adam Parfrey of Feral House, and Adam really encouraged us to expand the book. Six years later, Compliments of Chicagohoodz was published. The entire process of collaborating with Jinx was a pleasure, and an incredible learning experience on all levels.
Tell us about the origins of your name, Mr. C?
The name “Mr. C” refers to a gangster character I created for a satirical film years ago; it seemed apropos to use aliases on the book cover, in homage to the nicknames contained therein. That film eventually morphed into The Gent, an experimental feature “remixing” the lives of Jazz Age poet Harry Crosby and dot-com millionaire Josh Harris. In addition to people like Noam Chomsky, Genesis P-Orridge, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Howard Zinn, it features NYC graffiti artists Freedom, Lady Pink, Smith, and Mare 139. We made several trips down into “Freedom Tunnel” to capture Freedom’s murals.
What’s your history with street art in Chicago?
Growing up in 1980s Chicago (I was named after Damen Avenue), I became fascinated by the very distinctive iconography and lettering styles of the gang hieroglyphics covering the entire city then, practicing the old-English letters and copying the “emblems” in my grammar school notebooks. Much of it revolved around medieval heraldic devices and 1950s gentleman’s club imagery, as well as popculture references and quasi-Masonic symbolism. This layering of texts, colors and images fascinates me to this day. There was also a whole style element, from modified varsity-style sweaters, to later crews like the Adidas or Nike Boys.
Do you see the work of street art echoed in Brooklyn as well?
There is a lot of interesting street art in both the East Williamsburg and the Greenpoint areas, some of which I have tried to document for posterity’s sake. I agree with Norman Mailer, who stated that he found omnipresent corporate advertising much more problematic than graffiti! In contrast to most Chicago gang graffiti, NYC street art has always been an expression of sheer individuality. A couple years ago, I was invited by Roger Gastman to his exhaustive Beyond the Streets exhibit in Williamsburg — an incredible, multi-level show which featured legendary Brooklyn artists like Basquiat, Fab Five Freddy, and Futura 2000.
Any upcoming projects or ideas you’d like to discuss?
In addition to my continuing visual art practice revolving around fantasy landscape art, I am currently working on a series called “Black Book,” which explores the intersection of Chicago-style lettering / tagging and Austin Osman Spare’s sigil technique / Brion Gysin’s calligraphic method; a documentary about the visionary artist and writer Michael Bertiaux, whose work synthesizes diverse elements such as Haitian voodoo, Gnosticism and the “Lovecraftian” mythos; a short film about rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons and Aleister Crowley (as portrayed by the late film director Ken Russell), as well as further Chicagohoodz titles…
Anything else to add?
I find urban environments fascinating in their own right, and feel that the history of Chicago street gangs very much reflects the history of the city itself. Compliments of Chicagohoodz inevitably turned out to be an exploration of the city’s neighborhoods as well as its gangs (as suggested by the title). I would like to thank Greenpointers for inviting me to participate in your artist series, as your ongoing work helps me to greater understand, appreciate, and learn new things about the neighborhood I now live in!