The Bushwick Collective is the name given to several blocks in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick where street artists have free permission to paint murals on building walls. The area has become so well known that artists from around the world come to take part. Recently, however, something out of place have appeared on the murals ⎯ neon colored smiley faces that dot the elaborately painted images. To the casual passerby, they will either go unnoticed or thought the work of some quirky artist. But in fact, these smiley faces are artsy Band-Aids, applied by the street artists that painted the walls to cover up a spate of tagging by graffiti writers, who targeted these walls specifically. It’s more than what some would call vandalism, rather, it’s the first signs of battle in which street art is a weapon for gentrification against graffiti, and graffiti has finally launched its defense.
“I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen it this bad,” said a shocked Lois Stavsky, long time curator of StreetArtNYC, a popular blog that tracks and archives both graffiti and street art in the five boroughs. Stavsky regularly visits hotspots around the city to capture the ephemeral works on the walls and is well known within New York City’s graffiti and street art communities.
A tagger by the name of ZEXOR began tagging the murals at the beginning of this year, and his actions have encouraged others to do the same. Alongside the pressure of gentrification are the long simmering tensions between graffiti writers and street artists, and their constant struggle for recognition, credibility, and space on the city’s walls.
Graffiti before Street Art
To most of the public, it’s easy to conflate graffiti and street art. Even in artistic circles, the two terms are used interchangeably, and refer to a fluid concept of literally and simply “art on the street”. Yet, however singular or cohesive the two may seem to the mainstream as a subculture, there are significant differences that separate the two.
“Graffiti predates street art and street art draws its inspiration from graffiti,” states Stavsky. Graffiti is word-based and its ‘writers’ are mostly self-taught. The art form emerged from inner city neighborhoods as a type of self-expression for urban youth. It’s egoistic because its “tags” are acts of personal branding by the writers. Graffiti is illegal, but it is precisely this illegal risk that gives it its counter-cultural edge. Street art, on the other hand, is most often done by artists who have received formal training. In the beginning, the artists took their cue from graffiti in making the streets their canvass as a statement against existing establishment, and their works usually carry some overarching message for the public. Street art is usually painted with permission or commissioned.
“Graffiti art”, if one had to, would be the name Stavsky gives to the two form’s artistic overlap. This describes elaborate graffiti that is more figurative, using images and colors akin to most street art paintings. “A lot of really famous graffiti artists will do this for someone legally because maybe their illegal work received a lot of attention, like Meres,” said Stavsky.
Meres was the curator of 5Pointz, an industrial complex turned outdoor art gallery. Once known as the “mecca” of graffiti and street art, it was one of the few spaces in the city that artists could freely paint. When 5Pointz closed for real estate redevelopment in 2013, artists had to turn elsewhere for legal walls. Property owners were willing to give permission, but on one caveat ⎯ street art only.
Street Art over Graffiti
“I call it an appropriation of the walls,” said Bishop (his street name), a graffiti writer turned street artist. Bishop owns LowBrow Artique in Brooklyn, the borough’s largest aerosol supply shop, frequented by graffiti and street artists alike.
At the Bushwick Collective, Joseph Ficalora, the organizer of the Collective and owner of several of the area’s properties, does not permit words on the paintings. “Joe doesn’t allow graffiti,” said Bishop. “People are mad because none of the artists that paint here are from here…Most artists that live in Bushwick are graffiti artists, and they feel like they are getting pushed out.”