Unraveled Talks with Street Pianos Boston

September 26th, 2013

“Well it’s an outlet right? It’s a mask, it’s a costume you get to wear. Some people have these hidden talents that you wouldn’t necessary know by just looking at them, but a piano in a public space can bring that out of somebody. We all keep in our little shell when we are in public. This piano is a nice hammer to crack that shell.” – Michael Crockett 

Sometimes the best of ideas are so simple that they might be overlooked in the conversations in which they arise. “Hey wouldn’t it be great if we…” excites a dialogue momentarily, and then is washed away by a gulp of beer, a change of scenery. It takes special motivation and dedication to manifest these ideas into the real world, but the payoffs often exceed expectations.

Play Me I’m Yours | Street Pianos feels like one of those ideas brought to life. It’s such a simple concept: place pianos throughout major cities, decorated by local artists, and allow the public to interact, react, and play. Yet despite the simplicity, Street Pianos is an experience out of the ordinary for city dwellers who are too often guided by day-to-day routine, bee-lining through crowded streets from point A to point B. It takes a lot to break down people’s social blinders, and here the extravagantly decorated piano, placed innocuously in a public square, has the ability to excite the ears and the eyes before the mind can say “you’re too busy, just ignore it”.

On this premise, Street Pianos has built up an international experience that regularly descends on major world cities. The project started in the UK in 2008 when over the course of one week, 15 pianos were played by 140,000 people. That’s almost 10,000 people per piano, and 1333 people per day for each piano; probably an order of magnitude more people than most pianos ever get to meet. It is as if the pianos are human magnets. Herein lies the power and the mass appeal of this deceptively simple idea. Since this wildly successful inception, the project has popped up in more than 30 international cities including Toronto, São Paulo, Barcelona, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Paris, and Hangxhou.

Starting on the 27th of September, pianos will descend on public spaces in Boston like beacons of audio-visual joy. Boston is a wonderful city for art, with both the public funding of the arts along with the vibrant resident art scenes. Boston however has another reputation: a city full of socially chilly, too-busy-to-talk, workday warriors who go out of their way to avoid public interaction. Street Pianos in Boston will be especially powerful because the walls between strangers here may be taller and more strongly built than in other cities. Here’s to the draining of moats, the breaking of walls, and extending of friendly bridges between castles. There may be no better way to break the ice with those familiar strangers on our daily routines, than to share a few moments around one of 75 Boston Street Piano.

Notably, Street Pianos Boston is historic because the 1000th Street Piano will reside in Boston City Hall. Arjun Ray caught up with the two artists who collaborated on the painting of the 1000th piano, Michael Crockett and Eyeformation, for an Unraveled interview about the event, the artists, and their gorgeously adorned piano.


AR: Could you tell me a little bit about yourselves? Then I can ask some more specific questions.

MC: I’m local. Born in Lowell, raised in Tewksbury MA. I attended a local art college, Monseratt college of Art. I graduated in ‘97. Instead of pursuing art directly, I pursued music and followed a dream of touring and trying to get signed for at least a 5-8 year period with some up and some downs and some lefts and some rights and working, sacrificing my life a little bit and my art to pursue dreams, which I think is necessary.


Above image of a Hazel Eyes (Michael Crockett) piece.

E: I’ve grown up in the area here. I’m in Lowell, which is outside of Boston. But over the years I’ve gone to art school in Boston. I grew up taking the train and just skateboarding here and going to music shows so the city has always been very accessible on the train line from where I grew up.

AR: I understand that you run an art studio?

E: Yes, I’m running my own design/illustration studio called Eyeformation and it’s going into about it’s 11th year now. I do everything form traditional paintings showing in galleries, mural-based works, to digital illustration that is vector based that I’ve done for everything ranging from products to newspaper covers. I also develop my own line of products that fall under my Eyeformation designs and illustration. I also develop designs for other companies as well that might be producing their own line of merchandize such as stickers that are made specifically for sneakers or iPhone cases.


Above image of an Eyeformation mural.

AR: Michael, I was just curious. What was the band or the bands that you played with?

MC: I started a band called The Burning Paris. From 2001-2004 we were a full 6 piece shoe gazer band. In our realm were bands like Caspian….
The next band would have been The Living Sea, which was a dancey rock-based band. That band fizzled out around 2008 and I made a conscious decision from there to focus my attention on my visual art rather than my band and my music. I’m a drummer, and I’m a singer and songwriter as well, but primarily I’m a drummer. I decided to make a conscious effort to just backtrack a little bit to my roots, visual art, and start really really putting in work, designing, volunteering, helping out bands, helping out. But man, it’s been a great ride for the last 8-9 years.

AR: Do you still feel connected to the music scene, or have you moved on?

MC: Stopping playing music didn’t mean stopping being a part of music, and all the musicians that I met, everyone from that decade or so of playing music contacted me to do their albums, do their cds, do their posters. I got the same sort of excitement out of it when a release comes out for a friend’s band as I would for my own releases. I’ve worked for international music labels and things out of Gloucester MA. I’ve done non-stop vinyl and cd designs for the last 8 years now for the local Boston music scene.


