How Vietnam Veteran Jim Power Became New York’s Legendary “Mosaic Man”
When Jim Power arrived in New York in 1959, after a long voyage on the S.S. United States from Ireland, he wasn’t impressed. “I was 13 and thought it was downright dull and dirty,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know what litter was before landing here—talk about a rude awakening.” Fast forward to 2016, and Power—a former guitarist, Vietnam Vet, stoneworker, and squatter—has become legendary for his vigilante efforts to beautify New York. He’s now known best as his mythical alias, “Mosaic Man.”
“I wanted to make things that were like the Blarney Stone; charms scattered throughout the city that you kiss or rub for good luck,” the now-69-year-old Power tells me from the side garden of the East Village’s 6th Street Community Center, which has doubled as his makeshift studio for the last few months. He’s parked here (with an electric scooter coated in muddy grout and bits of iridescent tile) as he refurbishes 10 of his mosaic-sheathed lamp posts that have dotted a stretch of downtown Manhattan, around St. Mark’s Place, since the late 1980s. The glittering, intricate monoliths make up what’s become known as his Mosaic Trail, and are responsible for his ever-growing cult following. When they’re done, they’ll return to the newly revamped Astor Place, where they originated. But it hasn’t been easy getting them there.
“Fame is not what I got into this game for. I wanted to do something good for the city, because I believe in this work—that it improves the life of this neighborhood,” Power tells me, his weathered face shaded by a cap that reads “Vietnam Vet,” which keeps his wispy white hair at bay. “But I’m not a martyr.” Power, and his two sidekicks—Julie Powell, an energetic graphic designer, and Goldie, an East-Village mainstay via St. Lucia—have been working nonstop on the columns, over the last two months, for around six dollars an hour. The meager salary, according to Power, comes out of a $15,000 dollar stipend (that’s $1,500 per column) from the city, as well as donations. Power has also crowdfunded for the project several times, but according to him, to no great success. It’s not a wage he’s happy about—a cross to bear that he reminds me of numerous times over the course of our conversation, while also citing several other instances, over the course of the last 30 years, when his work was underfunded or disregarded. In the mid-’90s, during the Giuliani administration, he tells me, some 50 of the 70 light posts were branded as graffiti and torn down.
Power hasn’t had it easy. He was shipped out to Vietnam in 1969 and came back, in 1970, with a case of PTSD that still manifests as largely sleepless nights. After working in construction on the World Trade Center and other big Manhattan buildings for several years, he decamped to California and roved around the San Fernando Valley as a stonemason. “I built a big stone wall for an eccentric nutjob in Topanga Canyon. There I was, way up there, making just enough to get by,” Power remembers. “But that got me started with stone.” In the early 1980s, he landed back in New York, spending time first in Woodstock before settling in the East Village in 1985. (According to Power, it was psychedelic artist Peter Max, who he met up in Woodstock, who encouraged him to move back to Manhattan.)
It was then that Power commenced his passionate commitment to the neighborhood, and began building, slowly but surely, his trail of mosaic-covered columns. Over the years he’s sourced his tiles from Bella Tile on First Avenue, flea markets, and from people around the neighborhood who save them for him. The project, despite his tribulations, poor health, and extended periods of homelessness, has kept Power optimistic—a veritable factory of ambitious ideas, all directed at the city’s betterment. “Does the joy of this work inspire pleasantries or does it inspire pickpockets? I think the former. The Greeks put mosaics in public housing. Why the hell they’d do that? Because—I believe—as art lifts the spirit it also tranquilizes it,” Power muses. “Spread across the whole city, what effects would this work have? If I had better funding, I could have gone for 100 miles, not 2 miles. But listen, it’s not over.”
Power, Powell, and Goldie have a couple weeks’ work on the Astor Place columns still ahead of them. But after that, despite Power’s need for hip surgery, they plan to forge on. He’s quick to note that only 20 people have donated to his cause in the last two months. Power’s vision is to erect a total of 80 mosaic-cloaked columns around the East Village. And yet, despite woes over funding, Power’s drive hasn’t diminished; just that day he received the encouraging news that he may be chosen to cover the roof of a hip East Village hotel with his signature work.
“If you’re in a nice place that’s uplifting to one and all, you have a tendency to imitate that feeling,” Power explains. He looks around the Community Center’s small yard, strewn with bits of shiny tile and elaborate columns, and animated by Powell and Goldie, friends he met while cruising around the neighborhood. As I say my goodbyes to Power and head out of the studio, David Bowie’s “Modern Love” starts playing on the radio. The first stanza is a fitting anthem for Power: “I know when to go out / And when to stay in / Get things done / I catch a paper boy / But things don’t really change / I’m standing in the wind / But I never wave bye-bye / But I try, I try.”