In July 2014, I paid $90 to a man on 5th avenue for his pop-art rendering of the Guggenheim. I’d walked past the painting at first, noting the artist’s website, and later emailed to ask about it.
“I drive into nyc every Saturday morning and meet people downstairs outside their apartments and drop off work (usually around 9:30.)....or you could stop by my table at 87th and 5th,” Robert Box responded. I stopped by his table the next Saturday.
He was reading a tattered copy of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which served as a distraction when business was slow. In 2015, Box emailed me inviting me to a gallery show. Well, he didn’t have a gallery. The show was at his table, now at 86th street and 5th. He was calling it Galerie sans Roof. Both intersections are visible from those years on Street View, but the artist isn’t present. You wouldn’t know you’re looking at a gallery.
In 2017, I saw a copy of Lunch Poems in a bookstore and my mind drifted back to the artist I knew only as Robert Box. I decided to look him up, learning that Robert Box was actually Robert (Bob) Racioppo, founding member of punk band The Shirts, an early CBGB act which Patti Smith once called “The Jefferson Airplane of punk.” CBGB is now a John Varvatos store. Street View shows the storefront in 2009, three years after its last concert on October 15, 2006 — a send-off by Patti Smith.1
Racioppo and I began meeting at a diner to record his personal history, which is how I found out that the Talking Heads used his studio space in Park Slope, that he once had a beer with Blondie (an encounter he shrugged off as “Everybody was nobody then”), and that the band’s lead singer, Annie Golden, went on to star as Norma in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.
Most importantly, I learned how Racioppo’s experience as the son of an Italian longshoreman in Sunset Park, Brooklyn reflects a changing Brooklyn. In fact, every member of the The Shirts — who went on to tour Europe with Peter Gabriel and record two albums with EMI’s Mike Thorne before falling prey to a bad deal with Capitol Records — was a blue collar native of either Sunset Park or Bay Ridge.
The band is fascinating in and of itself, and I’ve spent many hours listening to their eponymous first album and dissecting its lyrics. But the melancholy of Racioppo’s story is even more haunting because it points to how proximity to fame did not translate to a lasting career in music for many working-class kids. It speaks to those that aren’t Almost Famous but rather, post-fame.
And yet, The Shirts did have a lasting impact on the landscape of Brooklyn. In the mid-1970s they were sharing a Park Slope hangout, crash pad, and recording studio with The Talking Heads. Their landlord owned the adjacent building, and the two buildings shared an address: 435 9th Street. Unfortunately, this meant The Shirts rarely got their mail.
“The Shirts were do-it-yourself Bowery kids,” Racioppo tells me. “I took a piece of cardboard and I wrote 435-A, and I pasted it on the thing. And I told everyone, ‘Say your address is 435 -A.’ And it became that.”
435-A is covered by a tree but still visible on Google Street View.
Racioppo struggled with cynicism about The Shirts and his visual art. He talked of bad luck: the label screwing them over, a gallerist that showed interest in his paintings then suddenly passed away. And he was still selling his art in the gallery without a roof.
“Some days the weather is bad it's like ‘Oh, my stuff sucks.’ And all of a sudden it's good weather, oh big sales. So, you know, people don't need art. Although they do. It's not like gasoline or food, but they do need art.” This faith in the power of art keeps him moving with the same DIY resolve as that little cardboard sign.
“You have this whole universe, but as an individual, you can still do stuff. And if you get enough people to say ‘Yeah, it's 435-A’... now you’re official,” the artist said.