An artist and activist, he lives and works on St. Mark’s Place, where he is a well-known character who is on first-name terms with most of the neighborhood’s many homeless people.
Power cuts an eccentric figure. He has long, white hair and wears paint-spattered work clothes. He walks with a noticeable limp, the result, he said, of a muscle injury suffered while doing construction work. His teeth bear signs of neglect, most probably a result of what he would call his “elegant living in the trenches.” He is full of energy and talks loudly and quickly, peppering his conversation with laughter and glancing around constantly to see if any of his friends are about.
Power’s name is synonymous with the 67 beautifully decorated lampposts that dot the area. “People come up out of the subway, see the lampposts and feel like they have come home,” he said.
Power’s artistic endeavors began in the late 1980s when saw a pothole in Astor Place and decided to fill it in with colored tiles and glass. The result was a colorful mosaic on the pavement. People seemed to like it and so Power was inspired to start doing the same kind of public art with lampposts.
Initially, he worked only on the base of each post, covering every inch with a mosaic. He gradually moved up the post so that now many of the mosaics extend to eye level. The results are striking, especially when one considers that Power has had no formal artistic training. But he has worked as a carpenter and a stone mason, and the precision demanded by those trades can be seen in the smooth finish of the artwork.
The mosaics are made with tiles, colored glass, tiny mirrors and other scavenged odds and ends. Power and his team of volunteers smooth down the rough edges of the materials and grout them together. On one lamppost, the handle of a tea-cup can be seen.
“People bring tiles and materials to me,” Powers said. “I met one lady who had kept stuff in the trunk of her car for two years waiting to meet me.”
Each lamppost looks different. Some of the designs are intricate, with detailed patterns of tiny tiles. Others are more simple and have place names spelled out: “St. Mark’s Place” or “FDNY,” for example. They are colorful and imaginative. His idea is to bring art to the people and to make the city a better place.
“It makes people cherish the neighborhood,” Power said of his work. “What I have done here is more than Bayer aspirin has ever done. It is definite, it is profound. I have changed a piece of New York, with nothing, and sometimes in the worst conditions. I could be surrounded by millionaires who may not know who I am, but they know my work.”
Many apparently believe that he is entitled to that opinion. A taxi driver in the area who is familiar with the mosaics is one of them. “He is a real artist,” the cabbie said. “Not many people would go out there in bad weather and make something so beautiful.”
Power’s activities, being technically illegal, were initially met with resistance from the city authorities and the police. When he started, he used a home-made permit and was told to cease. He was eventually persuaded to apply for a legitimate one. As a result, he was eventually granted permission to decorate up to 80 lampposts. He is determined to fill the quota.
“I am more than halfway there and it’s too late to turn back,” Power said of his avocation. “Fifteen years doing the lampposts and I have done 67 of them. They take a month, six weeks, to do each one.”
Power has carried his headstrong attitude into other passions as well and perhaps not surprisingly, it has led to run-ins with police. Most notably, he has carried out an anti-heroin campaign by writing “No Heroin” on the pavements from 9th Street down to 4th. His act got a mixed reaction in the Village, but he said he feels strongly enough about it to have some former substance abusers on his volunteer team.
“I have been threatened a number of times, there have been contracts out on my life,” Powers said.
Power admits to occasionally smoking marijuana but has little affection for alcohol.
“Contrary to the idea of the Irish being drinkers, I don’t drink,” he said. “In fact, last night, I had my first drink in a year, a little nip of Bailey’s Irish Cream. The Powers are not drinkers. I don’t even drink to celebrate New Year’s Eve.”
The Power family left Ireland and immigrated to the United States when he was 13. They left the Cork Road in Waterford and settled in Long Island. Power’s father joined his uncle in construction work. His parents have since passed away, but Power sees his six siblings occasionally.
“Some of my brothers and sisters work in the city and we meet up every now and then,” he said.
Power trained as a carpenter with his father but ended up doing various types of construction jobs.
“I have done lots of leveling the floors of buildings,” he said. “To me, it is a very serious job.”
Subsidized by odd jobs
The lamppost work is voluntary, so Power continues to do various jobs to pay the bills. These vary from carpentry to tile work. Sometimes, he is hired to decorate the lobby of an apartment block or to tile a floor in a restaurant.
These jobs sometimes dictate his way of life. He lives in a rented space in the East Village but stays on the job when he can.
“I pay very minimum expenses,” Power said. “When I have a job, I’ll go and stay in the building.”
Power revels in his bohemian lifestyle. “I gave up making $2,700 a week to making maybe $10 a day, but I am not a starving artist,” he said. “I am living rugged, but I have a very elegant style of living in the trenches, although dinner on a regular plate is foreign to me.”
Power has never been married. “I am not in a position to be entertaining a woman because I am not living regular enough,” he said. “It is one of my regrets that I have not had a scenario comfortable enough to ask a woman to have my children. On the other hand, I have the greatest relationship with some of the most outrageous women on the planet, the women I work with.”
Power said he was in Vietnam until 1970, serving in the First Cavalry and Ninth Infantry and today seems to be treated with the kindly benevolence usually reserved for peaceful hippies. However, some of his views might raise eyebrows among his more left-leaning neighbors.
“I have a bigger voice than the mayor,” he said. “I have a bigger army at my disposal. I am bent on organizing all the veterans in the United States and want them to go out and watch every Arab.”
Power also has ideas for new projects, including one for the World Trade Center site.
“I would build a circular structure with seven buildings inside it,” he said. “They would create a city in the air with walkways connecting all seven buildings. I would have a building for each of the seven continents.”
Power said he would like to start a mosaic school in the East Village and to continue his work with a bigger team.
“My aim is to get more public art,” he said. “In the back of someone’s mind, it works. Art should soothe people to the extent that they feel there must be another way out there.”
Power said he loves his work, especially the social aspect. “I don’t have time to listen to music,” he said. “I would only wear headphones if I didn’t want people to bother me, but I love people stopping to talk.”