The Shopping-Bag Artist of 103rd Street

By Carol Tannenhauser

Charles McCray gives basic shopping bags new life, by making them more beautiful. McCray tends to set up shop outside of the Gristedes at Broadway and 103rd Street, selling bags decorated with collages. The bags, which appear to never have been used, are often framed by customers, and sell for $5 or $10.

“I’m a very private person,” he said on Saturday afternoon, as he rolled a shopping cart with his bags back toward home. McCray, who appears to be in his 60s, did not want to be photographed, though he talked briefly about his art and his life.

Business is slow. “Art is not a necessity,” Charles explained. “People who live around here have families, responsibilities.” He lives in the NYCHA projects nearby. “Just two blocks from here.”

“It’s rough,” he said. Gunshots and gang activity stress him out, he said. And the disregard for tenants. He has been waiting for a hole in his kitchen wall — “which they made” — to be fixed for eight years. He believes conditions in the projects are purposely kept bad. “They want to get us out and take them over for rich people,” he said.

Jane Margolis, who snapped the photo above of his work, said McCray is often there, but doesn’t have a set schedule. “I asked him about his schedule and location(s) and he said he only goes to the one place (in front of Gristedes at the top of the subway stairs at 103rd, east side of Broadway). And his schedule isn’t fixed. I’ve seen him on both weekdays and weekends. Mostly it’s rain that keeps him away.”

ART | 9 comments | permalink
    1. David Ochoa says:

      Charles is a great talent and inspiring neighborhood fixture. I have two of his pieces. I wish him every success! And remember us when! Good luck, Charles!

    2. Sharree Moore says:

      how can i buy these out of town?

      • David says:

        Where are you? I see him frequently, and will ask.
        Perhaps try your hand at it. He uses, uvery small scissors, not xacto blades. Elmer’s Glue. And popsicle sticks to smooth the application.

    3. Gail Naruo says:

      I enjoy looking at Charles’ pieces and have bought a couple. He has a great eye!

    4. MK says:

      Thank you for this story! I live across the street and pass him often. It makes me sad when people like Charles are looking to find a productive way to make ends meet. Also, the NYCHA housing issues are disgusting. Your story inspired me to go give him some $$ this morning. Thank you.

    5. shewrites says:

      I’ve been intrigued by these bags and their maker for a while, but I’m always in too much of a rush to stop. Thanks for the story. I’ll make time to buy next time he’s around.

    6. Janet Wasserman says:

      I’ve passed that display of shopping bags and have been amazed at the artistry. I never spoke to the artist/seller, Charles McCray. He has a wonderful talent and an eye for the unusual. I wish Mr. McCary good luck – with business and with NYCHA.

    7. David Ochoa says:

      I stopped to visit Charles today and buy another bag.
      The ‘art book’ inside the bag used to keep it weighed down was included in the $10 purchase.
      A bonus.
      I spoke to Charles about the article.
      He was misquoted.
      He did not talk about gun fire scaring him.
      He wanted a story of his work.
      Instead the rag gave us a sensationalized account of fear and misrepresentation.
      I take Charles’ account over the writer of the article.
      More reporting and information about his creativity, rather than sensational non facts would be helpful here.
      WestSideRag, indeed.

      • Carol says:

        Dear David,

        I am the writer of the story about Charles McCray. I was very disturbed to learn from your comment that he was unhappy with the story. My purpose was the exact opposite. He was not, however, misquoted. I may have misunderstood his meaning, but I and the Rag try to always be true to the word and spirit of those we interview. Clearly Charles is respected and admired for his art by his neighbors. I would like to interview him again on that subject. Thanks for pointing out the need. If you see him, could you mention it to him? He’s not easy to find.

        Carol Tannenhauser