How Art Saved Asbury Park

The story of a boardwalk town that came back to life. Written in 2018.

Asbury Park is the beach town with soul.

The boardwalk carries a borrowed Coney Island pageantry that draws people from all over to get their fortunes told by Madame Marie and dawdle away in the famous pinball museum. You won’t find pink flamingos guarding buzz cut lawns, or the buzz cut men who own them. But you won’t find skyscrapers or ill-tempered swarms of commuters either.

The beach is an important part of Asbury Park’s culture; and unlike bigger, more popular cities that seem to churn out pyramid toppers, this city serves as a shelter for humble artists—embracing the gritty along with the glamorous. Late nights spent partying are followed by mornings spent wearing oversized sweaters while eating greasy omelettes at Chat & Nibble.

When the sun goes down, the beach and the boardwalk belong to the people. Epic tales unwind themselves every night next to the ocean waves, and it is the tattooed, pink-haired residents and visitors that keep this place alive summer after summer. The boardwalk bohemians shuffle in and out of their church everyday — that being Convention Hall — to listen to their church choir — which, of course, refers to the rock music vibrations coming from the town’s most iconic bars: The Stone Pony and Wonder Bar. They are the very heart of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics:

Down in town the circuit’s full of switchblade lovers so fast, so shiny, so sharp/ As the wizards play down on Pinball Way on the boardwalk way past dark/And the boys from the casino dance with their shirts open like Latin lovers on the shore/Chasin’ all them silly New York virgins by the score

Perhaps Springsteen picked up a few tips from Madame Marie, the boardwalk fortune teller, because when he released this song, titled “Sandy,” in 1973, Asbury Park was in a completely different shape. The city used to be seen as a place for a select group of people who hung out on the streets, which were grimy with cigarette butts, green bottle shards and weeds growing out of every sidewalk crack. Run-down buildings were found where beach houses should have been, while the downtown area was grey and empty and mostly boarded up. Doesn’t sound at all like the liberal garden of Eden it is today, does it? So, to be frank, what the hell happened?

There are hoards of theories collected by urban planners, politicians, and even by self-proclaimed Boo Radleys of Asbury who boast about living here from the very start, before the great migration of millennials and hipsters. However, the most romanticized idea is that the slums of Asbury were brought to life in the fashion of a cultural renaissance.

If one were to walk around the city today, they’d see murals all over the place. These murals began mushrooming on the streets and the boardwalk in recent years, bringing in a new wave of people who would ultimately become the paint-splattered visionaries responsible for breathing new life into Asbury Park. In the past ten years or so, open-for-business signs have been hung in shop windows as the wheels have started to turn again. The shanty town was in for some jazzing up — It was as if troops of artists stepped off trains with briefcases and brushes, with the mission of sweeping cobwebs from the alleys and gracing the dirty brick walls with inspiring works of art — a bit of a shift from traditional art galleries found in seaside towns.

The urban-style paintings exhibit themes of romance, religion and rock & roll. Many act as a tribute to musical icons ranging from the Beatles to Amy Winehouse to Green Day, but each one serves as a mirror to the liberal blossoming of the city and its residents.

The revival reflects the visions of the Wooden Walls Project, an initiative that began in 2015. Its purpose is to weave art into the community in the form of murals created by an array of artists. The collaborative project has shown much success in painting not only the murals, but an image of the town as a welcoming place for people of all different backgrounds to pursue their passions. The personal visions and stories of the contributing artists melt together with the spirit of the community into a pot that is, unmistakably, Asbury Park.

If you were to walk up to the north end of the boardwalk, you’d eventually come across a mural of a black and white bird with ribbons of pink and yellow, and tangles of blue and green. The artist is named Luis Seven, but he goes by the name of L7matrix. His art is evidently a representation of his free spirit, as he describes himself as “…a bird traveled by fifty one countries and seventy two cities in six years. I live what I paint and paint what I live.”

Mural by L7Matrix

As a man who’s wandered all over the world, he embraces the progressive spirit of the residents and uses his artistic talent to bring his experiences to them.

“The street art is a donation she brings the community,” he said. “Her free spirit . . . The community learns from it and is inspired too.”

If street art is a donation, then Asbury Park is the city of riches and the people there are knee-deep in silver coins.

Although the majority of the street art in Asbury are products of this new dawn, there is one piece of art that’s been in the area since 1956 — and it’s the most famous of all the murals. Its name is Tillie.

Every resident can recognize cheshire cat smiling spinoff of the Coney Island amusement park face. He was originally painted on the Palace Amusements buildings, but is now painted above Wonder Bar. He can be found everywhere, from bumper stickers to shot glasses to coasters. His cartoon eyes watch over all of the boardwalk people — their triumphs, their sins, their seasons — like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. His value to the people of Asbury is evident through their relentless efforts to preserve him, similar to a mother protecting her child, when Palace Amusements was demolished in 2004. Frantic outbursts were made by a group of people (lots of Springsteen fans, naturally) until Tillie’s legacy was insured. Today, he is proudly situated above Wonder Bar, where he’ll forever serve as another story of resilience in Asbury Park.

Another contributing artist to the Wooden Walls Project creates ocean-inspired murals that pull the viewer into psychedelic narratives. His work tells stories of flapper mermaids with tails and tentacles curling around them, of underwater worlds coming alive with constellations of bubbles and planets of jellyfish. And if you thought he couldn’t get any cooler . . . he goes by the name of Porkchop.

Mural by Porkchop

“I think if a piece of art can invoke a feeling or transport someone to another time or place in their mind, it’s done its job,” he said. “That’s what I hope for my pieces to do.”

He has certainly done his job as an artist. It is as if he creates each painting by putting the whole ocean into a cocktail shaker and pouring out a masterpiece. His contributions to Asbury Park inspire people everyday and give them the slightest glimpse into the world of Porkchop.

As anybody can see, the Asbury Park art scene has exploded with galleries, graffiti and craftsmanship in local shops. What was once a run-down ghetto is now an island for all the misfit toys that give oddball New Jersey its one-of-a-kind reputation. It is home for this wave of contemporaries as they all gather, for what Bruce Springsteen might call, a rising.

And where could they find a better place? The shiny new Asbury Park has brought a special lesson as its gift to visitors. With its rough edges, it taught people about building themselves back up again, regardless of the number of years they may have been deserted.

“Asbury is a very special place for me,” said Dee Dee, another talented street artist. “I began coming during a traumatic time in my life after 9/11. I would come to see concerts at the Stone Pony and Wonderbar, wander the boardwalk. It was very healing. To now be a small part of this city myself means more than I can put into words.”

Just a Newhouse student, subpar snowboarder, rock climber, caffeine addict & 80s horror movie fanatic with a talent for doing a seagull impression.