End of a Bar, and Its Surprisingly Artistic Life

Mars Bar, the dive joint on the first floor of 11 Second Avenue, closed last week amid ballyhoo.

In addition to being a small punk bar with bathrooms unfit for a crack house, Mars Bar was a crucible of a particular stream of East Village art beginning in 1986, when the owner, Hank Penza, agreed to let an artist and photographer named Toyo Tsuchiya organize a show there.

The art became one of the place’s binding elements, at least as much as the jukebox and the alcoholism and the ink-and-metal aesthetic of many who hung out there: a living record of a community’s history.

When the bar opened in 1984, at First Street and Second Avenue, the facade was gleaming. “We thought, ‘Oh no, another sushi bar; there goes the neighborhood,’ ” said Jim Sizelove, who was part of the rowdy art scene called the Rivington School. An anarchic bar and performance space called No Se No, the crowd’s primary hangout, was to close soon, and Mars became the unlikely new home.

What set the shows apart was a complete lack of a selection process, said Hamlet Zurita, 56, a painter from Ecuador known for bringing in sketchbooks to which anyone could contribute, as well as for occasionally walking to the bar in pajamas from his home two blocks away to catch last call. “It was a living studio to me,” he said.

Into the 1990s, artists mixed with Bowery bums, drug dealers and musicians from nearby CBGB, for which Mars served as a green room. Graffiti crept up the walls and ceiling, punk rock dominated the jukebox, and the freedom to express drew those with both something and nothing to say.

“What some people thought was art back then was to take a piece of meat, put it in a bag, nail it to the wall and see how the rot went,” said Joel Magee, who oversaw the monthly installations of art in the space for many years.

Mr. Magee and a few volunteers (including this reporter) spent several days last week prying plywood panels off the walls with crowbars, hammers and screwdrivers and preparing to remove paint-covered windows and sections of plaster, all to be put in storage.

Although the health department ordered the bar closed on July 18, its artistic life continued with two nights of parties in the apartment above, according to James Blonde, a street performer also known as Johnny Bizarre.

“There were tons of paint cans left from the previous occupants,” he said. “So we graffitied it all up and did murals.”

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