Turning manholes into works of art

The paintings on manholes by artist Paul Carluccio (top) resemble colourful rubbings (above).
The paintings on manholes by artist Paul Carluccio (above) resemble colourful rubbings.PHOTO: NYTIMES
The paintings on manholes by artist Paul Carluccio (top) resemble colourful rubbings (above).
The paintings on manholes by artist Paul Carluccio resemble colourful rubbings (above).PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • "I like painting outside - it keeps my overheads low," said Paul Carluccio, kneeling on a sidewalk on Carmine Street in the West Village.

"I don't have a gallery - my studio is right here."

His work space lies wherever there is an attractive manhole cover on the streets and sidewalks of New York City.

Those heavy iron discs, so ubiquitous and familiar, are often hidden in plain sight from pedestrians who constantly walk over them.

But not to Carluccio, who began working on sewer covers 18 years ago, after painting scenes of the city and noticing a fascinating array of designs on them.

Since then, he has been laying canvases on them and creating paintings that are something like colourful rubbings - a style that gives a new twist to the term impressionist painting.

On a recent weekday, he walked into the Native Leather shop on Carmine Street. The store's owner, Carol Walsh, lets him store his painting materials there.

He mounted a wooden cabinet on a hand-truck, filled it with his materials and wheeled it down Carmine Street to a small, triangular park known as Father Demo Square.

Carluccio, who is tall with long limbs and large hands, wore a paint-smeared T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. He stopped at a large Con Edison manhole cover and tossed a folded white canvas down next to it.

"I like this cover because I can break it into sections," he said of the design, which resembled a sliced pizza, with ridges radiating from the centre.

He spread the canvas over the cover and duct-taped it to the sidewalk and pulled out three tubes of acrylic paint: red, yellow and blue.

He held court with passers-by, as he squirted the paint onto the bumpy canvas, and then used a coarse wire brush to work it into the rough contours of the cover's crevices and ridges.

With a squeegee, he skimmed off the excess paint, leaving a colourful imprint of the cover on the canvas.

He is married with three children and lives in Harlem.

He grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, the youngest of five children, studied film at New York University and worked for a few years as a director of promotional videos at Madison Square Garden, where he operated the fan-cam at New York Knicks and New York Rangers games.

When adding details and highlights to paintings in his home studio, Carluccio often uses scraping and brush work to customise a sewer cover's original lettering into his own slogans, or into requested messages for commissioned paintings.

He is occasionally berated by doormen or business owners for painting in front of their buildings, he said.

Then there are the protective home owners of historic Brooklyn Heights town houses that still have original coal chute covers in the sidewalks.

"I had a building owner come running out, yelling, 'Are you stealing it?'" he recalled. "I said, 'No, I'm painting it.'"

He said he survived brain cancer a decade ago that left his brain "rewired" artistically and better able to consider the sewer caps as more than mundane objects.

"Art changes the way we look at things," he said. "So I like it when someone tells me, 'I never looked at a manhole cover that way.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2018, with the headline 'Turning manholes into works of art'. Print Edition | Subscribe