Above image of The Living Sea.

AR: Eyeformation, are you a musician?

E: No, really I’m not. I’m just a strictly a visual artist.

AR: Can you tell me about your development as an artist?

E: Art was just that activity you did whenever you had free time and I’ve always been really into drawing. I always like to assign myself my own art projects at home as I was growing up. I always had a little work area, a drawing table. My family was always buying me art supplies for birthday gifts. Then as I got older, I was really inspired by the artwork that was being done in the skateboarding culture, and I think that gave me a little bit more of a direction with what I was doing. I still have that same desire to always continue producing and coming up with new elements to my art whether it’s working in 3-dimensional or plush pillows, working with fabric. I’ve painted a design studio in Shanghai a couple years ago and another toy design studio in Hong Kong on the same trip. I did a mural for the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston a couple years ago, using my characters as inspirational icons in different sections of the hospital.


Above image of Eyeformation at work.

AR: Why a piano? In your opinion, why pianos and not say, drum sets?

MC: It’s very accessible to anybody. You can get a note to come out of it. It’s not like leaving a violin out on the sidewalk. You can hit one key, and if it’s in tune, that’s a beautiful note that’s going to come out of that

E: I think maybe because it was just the object in hand that was called for customizing. So, this just happened to be a piano-related project so it dictated what I apply my graphic style to.

MC: I think a piano with it’s weight and it’s structure is almost a permanent fixture. No one’s gonna pick it up and run away with it. The shell of the piano is part of the acoustics of the piano but it is so well made structurally that it can become canvas without any trouble.

AR: A six year old playing on a piano can be “fun” to listen to whereas a six year old playing on a drum set can be … obnoxious.

MC: And I think it’s also about that. They’re being placed around businesses and around homes and things like that and a piano has a certain tone and a certain volume level, and the natural acoustics that is has as opposed to a drum which is loud no matter what, or an electric instrument or something.

AR: So the pianos are basically open to the public for anyone to play?

MC: Exactly. It’s going to be up for about 2 weeks from 27th of September to the 14th of October. 75 pianos are going to be placed all over the city of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, East Boston and the surrounding areas. There are public performance scheduled through Play Me I’m Yours; events that you can pay to go and see, and then everything else is open to the public.

AR: So anyone from a six year old to Chick Corea could be playing on those pianos.

MC: Exactly. And if you are lucky enough, you could see the six year old Chick Corea playing. This is a really interesting idea, bringing the public into the performance of it. Wonderful to walk down and see someone from the conservatory sitting down one day on a lunch break and playing one of these pianos for everybody. As well it could be amazing to see a six year old walk over and touch it for the first time.

AR: Did they tell you which locations everyone’s pianos will be going into, and where you able to scout the locations, or rather, did any of the designs reflect the location?

MC: I think they were hesitant to share that information as they were building up the locations because I do believe that you have to have some permits. That being said, they are waiting to see what the pianos look like from the artists. That will be a part of where they go and what they represent. There is definitely a body of people behind the scenes here who are organizing the whole thing. They have been sharing supplies with us. There are a lot of backers here helping everybody out. There are a lot of volunteers as well. Some of the artists have had all of the supplies donated to them.

E: I’m kind of interested to see how they pick and choose what goes where and exactly in what locations they are going to be put. They are working on that element. I just have not been informed of anything aside from the fact that ours will be in the city hall area.

AR: Has anyone ever though of setting up with another organization to have live-streaming video of the pianos?

MC: That’s a really good idea. They are encouraged to put up videos of people playing and they definitely host and post quite a few of them, so you can see some pretty amazing musicians in front of a brightly painted, carved sculpture pianos performing Mozart to the best of their ability.


Above image of both artists next to their 1000th piano taken by Eric Stossel, 2013.

AR: How did you land the 1000th piano?

MC: Well apparently, there wasn’t one for a little bit and I was working on a separate upright piano like everybody else has, and an e-mail came in one day saying there was a baby grand piano. I think they had a competition via e-mail. So I wrote a bio about Frank Pizzaza [Eyeformation], my collaborator. We knew each other when we were children. We grew up locally. We both were attracted to skateboarding and rock and roll and pop culture. In the 80s and the early 90s we split off and went separate directions but we followed the artistic path, just two separate ones. It wasn’t until our late 30s that we reunited and met up with each other and realized that we could contribute to each others’ work. We took advantage of that past that we had and our love for the city to attack this piano. Two weeks later, I got the e-mail that we were selected.

E: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I had known Mike when I was younger and we had a lot of similar interests between skateboarding and culture. Over the year I’d always seen Mike pursuing his work, doing what it is that he did, and I was always working on my stuff. In the back of my mind I’ve always thought of getting together for some collaborative projects. He was actually contacted by the Street Pianos project and in the back of his mind he though it would be a good opportunity for the two of us to continue on our collaborative work and have it be applied to this piano.

