It was a dark and stormy night, as most nefarious tales begin, and I was finally driving home after a long night of reporting.
I thought I was doing a good job avoiding any and all debris the storm has washed into the road, when it happened.
My right front tire hit a pothole. And it was a big one.
The rain water from the evening’s storm filled it with just enough water to trick my eye into thinking it was merely a puddle, but as the air seeped out of my popped tire, it was immediately clear, this was no mere road depression. I pulled over to the curb, put on my hazard lights, called a tow truck and waited for help to arrive.
God I hate potholes.
Welcome to the MetroFocus Podcast, I’m your host Jenna Flanagan, and yes my initial response to hitting that pothole, popping a tire, and as I discovered from the body shop my car was towed to, cracking the axle, was FAR more colorful than ‘God, I hate potholes.’
These hazardous creators, created by a mixture of asphalt, water and freezing temperatures, make most drivers insane, as they can cause all sorts of damage. Which is why, I was so shocked when Instagram casually introduced me to an artist who used the seasonal ‘curse of the thaw’, as a frame for an ancient art form.
“I like to call it the unexpected grin.”
That’s Jim Bachor and he’s a world-renowned mosaic artist. Except, instead of the ancient floors of Pompeii or the walls of a city subway station, Bachor’s art is… more grounded.
“It’s been a happy unexpected happiness. You know you’re walking down the street you don’t expect to see anything and then you, you see this brightly colored artwork of a subject that you wouldn’t expect. You know, I try to keep people on their toes so they’re always expecting ice cream and candy and whatever from my work and because well what it what it is it’s like I call it universal truth. Everyone hates potholes and so a lot of my subject matter tends to be things that everyone loves like ice cream or flowers.”
Jim, who’s based in Chicago, came to New York to install a series he titled, ‘Vermin of New York.’ The mosaics include images of a cockroach, a dead rat, a dead pigeon, and a specifically larger, louder species that most New Yorkers find intolerable. The vermin, aren’t his typical subject matter, but Jim doesn’t see any reason why his work should be predictable?
“So it just kind of keeping people on their toes and flipping around next to as soon as you figure out what he’s doing he switches it around a little bit.”
Part of what makes Jim’s artwork stand out, aside from existing in the literal street, is that his pieces pop out at the eye.
“Italian glass, it colored, the colored glasses see here is really expensive. Some of my work if it warrants, has actual gold in it. If the if the piece warrants that so it’s kind of crazy we could actually see some precious metal in the street. I have a piece I did a couple of years ago. It’s just called paved with dot dot dot. And it’s the type-ographies done in gold. So the joke is the street is literally paved in gold.”
All of Jim’s pothole mosaic subjects are framed by tile shaped white marble and sit in a bed of concrete. Juxtapose that against the black asphalt and you’ve got a striking piece of artwork.
Now, if any of this sounds like a story you heard about but somehow missed? Well that’s because Jim’s installations, like most street artists, are done guerilla style, and the city Department of Transportation wasn’t exactly thrilled about his work.
In a statement, a DOT spokesperson said, “Aside from putting himself in harm’s way in the middle of roadways, the artists’ adding of artwork in the street is a danger to all road users, which poses safety hazards should drivers become distracted by the art.”
Now when I met up with Jim, it was on a sunny Friday in July, and he was working on ‘step 2’ of his installation process. The mosaics had already been assembled and laid into fresh concrete in the ground, and the work had a chance to set over night and Jim was on his hands and knees, with wire brushes and even old dental tools, painstakingly cleaning any grains concrete residue off the tiles, to assure no color or design aspect was lost.
“I’m getting the finer pieces of concrete out to maximize any color that I can get. There’s some concrete on the on the colorful glass. So I’m just trying to bring out as much color as possible because this is this is as pristine as it’s ever going to look. This is when I take my final photos. So you know because I can’t sell the art because it’s stuck on the ground. I sell fine art prints of them so you know soon here I’ll, get a camera out and take some nice photographs of it so I’m just trying to get expose all the color that could possibly have been still covered up with the concrete.
So it’s just kind of like a number of rounds of scraping and picking away little areas of concrete that won’t come up with the glue residue from the first part of the install is trying to reveal as much color as possible make sure that, that uh, that there’s no glue or concrete hiding in any of the bright color of the glass.”
The entire installation process, from concept to final photo, is by Jim’s estimate, about 20 man hours each.
Because the Vermin of New York campaign was funded through Kickstarter, as most of Jim’s pothole campaigns are, he raised enough money bring along an assistant, his nephew Kevin Bachor, and he also hired a project manager, a Brooklyn local and creative jack of all trades, Rusty Zimmerman.
You might wonder how Jim and his crew are able to spend so much time mixing concrete, pouring it into a pothole and then laying a mosaic on top, undisturbed?
