While scrolling through Instagram on Monday, the 20-year-old graphic design student stopped at a snap of a stack of colorful artworks leaning against a fence — just blocks away from her Upper West Side apartment.
The siren song came from @StoopingNYC, an account run by an anonymous duo that posts submitted photos of discarded furniture and other home decor, along with where to find them on the sidewalk.
“When I saw there was something cool and artsy on the Upper West Side, I was very excited. Most of the artsy stuff is in Brooklyn,” says Bilgrey, who follows the feed religiously along with nearly 40,000 other street scavengers.
The items pictured — from pristine designer sofas to bizarre homemade lamps — are usually snatched up by budget-conscious New Yorkers within an hour.
The paintings were no different: Bilgrey and her neighbors flocked to 90th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues to score one of the colorful scribbles. But as they did so, commenters on Instagram typed frantically: Who was the artist? Why were so many precious (and seemingly professional) works discarded so haphazardly? Had the talent behind them been evicted despite a statewide moratorium?
Using details from a postcard stuck between the two pieces she picked up and the signature “Artistikz” she deciphered, Bilgrey turned to Google. “It felt like an escape room or something, with all these clues,” she says.
She identified their creator: Ralph Serrano, who uses the handle @El_ArteoMuerte on Instagram. Then she messaged him.
His reply was bittersweet — and so was his story. A 48-year-old muralist, Serrano decided to leave the city in May because he could no longer afford the rent on his Upper West Side three-bedroom apartment after commissions and projects dried up due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the move, Serrano, who relocated to New York in 1992, sold some of his works and shipped others to family in Puerto Rico, where he is heading next month.
He was gutted to abandon about 30 of the canvases in the bedroom he used as a studio. “The paper I signed [upon move-out] said that anything that was left behind would be considered garbage,” Serrano tells The Post. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, this sucks.’”
So on Monday, he was shocked and thrilled when Instagrammers started reaching out, asking if he was OK and if they could pay for the pieces they plucked from the sidewalk. (He guesses that his landlord or a maintenance worker piled them outside his building when clearing out the unit for a future tenant.)
“As artist, you don’t want to leave your work behind. I felt like I left my kids behind. I was really heartbroken to have to do it,” says Serrano. “All the love from the post on Stooping has just lifted my spirits . . . even just simple messages of ‘stay strong’ and ‘keep moving forward,’ to people making donations, to photos of people saying “Look, here it is in my living room now!’ ”
Serrano estimates he’s received about $800 from fans of “stooping” (as they call the activity) via the Cash App. His pieces are usually priced between $500 and $2,500.
Benefactors include Jack Houlton-Vinyl, who nabbed a painting of one of his favorite musicians, James Brown, from the stack. Worried that Serrano might feel “exploited,” he exchanged Instagram messages with the artist, sharing his plan to hang the black-and-white portrait alongside framed records.
A native of the neighborhood, the 28-year-old public school teacher felt like the experience was ”such a New York moment.”
“I went to elementary school five blocks from where [Serrano] was making his works during those years. I am proud that I can display that history within my space,” he says. “I was just over the moon to have the picture and to be able to talk to him about it.”
Bilgrey, too, was worried about what happened to Serrano, but was gratified to give his paintings a safe home. The designer, who grew up between Freehold Township, NJ, and the Upper West Side, moved into her tile-walled apartment in December from a dorm. She bought a bed and couch before running low on funds, and turned to stooping over the last six months to furnish the rest of it.
“I’ve seen basically whole apartments out on the street due to COVID. It’s sad, and it presents the stooping community with a moral question. This is someone’s life,” says Bilgrey, who works part-time at a local comedy club. “I’m giving this piece of furniture a new life, and I have happy home and I care for my things — so that’s how I rationalize it to myself. But I wish there was more I could do for the families or the people who have to leave New York early or get evicted.”
Serrano reports that he’s cheerier, too. “It’s been so heartwarming, and it makes me feel so humbled and grateful for all the love and support,” he says. “It’s so amazing that out of a bad situation, in the middle of all this madness going on, came something I consider so positive. It’s brought that energy that I needed back, because I was struggling.”
The experience of discovering Serrano’s works — and then Serrano himself — is one of the city’s beautiful coincidences, Bilgrey adds.
“People have a misconception about New Yorkers, that everyone is mean and rude, but it’s not like that. Everyone is neighborly,” she says. “Even in the toughest of times, we’re all coming together.”