The Street Sellin' Experience
The strange and beautiful pursuit of selling my art on the streets began in 2006 when I dragged a TV tray and a suitcase full of Sock Puppet Portraits up the subway stairs and out to Union Square Park. I opened the trunk, and someone wanted to buy a framed picture of a sock puppet from me. I was a 1st Amendment-protected street artist. I had no idea I was home.
Rather suddenly, my body of work that is the Sock Puppet Portraits was given a venue to evolve in amongst a shimmering community of like-minded artists and a rag-tag fabric of street folk. I was (and still am) a member of a bizarre and wondrous extended tribe of deeply diverse peoples who simply sell outside. Farmers and battery salesman and painters and sculptors and chess hustlers alike, united.
It was so much fun that from 2006-2014 it was my full-time job.
In many ways, my business became a performance in itself. I still consider every element of the presentation, from the display to my persona and over-the-top sales pitch. The experience is the thing.
Over the years, the set-up or "stand," like the work, characters, and world I was building, grew and changed alongside the evolving experience.
Livin The Dream, Ltd.
I've sung my pitch on countless street corners and parks, from SoHo to Brooklyn and beyond. But my vending heart belongs to one locale: Union Square Park.
The Union Square days were precious. It was an opportunity to survive and thrive by meeting your audience one-on-one. But more than that, it was a time to connect with a group of artists who were also looking for a different road. Sure, it got weird and occasionally dangerous. But it also got and wild and wonderful.
Up at 4am to get the best spot, shout at a farmer who hours later was feeding you stunning slivers of gorgonzola. Get in a shoving match over saving five feet of pavement screaming,"That's my spot!" only to end the evening in a heartfelt embrace after learning one another's in-depth personal histories. A gallon of coffee deep and covered in bodega sandwich crumbs in a wild west shanty town, playing cards until the throngs of potential patrons swam by. "Goin' fishin'," we called it while making a living and making lifelong friends.
What emerged was a truly special time and community that I will never forget and will always be a part of me.
A Day in the Life
In 2009-2010, NYC cracked down on street art sales, issuing a series of rules and regulations that severely limited where and how artists could sell what they made. Parks like Union Square were targeted, and I was deeply involved in fighting against this legislation.
Here, a young reporter profiled me right before many major restrictions took hold, giving a rare glimpse into the world of street art sales and my early days as a working artist in Union Square Park.
I spent much of my time and energy peacefully protesting the city's changing rules, but in late 2010 I decided to move on.
From 2010-2014 I began to pursue much larger markets and private sales opportunities.
The simple truth was that the new regulations from the parks department had made it such that we could not survive working as we had before.
The most notable high profile location was four years of themed booths at The Union Square Holiday Market. I'd returned to my home turf but swallowed my pride and paid through the nose to sell my art there.
Pictured here is my 2011 Union Square Holiday Market set-up, staged to feel like a strange diner. A diner that served mostly pictures of sock puppets to its patrons...
Step Right Up
It was fun, too. But different fun.
It was much more like a small business and less like a performance art piece. For better and worse. It was (and still sometimes is when I sell in other private markets) wonderful to connect with folks in more legitimized retail venues with plugs and lights and walls. Potential customers and patrons have a much smaller chance of mistaking your art stand for a discarded hobo village.
And there are undoubtedly other benefits to perceived legitimacy, not the least of which is staying dry and not having to hoist 100 pounds through the subway in order to freeze for twelve hours and be harassed by the cops.
Pictured here is my 2012 Union Square Holiday Market booth themed after a sideshow carnival. You can take the artist out of the carnival, but you can't take the carnival out of the artist.
The Ultimate Gift of Love
In 2013 I ran my last large-scale booth in the Union Square Holiday Market (at least as of this writing), expanding to showcase more of the breadth of my world of stories and highlight my then newly-published first book, "Sock Puppet Madness."
Since then, I've scaled it back a bit. It turns out running a small business that is your art has a way of taking you away from making your art.
Sales on the streets and in markets opened the doors to countless professional opportunities and collaborations. Many of the artists I work with and all of the large-scale companies and corporations I've done pitches, jobs, and books for all found me standing on a corner or in a little booth, hawking my puppet pictures and telling them about "The Ultimate Gift of Love: Sock Puppet Portraits."
Nowadays you can still find me in some small markets and venues, or most notably, back on the streets behind a little shanty table, where my felt-covered art-sales heart truly belongs.
The street always calls me back. The spirit and practice of street sales and the experience of person-to-person sales is entwined with my work, so I will always find a way to sell. It's a proud New York tradition that will never be fully extinguished, and I am dedicated to helping it thrive and expand (at least until I can no longer drag a TV tray up a subway staircase).
Martytuff Returns to Union Square, 2017