When Michael De Feo was growing up in Rye, New York, the only exposure he had to graffiti was the occasional trip into New York City. “We’d see this stuff on the highway walls, and my dad would say, ‘It’s garbage,’” De Feo remembers. Years later as a 19-year-old aspiring artist trying in vain to get his work into galleries, he stumbled across Subway Art, a book about New York’s graffiti scene. “I was mesmerized,” he says. From that point on, De Feo decided to stop painting for private galleries and start painting for the street.
He began experimenting on the walls of his parents’ basement, painting a series of flowers and butterflies. “One of the flowers spoke to me—it had this presence,” he says. He started painting his signature flowers on the sides of buildings in downtown New York (earning the nickname the Flower Guy, which he adopted in his Instagram handle, @theflowerguy). “I liked the idea conceptually,” he says, “to put flowers in this environment of concrete and steel, to spread some cheer and some magic.”
In 2015 a friend at a guerilla art collective offered him a key to the plexiglass ad spaces at bus stops around the city. De Feo had been working on a series of bouquet paintings inspired by the master works of 17th-century Dutch still lifes. He began venturing out to the bus stops late at night, opening the plexiglass door and swapping the ad for one of his own bouquet paintings. Soon the artist realized he had a trove of stolen ads rolled up in his studio—Dior, Valentino, Chanel, and the like. “I thought, Maybe I’ll try painting on these,” he says. He began painting bright, splashy bouquets on top of willowy models and then placing them back at the bus stop. Rather than cry foul, many of the fashion companies embraced De Feo’s colorful, vibrant work. In May of 2015 when he painted over a J. Crew ad, the company applauded him on Instagram and reached out to collaborate. The result is a T-shirt collection debuting in March (2017) featuring the artist’s famous florals on classic J. Crew tees.
Despite De Feo’s recent mainstream accolades, he still remains a graffiti artist at heart. “I’ve had lots of encounters with authorities around the world,” he says with a laugh—though he admits he’s never been arrested. “I’m a little lucky in that the work that I do is a more gentle subversion. It’s subversive but harmonious.” It seems everyone wants to see a few more flowers on the street.