Nestled between crumbling concrete walls and local repair shops stands a world of urban fantasy. Ten foot tall murals of vibrant animals, people and eccentric creatures provide a new type of scenery for Bushwick denizens. What was once a drab set of buildings has been transformed into a space for street art to flourish. This is the Bushwick Collective.
Graffiti and street art, once seen as results of destruction, are now the subjects of gallery exhibits and walking tours. Instead of washing tags made by graffiti artists they’re now sold at auction. Murals once viewed as an eyesore are now praised by tourists. The Bushwick Collective has been exposed to this fame. It is a collection of street art on the corner of St. Nicolas Avenue and Troutman Street. Owner and curator Joseph Ficalora established the Bushwick Collective in June 2011 in tribute to his late mother and share his enthusiasm for art with the community. Devoted to quality, unless an artist is invited to participate in the Bushwick Collective they have to apply to participate by emailing a resume and photos of their art to Ficalora. Bushwick’s welcoming of street art is reflective of a change.
“Artists are now becoming kind of like rock stars to follow around,” said Geobany Rodriguez, a graffiti and street artist.“People are using walls the same way people used to use canvases.”
Geo, as he’s more commonly referred to as, was one of the first artists to be involved with the Bushwick Collective. It happened by chance as he responded to a Craigslist ad about a mural festival being put together by Ficalora. Geo describes his style as magical realism. His outdoor artwork is of grand planets amongst floating citadels, painted in vibrant gold to stand out against the dark background of infinite space. Due to his imaginative work and interest Geo was later invited to take part in the Bushwick Collective. The community reaction was and continues to be positive.
“[The community] liked to see murals going up. I think people were really interested in it,” Geo said. “Bushwick was/is changing rapidly.”
This rapid change has also brought tours to street art laden neighborhoods. Levy’s Unique New York Tours was started in 2003. Out of the 20 to 30 different tours the business offers, Brooklyn “Graffiti to Galleries” is the most popular experiential tour. Tourists and local New Yorkers no longer shy away from graffiti and street art, which has its origins in gang culture.
“People always want the authentic urban experience. Ever since Manhattan became a playground for the 1%, they found it elsewhere. Bushwick became populated with artists displaced from Williamsburg,” said Matt Levy, owner of Levy’s Unique New York Tours. The Bushwick Collective has become representative of a change in New York.
“Thirty years ago graffiti meant a neighborhood was broken,” said Levy. “Now street art means a neighborhood has boutiques and shops and cafes and the real estate is going up.”
To the public, street art encompasses a general world of murals, graffiti writing, and almost anything that appears on outdoor public spaces. However, some like graffiti artist Bishop 203 believe that there’s a difference between street art and graffiti. Owner of Bushwick’s Low Brow Artique, Bishop 203 has been exhibiting artwork and selling spray paint supplies to artists for over a year now and has been involved in the graffiti culture for the past 13 years.
Bishop 203’s graffiti catches the eye with dark words outlined in bright colors. His words are round, bubble shapes or sharp and jagged, meshing into each other, looking like a pattern rather than text. Recalling his own experience, Bishop 203 argues that graffiti culture is not meant to have the popularity of street art.
“Street art is made to send a message and relate to the public,” he said. “Graffiti is the opposite. It’s made to remain a subculture.” Graffiti artists often create work for themselves and fellow graffiti artists. Street artists want the public to interact with their work and learn from it, whether it’s an appreciation or an idea.
David Meade, owner of Street Art Walk, has also been touring the Bushwick street art scene. He has been in business for two years but just started touring Bushwick in January 2013 due to the growing mix of street art and graffiti in the neighborhood.
“Graffiti is more word based. Street art uses more techniques found in a studio, like stencils,” he said. “Graffiti is also inward facing; [artists] are speaking to each other. Street art is more outward facing where they’re interacting with the community.”
Despite the differences, graffiti, like street art, is rising in acclaim. When a piece is in a gallery, the distinction between street art and graffiti is often blurred At Gallery 69 walls are covered in graffiti tags spanning from the classic artists of the 70’s to the new artists of today. Each piece, a mix of shocking colors, unique characters and urban style, grabs the attention of those new and old to the street culture. This artwork has a street origin and is sold for high prices because of that urban style. Angel Ortiz, more commonly known by his artist name “LA2”, has had his graffiti auctioned for upwards to $80,000. Business Development at Gallery 69 and founder of X101Jamz.com, a man who goes by the handle Elevated Scott, believes graffiti recognition is growing alongside street art.
“Fifty years ago they weren’t carrying graffiti in Madison Avenue and they had only contemporary stuff,” he said. Now even subway maps adorned with a graffiti artist’s tag can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars. Similar to what has happened to street art, Elevated Scott hopes to expose more people to graffiti culture.
“I’m excited about [street art tours]. I hope we’ll be able to put tours in here,” he said.
Whether skulking in the shadows of the night or announcing the creation of new pieces à la Banksy street art and graffiti appreciation does not seem to be going anywhere.
Elevated Scott said, “It’s only going to grow and grow. Harvard grads work on Wall Street but now want their apartment done in graffiti.”