Nicknamed the People’s Playground, Coney Island is better known for its long-standing amusement industry. Another enticing trait can be seen on walls and storefronts – many runner’s likely noticed during the Brooklyn Half Marathon. The neighborhood is layered with colorful street art, and one New York artist has been responsible for producing some of the area’s most captivating murals.
The sun rises in Brooklyn’s southern tip at 5:40 a.m., shining light on Coney Island’s whimsical world. New York City’s peninsular neighborhood is known internationally for must-see attractions, like Luna Park, the Cyclone, the Circus Sideshow, and a 2.7-mile boardwalk. This particular stretch of space serves as the grand finale for the Brooklyn Half Marathon – one of the country’s largest road races – and deposits more than 20,000 runners into one of the city’s most underappreciated creative dwellings.
Here, colorful murals decorate storefront gates and walls all around the seaside community. That alone is worth a trip on the D, F, N and Q lines – if you want to see an overlooked section of New York brimming with creative spirit.
An Artist's Community
“This place has gone under the radar in terms of when people say, ‘what are the cool art neighborhoods in New York?,” says Coney Island artist Danielle Mastrion. Bushwick, Williamsburg, Dumbo and the Lower East Side are often recognized for flourishing art scenes. Mastrion says Coney Island belongs on the list, too. She points out, “There have been creative people and artwork in every single form in Coney Island for 200 years.” Performers, musicians, painters among them.
Mastrion is part of the tribe. A full-time muralist, she has tagged her way around New York City and internationally, including in Cuba, Mexico, Israel, France, Germany and Belize, painting images of cultural icons and socially conscious art. This reality wasn’t what she envisioned of her future growing up in Sheepshead Bay and art hopping around Manhattan throughout her youth. Nor did Mastrion consider life as a muralist while she studied oil painting and illustration at Parsons School of Design. She was an aspiring fine art painter.
How Mastrion segued into aerosol art was under the influence of her mentor, the graffiti artist Meres One, who founded the 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center in Queens. He encouraged her to try her hand with aerosol paint. The medium has its benefits compared to working with a brush. Brighter colors, less cleanup, faster work. “A one-stop shop,” Mastrion says. No drop cloth needed and the paint is also more weatherproof.
It took some getting used to, but Mastrion adapted and grew away from a “I don’t know how to do this” mentality to finding her rhythm. After she created her first aerosol mural, a black and white portrait of Beastie Boys co-founder MCA in the Lower East Side, Mastrion continued to experiment with aerosol paint, using all of New York City, especially Coney Island, as her canvas.
"Doing what I love"
Some of her most influential murals include that of revered hip hop artist The Notorious B.I.G., which she painted in 2013 in Brooklyn as her first full color aerosol piece. It is the longest running mural at The Bushwick Collective, which features work from some of the world’s best street artists. In her stomping grounds of Coney Island, Mastrion transformed Valerio’s Way in Luna Park in 2016 with a three-walled piece showcasing the neighborhood’s history across a century. Mastrion describes the commissioned project, her first Coney Island mural, as a walk through time.
She estimates that she has accentuated Coney Island with shades of ROYGBIV on at least a dozen walls over the past few years, making her neighborhood a visual resume. Many of her murals have been in collaboration with major institutions, including the New York Aquarium as well as the iconic Luna Park.
Globetrotting has greatly impacted how Mastrion approaches her work in Coney Island. “International travel made me view Coney Island as even more of a destination for people all around the world. No matter where you go, people have heard of Coney Island,” Mastrion says. “That has made me want to represent it even more to the best of my ability, to tell its history, to tell its story.”
Mastrion says her recent project, a “Welcome to Coney Island” mural across from the main entrance of the Stillwell Avenue subway station, is her “love letter” to the neighborhood. Her mural reflects Coney Island’s inclusivity, diversity and eccentricity. “This is a multicultural neighborhood. You will find every demographic and age,” Mastrion says. “Everyone is welcome here.”
Two months of creation and made with support from the Alliance for Coney Island, the wall extends 150 feet long and 16 feet high, roughly the length of a city block. Mastrion’s largest work to date features imagery of fire breathers, a gigantic mermaid, the amusement park, the aquarium and the neighborhood’s distinctive beach vibe.
“I wanted it to be a huge retrospective tribute,” she says. “This is really my dream project.”
Mastrion’s murals have been part of a current of others that have graced Coney Island over the years. In the past, the neighborhood was subject to public art projects, including Coney Art Walls in the heart of the Amusement District. The initiative featured commissioned world-leading street and graffiti artists as well as emerging talent, the works curated by Jeffrey Deitch, the former head of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, along with real estate developer Joseph Sitt.
A Platform for Good
Mastrion, who describes herself as an educator and a feminist, sees opportunity in the medium of large-scale public art to use her voice and promote messages about social justice.
As part of the Welling Court Mural Project in Astoria, Queens, she dedicated a mural in solidarity with the 270 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Other international works have included portraits of South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader Nelson Mandela as well as Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.
For the past two years, Mastrion served as a teaching mural artist in collaboration with The Brave House, a non-profit that supports young immigrant women, with a focus on survivors of gender-based violence. She has also taught internationally, mentoring youth and young adults about art and activism.
Of all the places in the world where Mastrion has stamped her work though, nowhere resonates more than in Coney Island. It’s home, it’s her history. “This is the only place where you will find nature, the ocean, and so much open space,” Mastrion says. That makes this area of New York one of a kind and gives her the most creative inspiration.
“That’s what I really love about the neighborhood,” she says.