Art Market
New York’s Latest Art District? A String of Five Bodegas Downtown
Promotional image for Neil Hamamoto's "The Bodega Paintings."  Photo by Sean Andrew Jackson. Courtesy of the artist.

Promotional image for Neil Hamamoto's "The Bodega Paintings."  Photo by Sean Andrew Jackson. Courtesy of the artist.

New Yorkers love their bodegas. The omnipresent corner stores offer late-night beer, indulgent snacks, and ample opportunities to Instagram adorable cats; in certain rare cases, they even double as Good Samaritan D.I.Y. homeless shelters.
The art world loves bodegas, too. There’s a Lower East Side gallery that, somewhat confusingly, is named after one. Last year, the British artist unveiled a replica of the archetypal store hawking felt versions of products. Bodegas have been the subject of ambitious, serial photography projects, and the site of satirical anti-gentrification art projects. They remain a font of quirky inspiration and community, as well as a place to stock up on light bulbs, rolling papers, and Dr. Bronner’s soap.
Artist and designer Neil Hamamoto grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; his local bodega was on the corner of 71st Street and 1st Avenue. He moved to California for college, working for less than two years in the tech industry before deciding to return home and reinvent himself as a visual artist. Hamamoto’s fledgling practice is eclectic: Recent projects include everything from minimalist plywood sculptures to an interactive machine that prints out text messages submitted by strangers.  
Detail of Neil Hamamoto, east way gourmet 1, 2018. Photo by Allen Murabayashi. Courtesy of the artist.

Detail of Neil Hamamoto, east way gourmet 1, 2018. Photo by Allen Murabayashi. Courtesy of the artist.

Promotional image for Neil Hamamoto's "The Bodega Paintings."  Photo by Sean Andrew Jackson. Courtesy of the artist.

Promotional image for Neil Hamamoto's "The Bodega Paintings."  Photo by Sean Andrew Jackson. Courtesy of the artist.

Earlier this year, he had the idea to make abstract “paintings” that involve no paint whatsoever. Using a supermarket price gun and its array of colorful stickers, he began creating dense, camouflage-style compositions. (His initial trial—to render a plausible figurative rendering of Donald Trump using orange and yellow price stickers—fell flat.) The resulting compositions are layered swaths of blue, white, red, and yellow rectangles. He also began incorporating speciality stickers: “DAIRY,” “PRODUCE,” “SELL BY.” “It’s all by hand,” he told Artsy. “It’s a lot of work—a lot of clicking.”
Hamamoto doesn’t currently have gallery representation, so the question of where to exhibit these new paintings was an open one. That’s when he started canvassing the bodegas of downtown Manhattan, seeking out sympathetic owners and managers who would let him hang his work in their stores—above ATM machines, in windows. “Right now it’s a big hustle to sell my work,” he said. “I figured: What better way to talk about hustling than working with some of the best in the city, these bodega owners?”
From an initial list of 50 or 60 potential stores, Hamamoto started calling and pitching his idea. Not everyone was receptive—but a dozen or so bodegas were interested in learning more. After meeting in person to continue the discussion, the artist came to an agreement with five stores. (Certain other owners, while unwilling to fully commit to the exhibition concept, agreed to pose for promotional photographs in their bodegas with examples of Hamamoto’s work.)
Installation view of Neil Hamamoto, fresh food market deli 2, 2018, at Fresh Food Market Deli & Grocery, 386 Canal St., New York, 2018.

Installation view of Neil Hamamoto, fresh food market deli 2, 2018, at Fresh Food Market Deli & Grocery, 386 Canal St., New York, 2018.

Rather than the typical price structure that brick-and-mortar galleries employ—with 50 percent of proceeds going to the artist, and 50 percent going to the dealer—Hamamoto arranged a sort of “rental” fee, agreeing on individual terms with each bodega owner. “This whole concept was new to them,” he admitted, “and I don’t think they wanted to take on the risk of a work not selling.”
In contrast to the “bright lights and white walls” of a traditional gallery, Hamamoto hoped that his camo-style paintings would “blend into the environment” of the stores, with their racks of products, freezer displays, and colorful reels of lottery tickets. “I was trying to have a commentary on how you can display art in a place where it’s not necessarily the main focus,” he said.
I met up with Hamamoto the day he installed his work at the five downtown bodegas. We started at Fresh Food Market Deli & Grocery, on the corner of Canal Street and West Broadway. There, one of the price-sticker paintings is hanging in the front window, next to a neon Coors Light sign and above a freezer stocked with King Cone ice cream treats. Inside, a smaller piece looms brightly above a shelf of Nilla wafers and cocktail peanuts. I asked the store manager, Freddie Jordan, what he thinks about the project. “It’s great, it’s something amazing,” he said. “You have to have a big imagination. I’ve worked with a price gun, I’ve been in this business for over 14 years—it never crossed my mind.”
Installation view of Neil Hamamoto, m&m market deli 3 and m&m market deli 2, 2018,at M&M Market Delicatessen, 529 Broome St., New York, 2018.

Installation view of Neil Hamamoto, m&m market deli 3 and m&m market deli 2, 2018,at M&M Market Delicatessen, 529 Broome St., New York, 2018.

We walked up to a second location a few blocks north. Hamamoto mused on the expectations of the white cube, and also its distractions, weighing them against the very different set of distractions and expectations in your average bodega. We arrived at M&M Market Delicatessen on Broome Street. The artist told me that the owner was somewhat surprised, and a little upset, when he learned that the project had “bodega” in its title; he associated that word with an operation a bit less polished than his own.
Inside, M&M is much more spacious than Fresh Food. Two plank-like paintings are mounted on support columns; another is hung over a Bunn coffee machine. It’s unclear if, to the uninitiated eye, it would be obvious that there’s even been an artistic intervention in the store. The works are brightly seductive, but so is plenty else in the shop, like the blaring yellow cans of Chock full o’Nuts coffee beans stacked just below them. Hamamoto hasn’t been too precious about the installation. At another bodega location, he said, the store had warned him that a painting’s placement near a deli counter might expose it to grease or other incidental stains. That’s okay with him. “If it smells like bacon” after the show comes down, he shrugged, “that’s part of the story.”    
“The Bodega Paintings” will be on view through May 7th, with individual works priced between $600 and $2,300. While no one is suggesting that a bodega-centric model is going to upset the foundations of the art market, this project does continue to nudge the envelope in terms of what’s possible. These days, we’re no longer shocked to hear that exhibitions are turning up in apartments, in nail salons, under highway overpasses, and in mixed-use real estate brokerages. “You can turn anything into a gallery,” Hamamoto said. Why not offer a dose of high culture along with a bottle of kombucha and a pack of American Spirits?
Scott Indrisek is Artsy’s Deputy Editor.