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Former 5Pointz artist from Long Island City creates mural to help fight scourge of antisemitism

Feb. 16, 2023 By Bill Parry

A former 5Pointz graffiti artist from Long Island City has become an unlikely hero in fighting the recent surge of antisemitism in New York City and around the world.

Fernando ”SKI” Romero, a Dominican-American artist born and raised in Astoria recently unveiled his latest mural on the outer wall of SoHo hotspot Vig Bar on Spring and Elizabeth streets featuring a towering portrait of Tibor Baranski, a Hungarian-American who rescued more than 3,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

Fernando “SKI” Romero’s Tibor Baranski mural in SoHo. (Courtesy Artists 4 Israel)

“I’m not Jewish, but I’ve painted in Israel and am blown away by the Jewish experience,” Romero said. “We all have the ability to fight for peace. I look forward to continuing to spread love, and positivity in areas where people need it most.”

In recent months, the Queens Jewish community has been alarmed by antisemitic incidents such as the spray-painted swastikas discovered in Forest Park and the NYPD removing a man shouting anti-Jewish slurs at Queens College. On Feb. 13, the American Jewish Committee released its latest “State of Antisemitism in America” report that revealed that 46% of Jews feel less secure about their status in the U.S. than they did a year ago, and 9 out of 10 Jews believe antisemitism is a serious problem in the U.S.

“Jews should not be afraid to be Jewish in America. The fact that more people are hiding their Judaism by changing their behavior is more evidence that hate is rising,” AJC New York Director Josh Kramer said. “Jews like every other group should be able to walk New York City streets openly and proudly without fear. Our city is made up of thousands of beautifully diverse communities and it is incumbent upon us all to stand together against rising hate in all its forms.

Fernando did just that 13 years ago when he joined forces with other top urban artists from around the world to participate in the “Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project,” an initiative of the nonprofit, Artists 4 Israel. The goal is to empower the new generation to fight the latest resurgence of ancient hate.

“Learning that ordinary people from their own neighborhoods won an honored place in world history by acting against antisemitism motivates others to do the same, creating new heroes in a time of need,” Artists 4 Israel CEO Craig Dershowitz said. “We are modeling heroism to end antisemitism.”

His group’s murals in Israel Greece and Portugal have become tourist destinations over the years in locations chosen for either being the home of one of the Holocaust Rescuers or because the area has become a hotspot for antisemitism. Taken by the visuals like Romero’s Baranski mural, people naturally take out their smartphone to take a photo. There is a QR code embedded in the mural that opens a link that tells the story of the hero.

“These murals are being celebrated by Jews and non-Jews, by people in Europe and America, by people from Black and Brown communities, by people of all religions and none,” Dershowitz said. “Art is part of the answer to antisemitism.”

Romero told QNS that he immersed himself in Israeli culture during three extended visits to work on murals.

“You get more than an education but more like exposure where you have these conversations about art with people from different walks of life and it just creates a wider dialogue and creates a space where people can express and paint freedom,” Romero said. “It was really great exposure to the country, the culture, and its people and through that experience, I actually learned more about myself.”

He said he was proud to paint Baranski, who was studying to be a Catholic priest in Hungary at age 22 when the Nazis occupied Bucharest. Baranski fast-talked his way into the Papal Nuncio’s residence and persuaded the Vatican’s representative to let him use the Church resources to save more than 3,000 Jews by setting up safe houses and printing official-looking documents to get them out of Hungary. Baranski would borrow the official diplomatic vehicle, a Rolls Royce, and show up at Nazi roundups and pull Jews out of the lines. He was fearless when Nazi soldiers pointed guns at his head and once called Adolf Eichmann a scoundrel to his face.
Tibor Baranski Jr. attended the mural’s SoHo unveiling and thanked Romero and Artists 4 Israel for amplifying his father’s heroics.

“My father’s story must be told far and wide, and without cessation, especially to the young generations,” he said. “I quote my father on this. Love each other. Love each other sincerely. God is love. Love destroys hatred.”

It’s been a long journey for Romero since he painted murals as a teenager at 5Pointz, back when it was known as the Fun Factory.

QNS file photo

“That was an incredible experience for me working with young artists from all over the world who could come and leave their mark in a place where you felt safe,” Romero said. “And that was all taken away from us nine years ago and that is still really, really sad.”

In November 2013, real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff ordered workers to whitewash the artwork under the cover of night.

QNS file photo

“I was there the night after it happened and everyone was in the loading dock area, crying in front of TV crews from all around the world, it’s something I won’t forget,” Romero said. “I had a lot of pieces destroyed there. A lot of people did. I did a lot of walls with some really great people.”

Wolkoff eventually demolished the world-famous graffiti mecca to make way for two residential towers that appropriated the 5Pointz name but died in July 2020 before the construction was completed. 5Pointz curator Jonathan “Meres” Cohen called it the greatest crime against art in history.

“I still see Meres at least once a year and that place will always have a special place in my heart,” Romero said. “I’m glad I have that connection to a true Queens legend and so many great artists, whether you’re a vandal, or a fine artist or something in the middle, if you were a part of 5Pointz you’re a part of that great borough legend.”

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