Visual arts

Hip-hop portrait of Elvis hovers over Wynwood

Wedged between the art gallery and the wall of hedges, just after the railroad tracks slice Northeast 29th Street, Elvis hovers over Wynwood.

He stands tall against the crushed green backdrop on a street mural, pop-culturally familiar and yet, somehow different.

Maybe it’s the black sweatsuit, or the thick gold rope necklace, or the epic high-top fade, inspired by Kid ‘n Play.

This is Elvis Presley 2.0, re-imagined as a hip-hop head on his 78th birthday.

“I wanted to mix the ideas of an American icon with the hip-hop culture, making a statement about how black music influenced Elvis and black music is influenced by rock ‘n’ roll,” says Pete Kirill, a neo-pop artist. “I call it MC Elvis.”

As he raced the sunset to finish the stripes on the King’s sweatsuit a few days ago, Kirill says he began working on the mural the week of Jan. 8, Elvis’ birthday. Beyond blending parallel cultures bound by the power of music, the artist wanted to also honor the King posthumously.

“I just thought this would be a cool idea,” he says, peeling bits of green paint off his hands.

So, there is the King staring east, toward the skeletal remains of Art Basel, his head positioned between seven windows on a building in an otherwise empty lot. The wall, the back side of a design business, has been used before for art, most recently an abstract by a Brooklyn artist. The works were commissioned by real estate developer David Lombardi, who owns the patchwork gravel and grass lot. The empty property is likely to be reincarnated as a parking lot, but for now it provides front-row viewing for MC Elvis.

“I like using the place for art. I like to change things up a good deal and keep it fresh,” says Lombardi, an early Wynwood pioneer. “I saw Pete’s work and thought it was clever and fun.”

Kirill, 38, raised in Connecticut, grew up in the 1980s/1990s glow of the New York hip-hop scene, its soundtrack created by giants Run D.M.C., Big Daddy Kane and BDP. That era, a decade or so after Presley’s death, visually manifested in outsized jewelry, track suits, shell-top Adidas sneakers and the occasional Kangol hats.

It is not the first time Kirill has played with iconic imagery, celebrity worship and irony, though the other works were distinctly political. In 2010, he unveiled a series of portraits in which North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, takes on a hip-hop persona, complete with racing stripes etched into his side fade, a k a Vanilla Ice. It was part of a larger collection of famous dictators painted as American pop icons, including Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

Politics aside, with Kirill’s newest work, Elvis joins other famous mural DJs:

MC Assad-Thug Life and MC Arafats.

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