A week from my deadline, I was regretting the assignment I’d asked for: an article about street art in Bushwick. The source of my slowly developing dread about the piece, apart from the challenge of avoiding the issue of gentrification as a central consideration, was my sense of inadequacy as a journalist. I tend to get distracted and lose sight of the angle, and I hate conducting ad hoc interviews. So instead of scheduling meetings and striking up convos with local residents, and with plenty of failed starts looking like Nicholas Cage's Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, I simply discussed my anxiety with friends until my deadline drew too near to avoid.
I took a briefly affirmative reply from my editor as a hearty "go ahead" to the millennial-esque self-centered cultural critique I fully intended to submit a week later. Like a broke, sardonic Lena Dunham, I imagined, or better, Cat Marnell sans the drug-addled misadventures and Manhattan socialite popularity.
The reason I’d been thinking about Bushwick street art was a mural I had encountered recently on a date: three goddess figures, on a wall somewhere along the tipsy stroll from Kings County Saloon to Montana’s—crowned with flowers, triple, quadruple breasted, with gaping yonic regions marred by red glaze—one had a flaccid dick. “Are they vaginas or mutilated penises?” my date wondered aloud. We took a moment to make out. It wasn’t until I revisited the space (I had to track it down—it’s at Johnson and Gardner) that I noticed a bit further down the wall was a green, three-eyed Christ incorporating building elements: a locked electrical box as a chastity belt, and some rusted bolts for stigmata.
This wall in particular did not strike me as one that conformed to the famous Bushwick Collective’s stated rules: nothing offensive to children, women or the local businesses, and no politics. I was intrigued about the content of the piece and I wondered how it got up on the wall (As it turns out, it was artist Don Pablo Pedro who drew my ladies—the red paint is a bomb, and the penis was originally erect).
The Bushwick of 2015 is marked by graffiti and street art, some commissioned, some illegal; some evincing finely tuned technical skill and some thrown up pretty casually. In both cases, there is some weird stuff—and much that warrants attention.
And, Bushwick street art has certainly been getting attention, for reasons not the least of which has been the recent "crochetgate"—a kerfuffle between a Bushwick native and the founder of the Brooklyn Flea about a large crocheted piece that went up on the wall of a private residence without the homeowner’s permission. The debate originated with a Facebook post deploring the incident as evidence of the “entitlement, privilege, the blatant lack of self awareness and condescending attitudes towards people of color.” The conflict recently came to a head when local anarchist group Brooklyn Solidarity Network picketed the Bushwick Flea and a core member was arrested (See the BSN’s dramatic facebook retelling of the incident here).
Additionally, walking tours organized by fellow creatives and street art enthusiasts Izzy and Mar, which attract international visitors, increase the reach of Bushwick’s public art scene. At the suggestion of a friend (to whom I was commiserating about my procrastination and lack of direction), I decided to become a tourist in my own neighborhood. Fieldwork.
The tour met at 2pm on a glorious Sunday in front of a specialty chocolate shop near the Morgan stop that I didn’t know existed. Izzy was absent, but Mar led the tour of about 35 people as he talked up Bushwick’s hazy past of crime and decay, and also pointed out the area’s rapid gentrification. “At one point this was the worst neighborhood in America.” He stated to great effect. Mar was clearly very knowledgeable about the history of graffiti, its different styles; he could identify an artist’s tags at a glance. Among our group was a foursome of hip looking teenagers, some late-middle aged Polish women, a French family, and two German men in athletic attire.
Mar explained the difference between graffiti and street art: "Street Art" is public and commissioned, graffiti is done without permission (illegally) and has implications of ownership and prestige on the part of the writer. I enjoyed the tour, photographing along with the rest of the group. We were conspicuous. Somewhere around Johnson a black SUV passed. “Lies!...All Lies!” the driver proclaimed. Mar brushed it off… "People have mixed feelings about tourists coming into the neighborhood. Some of these guys think I’m the man, but they don’t know that I’m an artist too.” We endured a few more heckles from drivers as we scuttled along, admiring the eclectic walls.
Mar led us to an emerging Burning Man party on Morgan—we entered the enclosure where ABBA was playing for a small group of chill dancers. A multi-armed mother goddess adorned the adjacent wall. “They’ll be going all night,” said Mar. “Let me know if any of you want to come back later, I’ll get you in.” We passed a wall put up by the Bushwick Collective, marked all the way across by a wavy line. “Someone probably went by on a skateboard and did that,” Mar suggested. Central to the tour’s lesson is the animosity apparent between some local graffiti writers and the commissioned works going up all over by both local and international artists. A case in point: graffiti writer Zexor’s public bombing of Bushwick Collective’s murals this past winter—an action he publicized on social media as a critique of the negative impact gentrification has had on the neighborhood.
I became convinced that any conversation about the reception of street art in Bushwick necessitates addressing the tensions inherent in the issue of gentrification. This conflict is on everyone’s mind when asked about the influx of work anyway, though in different ways.
