Victor Kerlow is an illustrator whose drawings have appeared in places like The New Yorker and the New York Times. He's also got a cool art blog. I like his stuff--it reminds me of Ben Katchor. Kerlow also spent some time drawing the meatpackers of the Meatpacking District. I asked him about that and here's what he said, along with some of his meatpacking pictures.
When were these drawings done? Did you have a sense that the meatpackers would soon be vanishing?
All the drawings were done from 2005 to 2007. At that point, the area had already changed significantly from the way it was when I grew up there, and there were a lot of signs that the meatpacking plants were not going to be around for much longer. The drawings were all done on location, in the early mornings, like 5 or 6 am, while the guys were doing their last few hours of work. I drew while standing in the refrigerated cutting rooms, directly from life. And all the plants are temperature controlled to be very, very cold, so standing still for 20 minutes with my hands exposed, trying to finish a drawing wasn't the most pleasant drawing environment.
How did you gain access to the interior of the packing plants and to the men at work?
I knew the guys started work around 3 or 4 in the morning, so one day, around 5 a.m., I walked over to all the different companies in their 4-block radius, and just went in and talked with whoever was in charge. After going to about eight different places, I think only three were okay with me drawing in there. There were all kinds of "New York characters" in those places, which was one of the reasons the meatpacking plants are so appealing to me.
What was it about the Meatpacking District that attracted you visually?
To me, the meatpacking plants are an exciting part of a neighborhood that is becoming increasingly monotonous. Initially I wanted to do more abstract drawings of floating meat, but realized that if I could gain access to the plants, it would be stupid of me not to document them as a whole, with portraits of the workers, and drawings of the meat and environments as well. Dead animals and carcasses are pretty powerful symbols in art history, and I think after however many years, any art-loving person is bound to want to draw or paint or capture them in some way.
Any particularly vivid meatpacking stories to share?
I remember a fight that broke out at one of the places that is now closed (big surprise). This grumpy old Russian dude got into an argument with the main guy in charge, Adam, a younger, Italian guy. Adam and the Russian guy start shoving back and forth and then WHAM he punches Adam in the chest and Adam stumbles back against a huge piece of hanging meat. Two other workers come over and grab the Russian dude, and there is a lot of silence afterwards. I was drawing right next to them the whole time and figured it was a better idea to just ignore it. The next day I was there, the Russian guy was at work and everything was just as normal as it was before--but a fight in a freezing room full of hanging meat slabs is too awesome-looking to not mention.
Is there anything left in “MePa” that would still inspire you to make art about it?
Well, I grew up and currently live just a few blocks north from that area, so I don’t think I would ever turn my back on it. Right now, of course, it is a pretty shitty place to be, for different reasons than before. Grime-covered sidewalks that smell like dead animals and waste, I can deal with. It's the Los Angeles-ization of the area that makes me want to vomit. The neighborhood will always be important to me, but I wish it was still serving a useful purpose, with jobs that support working people, rather than being a shopping mall for rich out-of-towners.
I also incorporate the construction and half-finished buildings that exist around the neighborhood into my comics sometimes, so at least there's that. Even if the final building is a real eyesore, I can try to take advantage of the intricacy and draw-ability of its unfinished stages.
As a native New Yorker, you’ve seen many places come and go, and many neighborhoods change. Do you see the Meatpacking District’s shift as just “the way it goes in New York” or as something more?
Every city needs an eclectic selection of environments to be an interesting place, and the Meatpacking District from 15, 20, 30 years ago was a place that was a foil to somewhere like the Upper East Side. Now it is actually some work to find a distinguishable neighborhood in Manhattan. The city is all starting to slide together.
I'm not opposed to change, but if it isn’t really for the better, then yeah, it is stupid and pointless and frustrating. When I walk around in my neighborhood I feel different, and angry at all these people that didn’t enjoy the neighborhood even just five years ago. They are here for all the wrong reasons. These people can buy the same shit and eat the same expensive food somewhere else.
Also, it should just be said that while it is a sad thing to watch places you used to hang out at disappear, there are still tons of reasons to love this city, and countless things for me to continue drawing here. I don't think I'm ready to leave just yet.