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How “Charging Bull” Became a Symbol for New York and a Site for Activism

Arturo di Modica's Charging Bull, in the Financial District, New York CIty. Photo by Mer S, via Flickr.

Arturo di Modica's Charging Bull, in the Financial District, New York CIty. Photo by Mer S, via Flickr.

On a sunny Saturday in early September 2019, a trucker from Dallas approached Charging Bull (1989), the iconic New York sculpture that’s become a hallmark of Lower Manhattan. With a makeshift metal banjo, the man struck the bronze bovine repeatedly, cursing U.S. president Donald Trump with every swing.
The attack left a six-inch gash and multiple scratches at the base of the statue’s right horn. Soon after, the damage was repaired by Peter Ross and Nick Bell of Polich Tallix, the Upstate New York foundry owned by fabrication company UAP. The two workers were able to remove the horn, pound the metal back into place, and refinish the repaired bronze, leaving the bull looking as good as new. And although the banjo attack was the first time the statue needed extensive repair, it’s been seen as a symbol of New York—both the good and the bad of it—for decades.

A gift to the city

Arturo Di Modica in 1990 after the installation of Charging Bull. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Arturo Di Modica in 1990 after the installation of Charging Bull. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Charging Bull began as a Christmas gift to New York City from , an Italian sculptor. Its origins trace back to October 19, 1987—also known as Black Monday, the biggest one-day drop of the stock market in history. Di Modica, who moved to New York in the 1970s, sensed the concern and uncertainty in the United States after the crash and wanted to create a powerful symbol of the strength of the American economy. The artist hatched plans for a three-and-a-half ton, 18-foot-long bronze bull. He chose the animal, of course, to reference a “bull market,” a robust stock market where share prices are rising, encouraging investors to buy more.
In the early morning of December 15, 1989, Di Modica and a few friends parked a truck outside of the New York Stock Exchange. In the span of just a few minutes, they placed the bull under a Christmas tree. Later that morning, the bull garnered attention from New Yorkers and tourists alike.
“It was a huge crowd, and there was all this media out there,” recalled Arthur Piccolo, chairman of the Bowling Green Association and longtime steward of the bull. “It looked spectacular.”
Di Modica hadn’t expected for the bull to stay there in the long term—he viewed it as a temporary gift. “And it turned out to be very temporary, because the New York Stock Exchange, which didn’t like the idea, had it removed,” Piccolo said. A New York Post headline from December 16th read: “Bah, Humbug! N.Y. Stock Exchange grinches can’t bear Christmas-gift bull.”
Yet Piccolo was so moved by the statue that he formed an agreement with Di Modica and then–New York City parks commissioner Henry Stern to place the bull in an empty pavilion near Bowling Green. By that time, the Stock Exchange had moved the bull to a storage facility in Queens, and Di Modica had to pay to bring the statue to its new home.
That move seems to have paid off: Charging Bull is now one of the most well-known symbols of Manhattan, and a highly trafficked New York tourist location. “The crowds started showing up that very day and have never stopped for 30 years,” Piccolo said.

A place of protest

Photo by Anthony Quintano, via Flickr.

Photo by Anthony Quintano, via Flickr.

What started as a well-meaning gift has been transformed into a symbol for—among other things—the American economy, establishment politics, and the patriarchy. Its prominent location at the intersection of Broadway and Morris Street and its international reputation makes it a hot spot for trying to make a statement, according to Piccolo.
“It’s such a well-known icon that if people are trying to get attention for one reason or another, it’s a logical place to come,” he said.
Over the years, activists have covered and splashed the bull with various substances, but it’s withstood little damage. On Christmas Eve in 2010, artist wrapped Charging Bull in crocheted pink, purple, and green yarn as an artistic statement, creating a rather less fearsome looking creature. In 2017, a woman was arrested for pouring blue paint on the bull to protest President Trump’s refusal to participate in the Paris climate agreement. And just last month, climate change protesters splattered the bull with red dye to symbolize the “blood on [the] hands” of the entire financial community, according to NBC.
But Charging Bull’s most well-known adversary was another statue: Fearless Girl (2017). The sculpture was erected across from the bull to make it appear as if a young girl was facing off against the much larger, symbolic animal. Much like Charging Bull, the statue was placed there in the middle of the night before International Women’s Day in 2017.
Fearless Girl was created by artist Kristen Visbal and commissioned by Boston-based financial firm State Street Global Advisors to draw attention to the lack of women in corporate leadership. And while well-wishers, including New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, lauded the statue for its feminist outlook, critics—and Di Modica himself—viewed the move as nothing more than a cheap marketing ploy.
“That is not a symbol! That’s an advertising trick,” Di Modica told the New York Post at the time. Fearless Girl was originally slated to stand across from the bull for a week, but an outpouring of support for the statue led to de Blasio extending her stay for over a year. Fearless Girl then relocated in April 2018 to a spot near the New York Stock Exchange due to safety concerns from the mayor’s office.
Piccolo thinks the protesters who use the statue are too short-sighted, and that the bull’s real meaning will become clear in 100 or 500 years.
“I think Charging Bull’s ultimate symbolism will be as a powerful image of America in the 20th and 21st [centuries],” Piccolo said.

An uncertain future

But the bull’s future in Bowling Green is no longer so certain. De Blasio announced his intentions in early November to move the bull to a location closer to the New York Stock Exchange, citing concerns over safety due to traffic and terrorist attacks. Piccolo blasted the move in a public letter, writing: “You certainly have abused Arturo Di Modica, Charging Bull, and Bowling Green.”
In a letter circulated by Piccolo, Di Modica wrote: “About this current situation, I feel very disappointed about how my sculpture is treated, with nothing but contempt,” adding that the statue has become “one of the most visited attractions of New York City.”
The fight to move the bull isn’t over yet—Piccolo says that it’s staying put, and the New York Post reported last week that the New York Department of Transportation withdrew its application for the necessary permits to move the bull. In response, Jane Meyer, deputy press secretary for de Blasio, posted on Twitter: “I don’t know how much clearer I can be about this: We are moving the bull.”
It may be unclear whether Charging Bull will stay in its longtime home or move closer to its original placement near the Stock Exchange, but either way, the bull will continue to shepherd the history of protest in New York City.
Christy Kuesel is an Editorial Intern at Artsy.