“I don’t want to be quoted as taking any political side or anything,” says Michelle Mayerson, repeatedly and often, while talking at great length about her latest commission, a monumental mural that has lorded over Wyckoff Avenue for all of the new year. For the cost of “a few thousand dollars,” she tells me, it had been commissioned, illustrated and then posted onto the walls, over New Year’s weekend.

It depicts a pair of children, walking side-by-side, arms held in embrace, splattered across forty feet of wall. One of them wears a bright white yarmulke and carries a large, forlorn teddy bear. The other is hatless, but around their neck hangs a Palestinian keffiyeh, apparently pulled down. They are both wearing soccer jerseys; sporting the last World Cup’s notoriously rivaling Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Coincidentally, because the kid in the yarmulke is wearing the jersey and colors of that year’s ultimately victorious Argentinian (both Ronaldo and the country of Palestine share a need for the largess of the Saudi government, perhaps), the numbers also spell out 10/7, the date being used by the Israeli government and others to mark the start of the latest war in Gaza. Above the pair, appears a line, splashed in white, that reads: “Love’s resilience can rebuild the bridges that war has burned.”

Tagged below is the instagram handle of Mayerson’s “street art” consulting outfit, called Brooklyn Street Art LLC. A complimentary write-up in New York Jewish Week describes the illustration as “Israeli and Palestinian boys act[ing] as symbols of a peaceful future.” 

Despite not saying very much, by her own repeated admission, Mayerson nonetheless says a lot and, if prodded, will speak in great length about the project. For instance, she says that she had noticed other street art in the neighborhood that made her feel left out. She told the Jewish Week that the street art she had already seen in the neighborhood on the ongoing conflict had seemed “one-sided, and I just felt we should have some representation.”

“The mood in Bushwick felt, to me, like it was very pro-Palestine, which is wonderful, everyone should have their cause but I just kind of felt like an outsider and there wasn’t much presentation for the other side or whatever,” she told me.

If you squint close enough at Mayerson’s contribution to this discourse, the mural is meant to evoke a famous photo taken by the photographer Ricki Rosen that depicts two Jewish children, one of whom is also dressed in a Palestinian keffiyeh. Taken for the cover of an issue of the Canadian magazine Maclean’s to advertise a story on the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the photo has had a longer life than many staged magazine covers. Its most notable public appearance, perhaps, before appearing now in some form in Bushwick, was on a Rihanna social media account when it was deployed to replace a post from the singer reading “#FreePalestine” that was quickly deleted to minor controversy in 2014. “Let’s pray for peace and a swift end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! Is there any hope?” wrote Rihanna, nearly a decade ago.  

“It was a staged photo, but it was a beautiful photo,” Mayerson tells me.

News reports of the Hamas attack last October, followed by Israel’s ongoing invasion of Gaza had moved her to “bring it to life” on the walls of 49 Wyckoff, a tall, imposing converted warehouse that, over the last decade, has been home to everything from basement indie rock concerts to bankrupt coworking space concepts. At one point, a mildly convoluted April Fool’s joke involving Madonna renting out the building made its way to the website of New York Observer. The address has since become a central spot in the neighborhood’s mildly ridiculous “graffiti tours,” a cultural offshoot from the notorious “Jefftown”-era of Bushwick. These days, a handful of businesses still rent out the offices on the upper floors and just about two or three people still call some of the apartments home; most foot traffic congregates around a basement gym called “Absolute Power Fitness.”

More recent plans for the building come from a Los Angeles startup called &Pup, their idea promises to combine “the energetic spirit of a dog park with the superior comfort of a members-only club” and hopes to occupy at least three levels of the building, out of which they plan to sell memberships at rates between $1,140 to $4,740 a year. This has attracted the consternation of everyone else who lives or works there, most of whom complain that this will deteriorate their already precious existence in a building they complain is being the subject of deliberate neglect, the subject on various ongoing cases between various tenants and the housing courts. A letter from a group of them, unsigned and incredibly concerned, contained ominous predictions: “The stairwells flood every time it rains. The leaks trickle through the floors and pool in the basement, where the weight gym operates. These flooded waters will mix with all the dog excrement and filter down to their business, risking the health of anyone on the premises.”

The concerns won a “no” vote from the local community board and the overall dust-up eventually made its way into the New York Post under the headline: “Hipsters vs. Hounds,” though the plans appear to moving along unheeded. While the startup appears to missing their promised opening date of winter 2024, their website continues to sell $40 t-shirts reading “Bushwick,” nevertheless.

In advance of these plans, or perhaps unreleated to them entirely, Mayerson had been first hired to do some work on the building.