AR: Tell me about what you guys did on this piano.

E: Mike did a lot of labor and work on the under painting and that’s where the bright colors were being utilized. I think we both see that palette as being inspirational. I just want to represent some elements of the water and the ocean that is related to Boston and that’s repeated in a wave pattern that is consistent throughout the piano’s design as well as some happy whales. We did a little bit of a shot of Charlestown with the Bunker Hill monument and some of the house that you might find on the hill.

MC: So the art that went on it represented the waterfront of Boston, primarily in and around Charlestown. It also has a lot to do with Eyeformation’s signature voice with his characters. He has traveled around China and the United States doing mural projects with these characters. Very very amazingly talented graphic designer and I’ll loosely say graffiti artist but he is definitely in that family. His characters maintain a whimsical, graphic design illustrative quality. I felt that we could make a very colorful statement using his characters and my textural abilities as a painter to make this canvas pop. We went with a very vibrant palette of magentas, primary yellows, cyan blues, distressed it quite a bit with layers and layers of those colors. I did a few design elements myself with cloud formations.


Above image of Michael surrounded by his implements taken by Eric Stossel, 2013.

A time lapse video of the 1000th piano being painted, courtesy of Michael Crockett.

AR: What is the strangest piano you have seen either here or through working with Street Pianos, and what happens to the pianos after these events?

MC: I asked that second question myself. What I’ve learned about what happens to the pianos afterword is that if they are in working order, they can be donated to after-school programs or community-based outreach programs for kids. Now, the first question. I don’t want to toot our horn but ours is pretty out there. Everyone is putting something unique into their pianos. I think one of the most quirky ones is Lou’s piano. Lou is an artist here is working on a piano that he is dedicated to a child who passed away in his community. What he’s doing is treating the piano with everything that that child was into. So there is Iron Man painted on the side of it, there are castles. The whole top of it is made out of legos. At the same time that it’s quirky and it’s out there, it is all one of the most sentimental one’s that I’ve seen being painted here.

E: I saw a lot of people doing a lot of different approaches to it, which I thought was very cool. One of he coolest one’s that I saw was Meaghan’s that she was painting some Jellyfish on. I really like that. I though it was very representative of some of the natural elements that might be associated with Boston. I really enjoyed that one. When I was there people were just getting started here. I am very curious to see where everybody’s’ work has developed to since.


Above image of Meghann Brideau’s piano.

AR: What is the best possible reaction that you can imagine to your piano?

E: I would just go with people’s expressions whether or not they were happy and smiling or just laughing at it. I would accept that as a positive response too. I think it has a bit of a comical overtone to the whole design. It’s just meant to make people happy. I monitor by people’s smiles.

MC: I’ve only seen online representations of this program and they all look extremely positive. Unfortunately, this will be the first one I’ve ever seen in public, but I’m planning on hosting my own musicians. I’m getting a schedule together as a musician myself, and working with bands over the years, I’ve kept a network of musicians that I’ve invited to come and play. I would love to run into somebody just sitting there, walking by taking a double take and then jumping on it and performing and original or a cover and playing their heart out. I think that there aren’t enough outlets like that in a public setting.

AR: Boston is uniquely suited, and this is my opinion, and also an….interesting place to do an event like. Boston supports the arts, between local arts support and city-wide support. Boston is also a city where traditionally people don’t interact much with strangers. So there is something to be said for visual art and sound art as communication that transcends the barriers of spoken language, and culture. With visual art you can’t help but look at it, with sound you can’t help but hear it.

MC: Well it’s an outlet right? It’s a mask, it’s a costume you get to wear. Some people have these hidden talents that you wouldn’t necessary know by just looking at them, but a piano in a public space can bring that out of somebody. We all keep in our little shell when we are in public. This piano is a nice hammer to crack that shell. I’ve learned that about myself on tour when I was in New Mexico. Someone’s trying to come up to me, someone’s trying to get something from me or ask me for something, and all they want to do is have a conversation, and I realized how shut off my personality was, and I strived to change that in myself.

E: It’s going to be kind of interesting to monitor the response that people have to it because it’s going to be visual and audio experience for the viewers. I’m sure just like anything there will be a percentage of people that are really into it and appreciate it, and a percentage of people who could care less but hopefully there will be more people who will be enjoying it than not. Maybe it might have the ability to loosen people up, and drop their defenses a little bit.

AR: Would you paint a Street Piano again?

E: Yeah, if the opportunity presented itself, I absolutely would. I really enjoy it. There is plenty of surface area to apply what I do. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.

MC: Absolutely. This bridging the gap between what my art represents, what my emotions represent, my love of music: it’s really tying that knot. Everything that I’ve been a part of for the last 20 years of my life. I would love to continue doing stuff like this. I could see this inspiring a series of painting my instruments.


Follow this event on twitter (@streetpianosBOS), Facebook, and on their webpage!

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