Urban sensibilities and New York City flavor are the key ingredients to the early success of Alison Nelson’s Chocolate Bar, a purveyor of premium chocolates and gourmet sweets located in the West Village. Since starting her business in 2002, Nelson has brought a fresh approach to the stuffy world of premium chocolates by combining confectionary delights with uniquely urban sights – a reflection of her irreverent nature and her love of the arts and New York City. Her latest creation, Graffiti Bars, promises “Great Chocolate, Pure Street” and includes ten new flavors adorned in wrappers designed by a group of legendary New York City graffiti artists such as Lady Pink, Crash, Spar One, and Blade. Nelson will donate a significant portion of proceeds to a non-profit group selected by the artists – the All Stars Project, a performing arts organization for underprivileged youth that operates in Harlem, Coney Island, Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx.
“It’s a touchy subject because a lot of people feel that there’s been this commercialization of graffiti and felt that partaking in this kind of project would just be aiding that. “
Format: What inspired you to start a chocolate company?
Alison Nelson: I grew up in New York and I studied to be a writer. I spent a lot of years working in coffee shops and bakeries and bars and restaurants – anything in the food service industry. I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life, and I knew I loved chocolate. Not many people don’t love chocolate, but I love chocolate and coffee a lot.
At the time my biggest problem was that the chocolate industry seemed very intimidating. All the high-end chocolate shops were really clean and French and upscale, and any time I went in one, I thought that they knew I only had a couple bucks in my pocket. I wanted to find a way to bring it to the level of neighborhood coffee shop or bakery feel, so that when people walk into the store it feels like home.
Format: You bring together chocolate and art in an interesting way; the Graffiti Bars aren’t your first venture working with artists.
Alison: The idea of just producing a chocolate bar seemed really boring to me. I had a lot of friends, some of whom did graffiti, some of whom did fine art, and I thought, it’d be really fun to kind of cross-breed the two things. So when somebody’s coming and looking for a salty pretzel bar, they’re getting a salty pretzel bar that has a wrapper designed by somebody that maybe they never heard of and, all of a sudden, they go “Hey, who’s Tim Biskup? Why is this guy Gary Baseman making a chocolate bar label?” And then the same thing – people who love Gary Baseman are going, “Wait, he designed the label for a chocolate bar?” and then coming into our store and learning about us for the first time. It seemed like it was an interesting thing to do, making it more fun.
Format: How did you select the artists for the Graffiti Bar project and get in touch with them?
Alison: On the Graffiti Bars, that was a lot of research and then reaching out. We got a lot of rejections from some graffiti artists. It’s a touchy subject because a lot of people feel that there’s been this commercialization of graffiti and felt that partaking in this kind of project would just be aiding that. Then other people were like, “Wow, this could be really fun and crazy,” so it was interesting to see how the chips fell.
Format: A portion of the proceeds of the Graffiti Bars will be going to benefit the All Stars Project – what is your affiliation with that organization?
Alison: I’ve been supporting the All Stars Project for about five years, and wanted to do more. They outreach to Harlem, the Bronx, and communities that don’t really have a lot of funding for the arts. I think it’s really important for kids to find ways to express themselves, be it photography, painting – anything that can help them develop who they are. The All Stars Project really does that well. They do everything from theater to fine art to painting; they really cater to kids.
“When you’re a kid growing up in the city, especially back in the 70’s and 80’s, you didn’t know there was a legal issue with graffiti – I just thought it really made things much more beautiful.”
Format: Were you aware of graffiti when you were growing up?
Alison: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny – I grew up in Rockaway, so the trains were elevated there, and in my childhood, were completely covered. My favorite one I ever saw was when I was six. There was one that was like a giant pizza, and I was like, “Oh my God! The train is a pizza! I want to ride in the pizza train!” When you’re a kid growing up in the city, especially back in the 70’s and 80’s, you didn’t know there was a legal issue with graffiti – I just thought it really made things much more beautiful. As I grew up, that stuff started to disappear. All of a sudden there was no graffiti on trains. The MPS figured out what to put on the trains and, all of a sudden, it wasn’t there any more.
Format: What sort of reaction do you expect from your graffiti bars?
Alison: In the New York store I expect really positive reaction, especially where we’re located. A lot of our customers are artists, especially, and they’ve been New Yorkers for a long time. I think they’re really going to get into it. I’m interested to see what our Internet and wholesale sales are going to be like on this project, to see what the response is outside of New York. I think people in other urban areas are really going to get into it. The bars are so visually appealing – this is the best looking collection of bars I’ve ever seen.