The building’s secretive owners, whose names do not appear on any publicly available documents, had first approached her to do some paintwork, well over a year ago. Back then, Mayerson, who lives in Midwood , was working in something she calls “exterior design.” Before turning to “Brooklyn Street Art,” she operated a consulting company called “Take It Outside Design.” (instagram bio: “turn your backyard into a magical oasis no matter how big or small your space is.”) She said she had known the owners of the building “from around.”

“I don’t want to give his name out,” she tells me.

At any rate, she was able to convince whoever they were to pay her to “give it to the street artists,” as she puts it. Mayerson says she was trying to carve out a corner of a crowded business, populated by operations like the colorfully decorated East Williamsburg outfit Colossal Media and the Bushwick Collective, which also runs an annual summer music festival outside a steel fabrication business on Troutman street that had been inherited by Joseph Ficalora, who runs the “collective.” Ficalora had offered Mayerson some tips for getting into the line of work.

“I met up with [Ficalora] and I was fascinated by this underworld,” she told me, “I lived in Brooklyn all my life and I had no idea that this exists and [all] the culture behind it.”

The culture had moved a long way from the days of Jean Michel-Basquiat painting the words “SAMO” around the art galleries of Lower Manhattan — or even the less subtle, if at least mildly coherent, gestures of 2000s cynical ironists like Banksy or Shepard Fairey.

“Realtors want the paint on the building because it helps them, it helps the real estate,” says Mayerson. “It beautifies their building. People want to rent in there, it helps for, you know, the gentrification of neighborhoods…this is like really, a win-win for everybody,” she says. 

Among the projects she’s most proud of sits opposite the enormous children on 49 Wycoff, depicting a naked woman holding a child wearing a rat-shaped mask, the work of the street art painting duo Herakut.

“What do you mean, what is it about?” she asks. That had been “a project completely different from this,” according to Mayerson. She says the deal with that one was that it’s part of a larger “college” of work by “really big female names in the art world,” a big deal for Mayerson.

“I really wanted to give the building to women who are not, you know, not very well represented in the street world,” she says. Most of them are contained behind an occasionally unlocked gate in front of the building’s sometimes-used parking lot.

The most colorful of these is a cartoon of an evocatively sad robot painted by Sandra Fabara, who goes by the moniker Lady Pink, who is described invariably online and elsewhere as the “the First Lady of Graffiti,” making appearances in long-sanctified cult objects like Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 movie Wild Style, alongside Lee Quiñones and Fab Five Freddy. She had started out “tagging trains as a high school freshman” at the High School of Art and Design, according to a recent interview, and she has spent the next few decades going between the same galleries in Manhattan. Her writing on the wall in Bushwick is bright and bulbous, her font lettering crowding for space like Brooklyn commuters on a rush-hour L train.

Mayerson had been unsuccessful, however, in finding women to paint the enormous children. 

“I really wanted a female artist, because I really wanted the building’s wall to be all-female,” she says, mournfully. “But I couldn’t get a female artist to do it. People were just afraid, they didn’t want to do anything political. The mood is so intense. And everyone just didn’t want to do anything that had to do with the war. People just don’t want to talk about it.”

“It’s not a pro-Israel, pro-Palestine nothing,” she says about her stance on the conflict. “I just wanted to be ‘pro-peace.’With all that, I still got a few hateful comments [online] and I just decided I didn’t want to keep it up there. It started to become a debate. The point wasn’t for it to become a debate, especially on my platform,” she says.

Instead, she hired a Chilean artist who lives in Long Island City and goes by the name De Grupo, who Mayerson had once commissioned to do some work on the other side of the 49 Wyckoff building. He says he was unaware Mayerson had been searching around before landing on him. 

“It was only complicated because I was at Art Basel [until] after Christmas,” he told me. He had, in fact, approached Mayerson in the days after the Hamas attack last year to see if she could think of any work she could land his way surrounding that event. 

“It got really complicated because Israel started attacking more and I was like, let’s make something neutral,” he says.

It had been difficult to scrounge around money for this most recent project, Mayerson had told me. Landlords told her they were fearful that anything on the subject would eventually attract graffiti — a form of street art they are less fond of —and when she finally “hustled” the mysterious owners of 49 Wycoff to let her use wall space that had been rented out to an out-of-business coworking space (Cocoon: “Floating desks | Private offices | Conferences rooms; The best option for you to work and network effectively”), they didn’t want to pay for the project, which cost around “a couple thousand dollars,” forcing Mayerson to email around.    

“The person who ended up funding most of it wants his name out of this. I won’t tell you. He’s also in the real estate world,” she says. 

Finding a message for a real-estate funded message about an ongoing invasion where the official death toll currently sits at more than 30,000 people was not easy. Both Mayerson and De Grupo demurred when asked if they through their “peace” message had any common ground with calls for a ceasefire that would pause Israel’s bombing in the Gaza region and the country’s military attacks on Palestinian civilians. 