When Amad, who has been running my go-to bodega on Hart and Knickerbocker for three years, was approached by an artist who wished to paint the brick wall facing Hart Street, he welcomed the change. “I like it,” he says of the neighborhood street art, “The art, it changes people’s mood.” He’s also observed that some of the local taggers may become jealous by the attention the new murals receive. “People stop to look at it, take pictures with it,” he says of Carlos’ wall, which he says was recently tagged. “There are a lot of haters.”
Most people don’t think the walls themselves are a nuisance, rather, contention typically lies with who controls the art and what this control symbolizes. Nora Offen, a youth justice social worker and New York city native who lives in Bushwick and has studied marginalized communities notes that graffiti and street art bring up questions of space and ownership. “Young people often engage in street art for two reasons,” she says, “to express themselves creatively and to gain notoriety within their community. If this opportunity is taken away from them, we have to ask ourselves if we are giving them an alternative that meets these needs.” She also considers graffiti writing and street art to be both subversive and democratic: “Street art needs to earn its legitimacy because it’s in a space where art was not originally intended to be.” When a writer tags a space, according to Offen, she does so with the knowledge that the gesture may be challenged by other writers.
Similarly, Diva of the notable graffiti writing team Vandals in Control notes that it is increasingly difficult for young, untrained graffiti writers and artists to compete in a heavily curated environment. She and Peak, also of VIC, recently put up a wall on Knickerbocker and Melrose. The team was invited by Arts and Rhymes, a Bushwick-based arts advocacy program that supports artists working within hip hop culture. Diva, who is originally from Bushwick and works in both commissioned works and traditional graffiti, says of the increased prominence of street art in the neighborhood, “I think it’s awesome.” Though she observes that the artists currently being invited to make work in the area are often trained artists working with stencils and projectors—a far cry from the simple spray can. “People need to consider this. Not all these young writers can speak as well as Joe [Ficalora from Bushwick Collective].” She also notes that unlike tagging over Bushwick Collective’s murals, “There are repercussions to going over my shit. I can find any writer within two phone calls.” Her ultimate judgement on the tensions between commissioned street artists and their antagonizers: “It comes down to people who are confident and don’t need to destroy other people['s work].”
The international character of cities is also a consideration for some in thinking about the conflict between local and non-local artists. London-based artist Fanakapan recently finished a wall on Wyckoff and Jefferson depicting King Kong versus Godzilla reimagined as chrome balloons in space. He was invited to put up work here and another wall closer to the Morgan stop by Joe Ficalora of The Bushwick Collective. Of local artists inclined to tag the collective’s curated works, he says “I understand their perspective, but cities need to accommodate international artists.” For full-time street artists like Fanakapan, traveling to gain international recognition is part of the practice. On the other hand, according to Hyperallergic writer Robin Grearson, “Collective mural projects are problematic because international artists fly in and fly out but don’t really have an opportunity to consider what kind of social impact the project overall is having on the community where they are working.”
Aside from taggers, Bushwick murals also face competition from advertisers hoping to take advantage of the area’s increasing visibility. Unlike local graffiti writers, the advertisers are willing to pay building owners for space. Increasingly, billboards and murals hawking booze, shoes, and the like are popping up amidst the art.
In many discussions about Bushwick, the word gentrification is often used to indicate a frustration toward an immediate experience of race and class-based oppression and cooptation. The word encompasses a complex dynamics of economic and social change that seems beyond control, repair, or even understanding. In its worst form, this conversation sometimes takes for granted that there exists a more desireable origin that is somehow more authentic, more democratic. This is a manifestation of the guilt and resentment that reasonably occurs when people are being displaced. The problem is not, as the Bushwick anarchists would have it, one of the unfettered greed of evil profiteers, but rather a social dynamic that lacks human well-being as a goal.
Conversations about how neighbors should treat each other, while important, can only go so far. What is needed is a change in the overall political and social environment, one where changing neighborhoods—downshifts in crime, building renovation, the addition of shops and businesses, restaurants and bars—wouldn’t necessarily bring with it a displacement of long-time residents. And one where these changes would not reflect predictable demographic shifts. The question is, why does this seem so out of reach that artwork, and not unfair housing practices, insufficient social services, or the exploitation of working class people in general, becomes a target of resentment and loathing?
Similarly, when gentrification is identified as a central issue of a local conflict, like crochetgate, it often does little to progress a conversation about determined community organization toward mutually beneficial political ends, but rather incites accusations and squabbles on a personal, not a political, level.
Discussing with a friend the challenges of addressing these topics amidst the question of how locals feel about the proliferation of artwork and its subsequent international attention, he asked me, “Well, what do you think about it?” I replied, after a pause, “I like it.” Because when I ask myself what I want in a neighborhood, the answer is something like community, neighbors I can say hi to, and familiar faces and landmarks. Street art gives us walls that we can laugh at, wonder at, loathe, roll our eyes about, use as a marker when giving directions to friends and family, whatever. The street art of Bushwick, including graffiti, inserts weirdness and illustrative power into our neighborhood strolls, our night out, our walk home from the subway. Furthermore, these works and the conversations that surround them represent a contestation of space, ownership, race, class and community. At best, these works, aside from their primary role of being weird eye candy for residents and visitors alike, will continue to provoke public conversation to fruitful ends.
(All images: Jamie Keesling)
The website will be permanently closed shortly, so please retrieve any content you wish to save.