12. Octopus

1985, 14’ x 6’


Photo © Camille Perrottet


Octopus speaks to the struggle for decent affordable housing in New York City. Noel remembers people “being evicted and displaced due to co-op conversions and the demolition of buildings for new housing. (In fact, many of the buildings whose walls supported our murals have been torn down.) This uprooting and evicting resonated strongly. The first people to be evicted in the U.S. were Native Americans, driven from their tribal lands. Today there is ‘extreme eviction’—the threat of rounding up and deporting thousands of immigrants and migrant workers and their families.” 

Noel’s rapacious octopus sports a red, white, and blue suit and a stars and stripes top hat, perfectly “representing the corporate greed and government policies that favor the 1% over the 99%.” Note the tentacle squeezing the life out of the tractor driven by a farm worker and the toppling bank, a prescient omen of the 2008 banking and subprime mortgage crises that led to the foreclosure of millions of homes.

In New York City’s earliest murals, artists often used the grasping octopus to symbolize greedy landlords. In Cityarts Workshop’s Chi Li-Arriba-Rise Up! (1974), a mother hands rent money to a gray-suited slumlord; his right arm morphs into the tentacles of an octopus draped in an “imperialist” American flag. In Keith Christensen’s vignette under the crystal ball in La Lucha’s collective mural, an “octopus mobster landlord” wearing a porkpie hat is confronted by protestors holding anti-gentrification signs.

While Noel painted, “someone criticized the use of the octopus, saying it was really a very gentle animal. Octopi might be gentle animals, but they grasp and eat their prey. When big government does good things, it is very good; when it is bad, it is evil. The stakes are high. When corporations and banks are too powerful, a security state may loom. It is a struggle. But there is hope. Activism matters.”



A native of Chicago, Noel arrived in New York City in 1963. In 1971, she earned a combined masters degree in art history and a certificate in art conservation at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. She worked several years at NYU’s Conservation Center and Oberlin College’s Allen Museum. Retired for many years, Noel continues to paint for her own enjoyment. 

Jane Weissman