Boarding: $5 per night. Just steps from the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenue L train station, cartoon graffiti covers the side of a two-story house. Fleshy fingers holding up a sheet, covering the building’s black front door, it’s facial features reddened and puffed. The second figure is naked, only wearing a white sweatband. Unless you understand Mandarin, you won’t notice the title, written on the side: “Taiwanese Men.”
Unlike most of the graffiti on display throughout Bushwick, the work here has a different purpose. The building, located at 275 Wyckoff Avenue and home to the otherwise nondescript Brooklyn Artists Studio, has housed more than 2,000 Taiwanese artists and students since 2003, while only charging $5 per night. Amid the steady increase in rent prices, the possibility of studio space and a kind of stability remains in reach for artists from Taiwan who are able to impress Patrick Huang.
Forty years ago, Huang had moved to Bushwick with the idea of finding a then-remote area to build an underground organization in support of democratic dreams pinned to his home country of Taiwan. Since opening the space in 2003, BAS has held a hold on America’s Taiwanese community and is quite famous in Taiwan, as well. Applications for a space at BAS are only open to people from the small island nation and Huang says that he constantly tries to find other ways to support the artists who live there.
Huang and his wife Sharron had graduated from National Taiwan University in the 1970s and then went to the University of Minnesota for their Ph.D. They longed for the American democratic system and the pursuit of an international degree in 1972. Around then, he became involved with a group called World United Formosa for Independence, an opposition group that faced suppression by the island’s dominant Kuomintang party, which ran the country with an authoritarian fist. The group had recruited Huang and sent him to New York to build the party’s presence there.
At the time, he says Bushwick was synonymous with urban chaos, ravaged by fires, rioting, and looting until it resembled a war zone.But it was for this reason that Huang chose Bushwick to establish the the chapter of the underground organization. To make ends meet, he had started a real estate management company.
Eventually, political power in Taiwan changed, beginning an era of democratic politics. Huang was allowed to finally return to visit family in 1989. Coincidentally, the nineties was also the start of Bushwick’s street art scene, shaping it into the vibrant community that now encompasses it. Soon after, he bought the building from an elderly German woman, whose husband once operated a machine shop there. With the hope of reaching young Taiwanese artists by offering living quarters furnished with furniture, studio space, and a backyard for events, BAS got its start.
Huang says that the inspiration behind his involvement with young artists is his own experience growing up in a low-income, rural family. He hopes that affordable and accessible housing will inspire others to pursue their passion in the United States. Up to 12 people can stay at in the building at once and while Patrick doesn’t influence the political and religious freedom of visitors, he does strive to represent what he sees as the spirit of New York through BAS’s motto: “To Be And To Share.”
The people who have lived there since have not only included visual artists and students but also film directors, musicians (a singer who stayed there once is now a legislator in Taiwan), photographers, dancers, and writers. Several had come to New York to hold exhibitions, but when their work did not sell, Huang bought them himself, in installments, so that they could afford to travel back to Taiwan. the visitors’ artworks are not displayed around Bushwick as are the countless street art scenes down each block, they are displayed inside BAS. Huang has become a dedicated tour guide for this mini-museum: no one knows the origin and story behind each piece better than him. Head sculptures of the Huangs are displayed on shelves, driftwood has been recycled into a long table and benches for tea, and walls are covered with paintings, sketches, and etchings.
Mister OGAY is just one of many artists from Taiwan who have spent time at BAS. He’s responsible for painting the building’s exterior, which helped to define OGAY’s personal style. Other artists have documented their experiences in a visitor log, which has become a piece of art in itself.
The oversized book sits on a table in the building’s common area. Its pages are filled with signatures, little drawings, memories, and stories that date back to 2003. On one page, a dried leaf is taped, commemorating one visitor’s autumn day in Bushwick. Huang may be a thin, gentle, old scholar, but he seems to hold such a large part of each artist’s heart when they depart BAS. Outside of his work there, he also runs a group called the Taiwanese American Arts Council, which pushes Taiwanese-American art.
“My biggest pride is that I’m not rich but I bought a house for artists,” Huang has said in interviews. “I believe that art is the soul of a country.”
All images taken by Huang Li-Hsiang for Bushwick Daily.
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