Forget the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, kids. We’re going out on a graffiti tour in Bushwick.
Tourists from across the globe flock to Bushwick every year to admire art sprayed upon the walls of its alleys and abandoned factories. But critics claim that the graffiti tours are exploiting the neighborhood’s income inequality and local culture, leading some to even label the excursions as “ghetto tours.”
Over the last decade, artistic types have swarmed into Bushwick for its relatively affordable rent, bringing along different visions for this Brooklyn neighborhood where 30 percent of its residents fall below the federal poverty level and 42 percent haven’t completed high school.
Gabriel Schoenberg owns Graff Tours — the oldest of such tour companies in Brooklyn, he says — and for the last six years, he’s been giving street art tours around “Jefftown” and “Morgantown” where Bushwick’s most commercial street art can be found. He’s heard all the criticism before.
“It’s a magnifying glass on a certain issue,” Schoenberg said. “The issue is the gentrification of Bushwick, but my tours aren’t responsible for that.”
Graff Tours’ $20 ticket includes a guided tour and a short graffiti lesson at the end. The guide passes around spray paint cans to those who want to try taking aim at a strip of canvas pinned to a fence.
“People want to know more about street art,” Schoenberg said. “I’m not pointing out a person and saying, ‘Look: there’s a poor person.’ That’s sensationalist.”
Paid graffiti tours like Schoenberg aren’t exactly viewing traditional graffiti — they’re viewing legal, commissioned work by artist collectives funded by grants and donations. Other paid tours have sprung up around Bushwick street art; but they don’t appear to have any formal business relationships with the artists, collectives, or whoever created the actual art. Some creatives point to this ambiguity as just another sign that the Bushwick scene has gone far too commercial.
Eric Jiaju Lee, a professional abstract artist and drawing teacher at Hunter College, moved to Bushwick in the mid-2000s. For almost 10 years, Lee rented studio space in the neighborhood and showcased his work at Bushwick Open Studios, a festival which began in 2006 to celebrate the creativity of local artists. Back then, only a few dozen participated; today, over 500 do.
Lee talks a lot about how the Bushwick art scene grew and how neighborhood borders have blurred over the years.
“In a few years East Williamsburg became Bushwick and then the scene expanded into Ridgewood and Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Lee recalled.
In Jefftown, Graff Tours’ tourists pass “hip” property agencies such as Nooklyn, which specializes in selling the Bushwick brand. Nooklyn advertises apartments on the border of Queens and East New York, promoting those areas as the next Bushwick frontier.
Lee, who moved deeper into Bushwick due to rent hikes, views the expansion as real estate genius. Although rising rents are nothing new, he notes differences in the culture from a decade ago.
“There was a much more free-flowing community of artists back then,” Lee said. “When I first moved out there, my dad asked if I wanted to be an artist or just live the lifestyle. Nowadays, a lot of people are doing the latter.”
Lee still admires Bushwick street art for what it is. He’s not surprised about the appearance of graffiti tours.
“It’s an age-old allegory of industry picking up on the artist.”
On the outskirts of Bushwick there is a series of murals that doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic from tourists. It’s called the Halsey Street Dreamway and it spans 100 feet of factory wall. In 2014, the Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) commissioned Xmental, a collective of local and international artists, to do the work.
Farrah Lafontant is a community initiatives associate at BAC. Her job is to provide targeted support for communities not identified as artistic or cultural hubs. The Halsey Street Dreamway was the product of a collective interest to beautify the neighborhood.
“Halsey Street is a spot where the community wanted to see something,” Lafontant explained. “The project was about giving a sense of ownership to local residents.”
In 2014, Halsey Street was Bushwick only by name. Now, there are all the bars, restaurants, and organic delis associated with it. While Lafontant sees this as evidence of BAC’s successful community mission, she stresses that street art ultimately reflects the stories of New Yorkers and their neighborhoods, not a bohemian lifestyle or pop culture.
“It’s absolutely not about gentrification,” said Lafontant, who is also a guide and takes groups on street art tours around her native East New York when she’s not working at BAC.
Unlike the street art at Jefftown, graffiti tags and other designs have overtaken parts of the Halsey Street Dreamway murals. They serve as a reminder that street art has a lifespan.
Like anonymous tattoos branded on city flesh, new designs incorporate old ones or overwrite them; others fade.
Cover image courtesy of foocow