In the ghetto they are called "riot gates," those gray-ribbed steel curtains that store owners pull down at night, grim reminders of the long hot summers of 1964 and '68. Yet today on Manhattan's 125th Street, in the middle of Harlem, many of the forbidding gates are awash with color, splashes of beauty in an otherwise dreary cityscape. The man responsible for the transformation is a 53-year-old artist named Franklin "Franco" Gaskin.

In the past year and a half Gaskin has converted more than 30 doorways into radiant tropical isles, shimmering lakes and rain forests. Incredibly, not one of them has been defaced by graffiti. He paints on Sundays and early weekday mornings before the stores open, using specially blended acrylics and handmade brushes. It takes 12 to 48 hours to transform the front of a record shop, boutique or jewelry store. The cost is $350 upward, depending on how complicated the subject is.

"Until Franco came along," marvels one shopkeeper, "125th Street looked like a battleground. Now it's an alfresco art gallery." "Somebody's got to care for Harlem," reasons Franco. "Slowly but surely its image is changing to something more positive."

Much of Gaskin's work recalls his native Panama, where his father was a U.S. Marine and his mother a dressmaker. As a boy, Gaskin dubbed himself "Franco the Great" to promote a magic act. At 16, he apprenticed to two artists in Panama, the Bruce brothers, and the next year he was painting billboards, posters and murals for $1.50 a week. He had no other training. "Public reaction was my art school," he contends. Gaskin moved to New York 22 years ago and subsisted by painting murals for restaurants and bars and selling what art he could. At the time he saw himself "on a big scale, not in terms of money, but in terms of opportunity."

Today, Gaskin and wife Alverna live with their son, 20, and daughter, 17, just around the corner from his "outdoor gallery." He has a backlog of requests and will continue to change the face of 125th Street until they run out. "When I paint," he says, "it feels better than good. It's a constant song."