Recently, the much-appreciated and often visited street art murals curated under the umbrella of The Bushwick Collective were vandalized by a self-identified Bushwick resident and native in the name of combating gentrification. The expected uproar and sorrow followed, not simply by the artists who created the defiled works, but also by the restaurants, bars, businesses residents and tourists who cherished them.
At Bushwick Daily we have often praised and documented the beautiful works curated by The Bushwick Collective’s founder, Joe Ficalora. Joe who was also born and raised in Bushwick, has lived through his share of dark days of the neighborhood. In 1991 when Joe was only 12 years old, his father was murdered in the streets of Bushwick. He was knifed for his wallet and a worthless chain around. Joe was then dependent on a small neighborhood community that raised him.
When his mother died of brain tumor in 2011, Joe took all his grief and transformed it into a something remarkable. Haunted by sad memories at every corner, he googled “street art” and invited street artists to come and paint. He used the walls of buildings he owned, and later made use of his connections in the neighborhood to obtain permissions of other building owners. The rules were simple: nothing offensive to children, women or the local businesses, and no politics. No one is paid for the work. The artists donate their own supplies and time, and the building owners donate their wall space, The New York Times wrote.
Street art vs. graffiti writers
Graffiti is an outlaw artform with a very long history pre-dating spraycans but usually found in urban areas where individualism can be drowned out by the hordes of the anonymous. It’s the mark of the easily forgotten, an official “I was here.”
Does it have limits of taste? Are there situations where the criminal act has an objective value beyond its legal concerns? Is Banksy, the darling example of graffiti legitimized, a hero or common miscreant? What’s the difference between painting on an unadorned brick wall and making a position statement over a commissioned artwork? Graffiti by its very nature is combative. It is without rules plotted by legislative bodies, but does it police itself?
Like the guy who knows he’s about to piss a lot of people off, I sigh and clear my throat.
First let’s not conflate muralists and graffiti writers into the same group. If you made a Venn diagram of muralists who were once (or still are) engaged in illicit art, sure, the intersecting blue and red circles would be showing a LOT of purple. They are NOT the same thing however.
One is made for public consumption with its themes and palette vetted by people concerned with its acceptance at large. Hence, Diego Rivera, Nychos, Aryz, Gaia and Scribe – oh, and some dude named Michelangelo Buonarroti. The other is a personal statement – with varying levels of acceptance due to location and artistic merit. Hence, art darlings Banksy, NeckFace, Haring, Invader, and Basquiat (and many more lesser-knowns) – and at the other end, countless others whose bombs and burners are simply, well, bad. As in, they suck. The difference between good street art (including well-imagined graffiti) and random tag throw-ups is that one has a message and the other is just barking loudly.
Graffiti isn’t about the critic though. It’s never about the critic. The critics can go “f” themselves. It’s about the artist and whatever crew he or she rolls with. Sometimes these unsolicited works connect with the community they’re surrounded by and are preserved. Sometimes it’s washed away or painted over by annoyed property owners.
Most of the time though, it serves as a reminder of neglect of the community and left to decay on its crumbling canvas unperturbed. The statement made by its lingering existence is in itself, artistic.
Murals and their place in the trending topic of gentrification
If Bushwick’s look has been a testament to the neglect of property owners who have never seen fit to curtail the rise of graffiti in the neighborhood, then the mural movement can be seen as a correction of that course. If Bushwick had not been covered in outdoor art all along, in fact gaining much of its urban personality from the proliferation of graffiti in the first place, we probably wouldn’t have such a strong presence of muralists. One follows the other but is not a graduation from the other. Their purpose and audience could not be more dissimilar.
But here we are in 2015 and Bushwick is one of the most desirable, commented on, visited, name-dropped, (and joked) neighborhoods in all the known universe. Its urban gritty atmosphere, like beard stubble on a rugged, handsome face, is alluring for its perceived wildness and threat–a theme park dedicated to the storied Brooklyn of the last generation. This is evidenced by many factors, and undeniably its graffiti-heavy streets is one of them.
The neighborhood’s fangs have been dulled over the years but collectively we wear its antisocial facade as a badge of pride. We only make fun of it when the debutantes want to lead our parade. We are all in on the joke and we know it. One person saw the proliferation of well-curated and gorgeous paintings as an insult to its working-class history and a step in the wrong direction.
The direction of organic mayo stores (I will leave all jokes aside here because it’s waaaaay too easy) and foppish artisanal affectation is at perpendicular angles to the bastion of low-cost, unsupervised lifestyle freedom that was Bushwick’s greatest allure to young creatives. Through the lens of a native young buck with screams in his veins, a floor mattress, and a 40 in the fridge, it’s getting lame. To the moms who don’t want to worry about their kids at night and would like her visitors not to question their safety when parking the car – not so much. They love it.
Bushwick, a diverse home to many
Bushwick is not just a neighborhood of post-collegiate dreamers and mainstream America conscientious objectors. It’s a very diverse community with families aspiring to a comfortable equilibrium of convenience and safety; immigrants with no choice but to settle where they can afford; in addition to the hopeful, bright-eyed carpetbaggers hoping to glean some cool from the local atmosphere. None of these people are served by romanticizing urban decay. All of them are happier when the streets are cleaner, the buildings maintained, with new businesses of staggering diversity and yes, expressions of our community’s towering artistic stature through murals. That is not gentrification. That is progress through diversity.
The murals the Bushwick Collective have bestowed on us are valued by an overwhelming majority of the community. Not just by the “gentrifying elite.” They give us a sense of pride in knowing that the best artists in the world clamor for our attention and our approval. They’ve contributed to the success of many businesses lucky enough to be in proximity to them. They are inspiring to the many creatives that would, one day, like to be asked to donate their talent for the joy of anyone that happens to walk by. They were ours.
Graffiti dude goes nameless
Because I too mourn their loss, the person that committed these acts will go nameless in this article. I did approach him for comment but had not gotten reply by the time this article published. I did talk to several people with lucid perspectives as muralists, curators and graffiti writers before submitting this and there’s one perspective they and I agree on. He will never be able to google his name and get recognition from me. The best thing you can do is ignore him.
Rule number one of art – don’t break it. Vandalism of art is one of the most reprehensible acts in society. It’s like burning books. It’s like stealing from a charity. Art is validation of our humanity and its destruction causes a collective ache you have no right to cause. If you have not the wit to create a statement alongside it, equal to, or better than it – mocking it if you so choose – then leave it alone. There is no excuse or merit in its destruction. If you can’t get THAT, you lack the common sauce that makes civilizations out of barbarians. You categorically are an asshole. End of story.