It was a perfect fall Friday; sunny skies, a light breeze, and free art to be found.
Much of street art’s charm comes from the romanticism of discovery, to stumble upon a piece unexpectedly, and admire the work. The ephemeral nature of the medium adds to the allure, knowing one day the piece may be buffed or replaced leads the viewer to develop a deeper connection. However, for the dedicated fans there is also the pain of loss when a favored street artist disappears from the wall.
But the tradition of Free Art Friday, founded by My Dog Sighs, gives art lovers a chance to collect, to seek out the treasure hunt. And for a fortunate few that fall day, an art drop organized by Big Ronnie let them take home a canvas from some of New York’s finest.
A posse of artists, photographers, fans, and Sold Mag soldiers were gathered by Big Ronnie to journey around New York City, hiding art to be found. Among the crowd and contributors were: CDRE, SacSix, MyLifeinYellow, Kafka, Steve Stoppert, Kalin Hart, Tim Zeko, Claudia Reyes, the Big man himself Big Ronnie and myself, T.K. Mills.
The troop began at (AmArtStop) Steve Stoppert's home, before moving to the First Street Green Art Park to check out an Abe Lincoln Jr. piece. Heading North, the posse trekked through the LES, up to Alphabet City, and across the East Village. Along the way, the trail was peppered with hidden gifts and insta-hinted drops. After the posse passed 212 Arts, SacSix went rogue to stash an exclusive set from his SacSixPack of art.
It seems strange, artists leaving art for free. If that’s their bread and butter, why not sell it? Maybe it’s not about the money. Maybe it’s about something being found.
"Have you ever been completely lost?” My Dog Sighs begins his TEDxTalk in Warwick, smiling to the crowd. “I don’t wish to sound smug, but I’m in a happy place right now… personally, professionally, and creatively.” He continued, “I needed to be completely lost before I could find my direction, or find myself."
Sighs offered some hope. His artistic career originated in primary school, when a teacher gave him a gold star for a fish he drew. When he was older, he wanted to have a real go at it, making the art dream come true.
So he put his technical proficiencies to work, creating art he thought galleries would like. Sighs was stunned when the white-cube crowd rejected him. The experience knocked him down, and he gave up the dream.
Life continued, and Sighs began a sensible lifestyle. He got married, started working full time at a primary school. Teaching took up his days, and he laid down roots for a family. So it went, until one day on the train he glimpsed a rat.
The stenciled rodent was the work of Banksy, and it woke Sighs up to the possibilities of art. If you could create on the street, why bother with the galleries? My Dog Sighs realized that opportunities weren’t limited to what hung on a wall, that art is about challenging ideas.
Still, Sighs was conflicted. In his words, “I didn’t want to terrorize the neighborhood with my territorial pissing.” He didn’t want to offend, and as a homeowner he respected the property of others. This conflict would be the catalyst for a new movement.
Sighs decided what he would do, was paint at home and leave his art to be found. Inspired, he worked. But he encountered a problem. What if he was ticketed for littering? As Sighs put it, “the solution came perversely — thanks to a throwaway society.”
What’s a canvas but something to be painted on? He began illustrating objects he found outside in the wild. “I could find a piece of rubbish, paint on it, and leave it back where I found it.” Bits of timber, cardboard, and bottle caps were transformed.
“It was basically free art for anybody who found it.” He dubbed the activity from a school lesson. Sighs was working on alliteration with his students, and so the name was born: Free Art Friday.
Despite the spirit of freedom that came with spreading art, it was mixed with the crushing pain of loss. To create something, and then leave it to fend for itself. But the joys overcame the grief. For keepsake, he would take a picture, share it with the world.
By the power of the internet, the idea caught on. My Dog Sighs incidentally planted the seed for what blossomed into a global movement. Free Art Friday communities grew in cities and countries all over the world. The idea flowered modifications, as artists adapted it to their own hometown.
My big city hometown, New York, was alive with the hunt.
SacSix returned in time to see the gang get ambushed by a super-fan. One of the truest street art addicts, B!ng_BangBoom came rushing up the street, clutching several canvases. She had been investigating the clues left on Insta, and had already claimed a few prizes. Ronnie suggested that, if B!NG hurried, she might be able to find the last drop. Not to waste time, B!ng sprinted off, eager for her next art fix.
Big Ronnie led the posse for the end stop: Washington Square Park. There, beside the statue of Garibaldi, SacSix left his crown jewel of the day, an Andy Warhol. The remaining gang posted up, eager to see who would find the final drop.
Waiting with trepidation, the troop counted the minutes. As the clock ticked, there was speculation to who would catch the Warhol. Would B!ng complete her day’s collection, or would an unexpected fan snag the canvas?
As the tension built, a surprise contender emerged. An unknown arrived to discover the Warhol. Sold Mag’s ace reporter, Kalin Hart approached him with Big Ronnie and Tim for an interview. Meanwhile, SacSix and I watched from the sidelines.
The fan expressed his happiness, excited to show off the treasure to his girlfriend. He spoke of his love for SacSix’s work. Unbeknownst to him, the artist watched from less than 100 feet away. Sold Mag gave the fan a proper congratulation, before Ronnie led the posse one more time; to a local bar for a celebratory drink.
When I spoke with My Dog Sighs, he spoke wistfully of the growth of Free Art Friday. He never expected it become what it is. He shined with humble pride, as he reflected on the international movement he’d inspired.
“I think what’s nice about the way that it works, is there’s no boundaries. It’s just a simple concept.” He said cheerfully.
The tradition was born around the same time as his first son, fifteen years ago. As he got older and the responsibilities of life set in, My Dog Sighs wanted to hold onto something that “wasn’t grown up.” The popularity is still a little surreal to him, but Sighs remains modest in his thoughts.
We spoke about how street art itself has developed over his career. He joked that in the beginning there was beef between graffiti artists and street artists, about who was the true style-master. Sighs laughed, saying how now-a-days he’s heard grumblings about ‘muralists.’ Of course in his eyes, art is art, and the hunt is about people learning about and from other artists.
When the movement began, at first he thought to take a role in creating a central hub, but decided against it. Recognizing the nature of Free Art Friday, he knew it better to grow naturally. Which sometimes means growing apart from his own career.
Now that’s work has become more established, A street artist is the truest sense, My Dog Sighs has been exhibited in galleries. In an ironic turn of the art dream, the same galleries who once turned away his canvases. Still, My Dog Sighs isn’t bitter, and welcoming his artistic growth with a grin.
What I learned from My Dog Sighs taught me the background of the global phenomenon but I witnessed firsthand the hidden joys it brings. Exploring New York City with Big Ronnie and the posse, I learned what Free Art Friday is all about: the thrill of discovery, the adventure of the hunt, and something lost being found.
Written by T.K. Mills
For more by the author, check out his website tkmills.com