“The power of the traffic cone is that people obey. You want to shut down the street. Get some 24 inch orange cones, lay em out and close down your street for a day. Cause people obey, they don’t. And so it’s awesome. That’s as simple as that.”
Jim also wears a reflective orange vest while he works so he’s easily seen by drivers, even though as he found out, the vest carries even more symbolic power, in a city, like New “That’s the funny thing is I just look like a city worker that’s taking way too long to fix one pothole.
We wear these vests really for safety purposes. We’re not trying to fool anyone. It just so happens that we also look like we are city workers.”
The third and less obvious safety precaution, is the location of the potholes Jim works in. He’s not out in the middle of the street blocking traffic. For this New York City series, Jim stays to the curb, where cars don’t drive or are less likely to park.
The series production manager, Rusty Zimmerman, explains the criteria for choosing a mosaic worthy pothole.
“Fire hydrants are great. Because New Yorkers know stay at least 15 feet away from them. And so that’s how you know when you find a sweet one that meets your criteria being roughly 18 by 24 and about at least 1 inch deep with a solid foundation on the bottom. For all the kids out there who are going to go and make their own pothole mosaic’s, having a fire hydrant nearby guarantees that when you come back and you’re ready to install you won’t have a minivan parked on top.”
And you’d want a fairly secure street location for something you’re putting about 20 hours of work into. But what exactly do those 20 hours entail? Rusty explains,
“The white tiles are marble and the colored bits are vitreous glass from a company or a product called Smalty, that is expensive Italian glass and they get laid and pegged in the art making process into a sheet of clay to hold still until the artwork is constructed and completed and then get brushed over with the heavy coat of Elmer’s school glue the likes of which you and I and everybody else hopefully got to play with an elementary school taste and guilty and then layered over with a sheet of cheese cloth that morning and then that becomes the medium that holds everything in place lifts out of the clay and it gets transferred to a board for easy transport via FedEx from Chicago to New York and then just get slid on top of the newly filled pothole tapped down, patted in, and slowly released from the cheese cloth, by way of pouring water over to soften the Elmer’s Glue.”
So how did Jim get this good? I mean, who goes around installing mosaics in potholes? Well it all goes back to a European vacation, Jim and his wife took in the late 90’s.
“So I kind of became its ancient history dork and in turn get exposed to ancient art. When you start doing that and the stuff that survives to this day for the most part tends to be you know mosaics or maybe sculpture or something like that. So it was just the durability of mosaics that took to this day blows me away where it’s where I could do something in this technique that has not this particular piece but other pieces where it has the potential to survive a couple of thousand years theoretically. And I just think that’s kind of fun that there’s that possibility.”
With his spark of interest growing into a flame, Jim left his former career as a creative in the advertising industry, and became a full time artist, even returning to Italy to study mosaic making.
Jim, considers the pothole installations a form of free advertising. Each piece includes a specialized tile with his logo on it, and the photograph he takes of each complete piece gets posted on Instagram and his other social media pages, and some get printed on website swag, like t-shirts or mugs.
But Jims says, he is aware that installing his work in this sort of, slow-motion Banksy style, does come with risk.
“There’s an interesting contradiction there, cause I just told you about how durable the art form it is, and it is. But given where I’m putting that it’s not going to last forever just given the location. So this painfully permanent art form isn’t going to last forever. And I learned that lesson quickly early on. And so I just make it I just document stuff and that’s part of the process and it’s OK that it goes away.”
And go away, they did.
After getting wind of the Vermin of New York series of pothole mosaics, the New York City Department of Transportation did what everyone else looking for Bachor’s work would do. They sought out the location of each piece, usually posted on Jim’s Bachor.com website, and then jack hammered each one, out of the street, and paved over the pothole with asphalt.
But before any of that happened, I asked Jim about the bureaucratic durability of his particular style of work?
“This pothole certainly is not going to last a thousand years if not a year or two depending on what the city does with the street. But the technique and my fine art work which is one which is why I started this originally which is just to kind of draw some attention to my fine arts up in a kind of took over my entire career. But the stuff that’s framed stuff that’s on a wall done the same way is crazy durable and that’s the stuff that with minimal effort could last unbelievably long time because it’s all it is concrete glass and stone painting or marble depending on the piece.”
Ephemeral is the name of the game with Jim’s pothole mosaic work, although, he says, they’ve never been installed and removed, all in one week.
But his attitude towards the inevitable destruction of much of his work, is as fluid as the rainwater that filled the pothole I hit all those years ago.
“Can’t take myself too seriously given what I do.
You got to move on there’s more artwork to do.”
WATCH: Jim Bachor’s installation process of one of his pothole mosaics, which has since been removed by the New York City Department of Transportation