In the age of Instagram, the defining feature of a bar is often determined not by reviews, tastes or intent, but by a smartphone. While some spaces are designed with this express purpose in mind, there are certain objects that become inadvertent icons through their unwitting “Instagrammability.” In this series, PUNCH shares the stories behind the bar world’s most viral landmarks.
The Clash front man and punk icon Joe Strummer died unexpectedly on December 22, 2002, a time when New York’s East Village was electrified by a revivalist rock movement. It was centered around the city’s beloved quintet The Strokes—with local heroes Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Walkmen orbiting nearby. While the scene would cross the East River to Brooklyn later in the decade, its epicenter in the early 2000s was Avenue A—or, more specifically, its two late-night dives of choice: the multilevel 2A, where The Strokes’ Casablancas and company were regulars, and Niagara.
Strummer, who lived in the city on and off through the ’90s, visited Niagara with some frequency after it opened in 1997, and was friends with the bar’s owner, Jesse Malin—also a musician. According to East Village-based blogger EV Grieve—a nameless and passionate chronicler of the ever-transforming neighborhood—there have been four versions of Niagara’s Strummer mural over the past 16 years, the first one painted in 2003 by graffiti artist Dr. Revolt, with updates or complete repainting in 2009, 2013 and 2015.
While small things have changed with the mural’s various iterations—EV Grieve recalls the 2013 version morphing Strummer into Andrew Dice Clay territory—there are some constants that remain. Leather jacket, sunglasses, New York City skyline and “Know Your Rights”—the kickoff song from The Clash’s late-career album Combat Rock.
“I live close to Niagara, so I pass it several times daily, and I still see plenty of people—from former residents to tourists—taking photos of the mural, or having their photo taken in front of the mural,” says EV Grieve, admitting that he limits himself to about one Strummer Instagram post per season, including, obviously, Snow Your Rights. “Tourists, especially from the UK, have told me that they’ve come to the East Village specifically to see the mural. Joe Strummer still means a lot to so many people.”
Great change—both culturally and economically—has cycloned down Avenue A in recent years, and the stretch is currently pockmarked with empty space after empty space. Though, miraculously, several longtime businesses have survived, including The Library, Ray’s Candy Store, Odessa, Lucy’s and Niagara.
On a recent Friday evening, the bar was half full, with guests drinking rail whiskey and craft beer from around the Northeast Corridor, while outside, the Strummer mural—sprayed and rolled on plywood—reminded passersby that the future is, indeed, unwritten.