Format: What is your next project going to be?
Alison: We’ve been talking to DMC from Run DMC about a chocolate bar to raise money for an orphanage that he’s building, but nothing’s in stone on that.
When Alison Nelson began researching and contacting writers about the Graffiti Bar project, some embraced the idea while others rejected the notion of commercial work outright. Eventually, she managed to recruit ten of New York City’s finest – many of them veterans of Mayor Lindsay’s war on graffiti. The participants include world-renowned artists, designers, educators, and even a Pulitzer-winning journalist. Eschewing direct compensation, the artists chose to support the All Stars Project in order to give back to their communities. Format had the opportunity to speak with some of the artists to learn more about their approach to chocolate-bar design and their take on the continued commercialization of street art.
Format: What was your approach to your candy bar wrapper design?
Spar One: I was really excited about using my work for a worthy cause, so I wanted to do something that would lift the spirit. I worked with bright colors that I felt would entertain and make people happy. For my motivation, I thought in terms of my experiences with graffiti art and candy during childhood. The style I did on the bar was inspired by the 1974-76 era, when subway graffiti was peaking in creativity. When I think of that era, I can easily think Candy land! The pieces from that era were like a fantasy world – Willie Wonka, Disney, many upbeat fantasy themes in the way the letters were structured and the colors used.
Crachee: I think the whole purpose of the candy bar was to harken back to the days of early graffiti. I wanted to make a very simple design, because when I was writing, between 1973 and 1976, the name was the design. So what I wanted to do was create a piece that harkened back to ‘73, when the letters were kind of rudimentary. I wanted it to be simple, as if nobody designed it… I want it to look like I’m up on the tracks, just throwing it up because of the thrill I get from being up there.
Lady Pink: I was kind of having fun with the flavor, Banana Milk, by putting my little banana characters in doorways and windows on a building with brick and lots of graffiti on it. I put different names, including my nieces’ names and little kids that I know. I kind of geared my design toward children, and just wanted to show that street art can be decorative, colorful, and speak to everyone.
Crime79: When I first thought of the chocolate bar, I made the connection of me as a child. So, I wanted to keep it light and airy and happy. I also wanted to make it a little retro, very seventies, like when I was growing up.
Format: How does the medium–in this case a candy bar wrapper, as opposed to a train or a wall–influence your creative process?
Spar One: Well it is mainly different in terms of time, I guess, post-creative process. With a wall or train or other forms of street art you paint quickly and your work will have an audience instantly or within hours of completion. With commercial projects, there is the whole production and distribution process that makes it different for me. I enjoy a more instant audience; walls are in your face, not something that fits in your pocket. But these types of projects are rewarding because the audience may be much different.
Crime79: Well, I’ve got a small amount of real estate to work with, and chocolate bars are maybe six inches by two inches. As you know, graffiti writers like to work big, so I had to miniaturize everything, yet still give it the aesthetic of graffiti. It’s almost a more mature version of what I did on the subway.
Format: How do you feel about the possibility that your art, on a candy bar wrapper, might be thrown away?
Spar One: It does not bother me that much because I come from a world where my art is temporary. In writing, your pieces and tags will often be buffed or tagged over. I hope my design somehow helps enhance the customer’s experience – a pleasing visual preceding a pleasing taste, after that, whatever happens, happens. What does bother me is if the paper is just wasted. If anything, I hope people will recycle the paper. I hate waste and the destruction of the environment. Being that the artists participating are quite collectable, I’m sure there will be people who will mount and frame our wrappers.
Format: How do you feel about the commercialization of street art?
Lady Pink: Well it was unavoidable. It was going to happen. Everything from the underground goes above ground. It gets watered down, gets diluted, and gets fed to the mainstream in a gentler form. We do corporate graffiti, which is different from street graffiti because corporate graffiti needs to be read by the common people. Corporations want the wildstyle lettering, but they want to be able to read it. There’s a way of gearing our illustration and our style to the mainstream, while still maintaining the integrity of graffiti.
Crime79: When we were young and we’d cover the trains from top to bottom with our message, we were told it was wrong. But now corporations can wrap a bus with advertising, and it’s okay. I guess it’s just a lot to do with the fact that they paid for it.
Crachee: I think it’s okay if it’s somebody, like Blade, who’s paid his dues. A guy who was actually out there, you know, risking his life, for his art, and risking his freedom, because there was always a chance that he was going to get caught.