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The New York Times
A Career in the Sewer

He also uses storm drains and subway gratings to make paintings.

Mr. Nilsen wears tinted rhinestoned glasses, has a bright red soul patch goatee, and looks like a character from "Midnight Cowboy." But his smooth cream loafers give him away as a man with a plan.

After spending years as a "wake and bake pothead," he said, he became sober last year and began taking in the city's simple and overlooked beauty. "I started finding money on the street, and one day I was on a soup kitchen line and I started really looking at the sewer caps."

Since his first day selling near the museum ("I left with a hundred bucks in my pocket. I was like, 'Whoa!' "), he has sold more than 1,000 of the sewer-cover paintings.

Tourists snap up the canvases as pretty-yet-gritty slices of the city, and Mr. Nilsen's paintings are hanging in homes from Stuttgart to Sacramento.

For its souvenir value, Mr. Nilsen favors the industrial-looking cap outside his West 46th Street building in Hell's Kitchen. It has the familiar hash-mark design, and its "NYC Sewer" logo. Each morning, he carries a pile of canvases out to it, mops off the dog urine and goes to work rubbing off part of New York.

"One drain I was painting, the same cockroach kept crawling out of it for weeks," he said. "I didn't want to kill him."

by Corey Kilgannon
for The New York Times
Published: November 30, 2003

A Career in the Sewer
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Mark Nilsen in "The New York Times"

Barbara Alper for
The New York Times

One day, Mark Nilsen said,
he started "really looking
at the sewer caps."

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