“No, it’s not pro-anything. [The mural] is just about love and resilience and it’s not about a ceasefire or not about not a ceasefire,” says Mayerson.  

“I’m not with those messages,” says De Grupo. “I don’t have the words to tell the president in charge of Israel to stop bombing, it’s not my message,” he added. 

Before taking on the loosely-Gaza war project in Bushwick, De Grupo’s recent work had included a Care Bear-lookalike with the face of the Bronx rapper Ice Spice, affixed somewhere in SoHo, and a Looney Toon-like take on Taylor Swift dressed like Pocahontas, looking over Greenwich Village building. Online, he describes his brand as “satirical street art and subversive dark humor” that’s “executed with a distinctive street style provocateur.”

“It’s obvious that this is a serious piece and is nothing to joke about. Peace and kids and things like this,” he says about this project, however.

Putting the mural high on the wall was a two-day operation and a two-man job; De Grupo had picked up a newer artist on the make in the local street art scene, Manuel Alejandro, who lives in Bushwick and joined the street art scene after seriving a stint in the Marines (“More on the logistical side,” he told me, “after the height of Iraq, security-type deployments.”)

Alejandro says the job appealed to him because it was “kinda positive, a little vague and not too polarizing.” At times, he told me that I was thinking too hard about it. “The message is about two kids,” he said, which is certainly objectively true. 

Among his contributions had been to place a teddy bear into the hands of the child wearing a yarmulke. He pointedly had added torn fluff around the bear’s limbs, to convey that it had “been through stuff,” he says. 

“I’m a little bit indifferent when it comes to doing political art,” he admits.  

The message, perhaps, could be found confined to the one above that De Grupo and Alejandro painted. Both painters pointed to Mayerson, who told me that finding words that communicated what she was trying to say with the mural was really a journey in itself.

“We went through so many different quotes,” she says. First, she had landed on the well-worn line “when the power of love overcomes love of power, the world will know peace,” often dubiously associated with the ‘60s guitarist Jimi Hendrix. But even the fake Hendrix quote turned out to be a cause of some consternation for Mayerson. She received emails from friends indicating that “some people might consider Israel the most powerful of the two,” an idea that had never occurred to her. 

Instead, she landed on the line about “love’s resilience” on a website called Bookey, which provides summaries of “the key ideas of world’s bestselling books in 30-minute audio clips and text transcripts,” per its website. The line itself purportedly comes from a biography published last year, by a minor Canadian writer named Robert Lundrigan about how his parents found love in his home of Newfoundland after the Second World War. Its sole review could be found in the St John’s Telegram, where a critic there called it “well structured.” 

“I was literally just pulling quotes from the internet. There was no writer to the quote when you google [it]. I think it was from a record? I don’t remember who or what, but I just felt like this was it. It was a beautiful message,” she said about Lundrigan’s purple prose, that had been now given new life, repurposed to advertise an incredibly vague message about the war in Gaza. 

Ricki Rosen, who took the photo that Mayerson took to De Grupo who then passed it along to Alejandro, would later say that “it was never supposed to be a documentary photo.”

The photo editor at Maclean’s, name perhaps lost to history, had been “so specific in what he wanted that he even drew her a picture,” forcing Rosen to ask her neighbor, an American who was working then for the Jerusalem Post to volunteer his son for the task. They then went across the street, picking up Zemer Aloni, who would later speculate that he was chosen for his “eastern roots,” as his father was an Iranian Jew, and this would better evoke the ethnic differences between Israelis and Palestinians for Canadian readers at the time. Rosen deliberately makes the children appear anonymous, which is only right considering how randomly they were plucked and dressed up to present this inspirational message. De Grupo and Alejandro’s retains much of the anonymity, though they gently push the keffiyeh off one of the children’s heads and, instead, hangs is around his neck. For reasons that seem unexplained, a harsh yellow line appears above his head, halo-like, as if he is already dead. 

Both artists insist that the soccer jersey number numerology involving the numbers on Messi and Ronaldo’s jerseys and the date of the military attack last October is a complete coincidence. “It wasn’t like that at all, please don’t say that at all. It just happened in front of us,” says De Grupo.

Perhaps, these are too many words about something that will, likely, one day be replaced with an advertisement for an expensive dog kennel. Perhaps, it is Mayerson, in her long-winded efforts to disclaim any responsibility for anything that has ever happened in the world around her, who put it best when she told me, exasperatedly, that, “listen, I’m so happy that nobody is putting me in charge of this.”


Photos taken by Andrew Karpan.

For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.

Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber