On a late summer evening in SoHo, Alec Monopoly stood before his canvas—a blank sliding door commissioned as a functional piece of artwork for the patron’s TriBeCa loft. The anonymous street artist, who has become known for his depictions of the famous Monopoly character Mr. Pennybags, worked on the stoop outside of a studio he was temporarily sharing with fellow artist Harif Guzman.
He wore a tattered top hat and spoke from behind a scarf wrapped bandana-style around the lower half of his face, a look that has become Alec’s signature. Meanwhile, a steady stream of pedestrians slowed down as they walked by the scene, catching a glimpse of the artist at work. Swiftly and skillfully applying layer upon layer of spray paint, Alec’s choices were unpredictable with new colors and designs emerging every few minutes.
Although the busy streets of downtown New York buzzed around him, Alec tuned out his surroundings and was utterly immersed in his work. In many ways, this attitude and focus is one that permeates all aspects of his identity as an artist.
“My true passion is street art—that’s where I have the most fun,” said Alec. “I’m not going to be sell out and stop painting in the streets. That’s all I really care about, you know.”
This immense passion is what led Alec on to his path of becoming the recognizable street artist he is today. In 2008, Alec became enthralled with the Bernie Madoff scandal as it unfolded in the media. He thought of creating a portrait of the disgraced investor—something that offered both social commentary and biting humor. Alec, who learned to paint from his artist mother, recalled his favorite childhood board game of Monopoly for its considerable relevance to the scandal.
“Bernie Madoff is similar to the Monopoly man, Mr. Pennybags,” explained Alec. “The object of the game is to bankrupt your opponent and win. I started the canvas that night—but it’s funny, I never finished it because I immediately went out and did graffiti of it. The canvas is still unfinished.”
Marking his first experience with painting the streets, Alec soon fell in love with the rush he received from working with larger, more public formats. “Painting a wall is like painting a massive canvas. I kind of have a little bit of a Napoleon complex. I was always the little kid in school; so for me, painting a huge wall makes me feel a little bigger.”
Alec’s tags and his renderings of Mr. Pennybags began consistently showing up on walls around New York City. The artist became so closely associated with his trademark character that many viewers referred to him as the Monopoly man. “I play with identity more. I started doing it as a character, not as myself. Now, even I reference myself as the Monopoly man. [This transformation] kind of just happened on its own—it’s been an adventure.”
After several arrests and death threats from gang-affiliated graffiti artists, Alec realized that anonymity was a crucial step to protecting himself on the streets. “Graffiti is kind of an evil underworld. There are a lot of haters out there after me, so it’s nice to be anonymous.” He adds, “Anonymity also gives me the freedom to do as much graffiti as a I want.”
The 27-year-old New York native, who has since relocated to Los Angeles, rarely stays in one place for too long. Having spent the last few weeks travelling from Coachella to the Cannes Film Festival to Monte Carlo, Alec’s life reads more like that of a rock star’s than it does a street artist. On any given day, he may be riding around on four wheelers with Barron Hilton, heir to Hilton Hotels, or hanging out with a circle of celebrities and tastemakers. But Alec insists he sees himself as an artist first and foremost. “I try not pay attention to that kind of stuff,” admitted Alec. “I’d rather just focus on my work. It’s weird—I don’t really consider myself to be famous.”
But Alec has certainly achieved a certain level of recognition for his work on the streets and in galleries alike. His latest solo show “Park Place” was hosted in March at LA street art gallery LAB Art and marked his west coast debut. A retrospective of his work as an artist thus far, Alec committed the six months preceding the opening to producing the best show he was capable of. “I did nothing but paint—all day, everyday. I didn’t leave my studio at all most days over those few months; just sat in there and worked all day long.” Alec joked, “It was good for me and I felt healthy [since] I wasn’t going out and partying every night.”
The show, which Alec considers his “best one yet,” featured several of the artist’s solo works as well as collaborations he had completed with iconic photographer Richard Corman and actor Adrien Brody. Corman, who is best known for his black and white film shots of a young Madonna Ciccone, first partnered with Alec about a year and a half ago to collaborate on a Vitamin Water-sponsored project for W Hotels.
“For the first time since 1983, when I shot Madonna, I began working with some of the images I’d never shown before,” said Corman. “My gallery, Rock Paper Photo, aligned me with the W Hotel, Vitamin Water, and Alec. It was basically my images, but we created one or two canvases per location that Alec painted on. As soon as I met him, I knew he was the real thing and it has just continued.”
For this particular show, Alec painted over photographs Corman had taken of Michael Douglas for the Wall Street movie poster and Jean-Michel Basquiat—one of Alec’s chief artistic influences. “He helped to redefine my work—reenergize it and just give it a different spin,” said Corman. “Alec would say he’s a street artist, but I would say he’s an incredible painter, first and foremost.”
Another highlight of the show was Alec’s collaboration with Adrien Brody. The Oscar-winning actor, who donated a 1967 Rolls Royce and a 1964 Pontiac Catalina convertible for Alec to paint, has been a big collector and friend of the artist for a few years now. With Alec’s painted-on additions, the Pontiac became a custom, life-size Monopoly game piece, while the Rolls Royce was created specifically for Brody, who plans to park it at the center of his sprawling castle in upstate New York.
Blurring the lines between art and commerce, Alec decided to sell one of his paintings from the show for $3 million—in Monopoly money. This transaction, which is apparently the first of its kind, was largely a playful experiment for the artist. “I do a lot of stuff like that for fun—just to make people laugh.”
While gallery shows have been high points in developing Alec’s career and growth as an artist, he maintains that they incite entirely different emotions than he experiences while painting on the street.
“It’s completely different,” said Alec. “You can express yourself on canvas much differently than on the streets. In a gallery, it’s hard to replicate the emotions of being out there and looking out for the cops. When you’re in the streets, there are several emotions that you’ll never have in the gallery. That’s why a lot of street artists aren’t successful gallery artists, because the work doesn’t translate.”
The initial curiosity and excitement that inspired Alec to become a street artist eight years ago are still obvious today. Receiving more and more recognition as a popular artist, Alec certainly has a long and promising career ahead of him.
“Doing the canvas and the gallery stuff is important, but it’s more of a vehicle to do the graffiti and travel,” said Alec. “Walls can crash down one day or get painted over, so when you are doing canvas you are persevering your work. But if I could get paid to just paint the streets, I’d probably only do that. I’ll never deny the streets.”
Like the iconic board game that sparked his artistic journey, Alec’s work manages to be at once both traditional and culturally relevant. More than just a platform for his success, street art is the driving force that continues to inspire Alec to create—the Monopoly man lives on both in the streets and within the artist’s soul.