In the streets of New York City, it is not at all difficult to find a wide variety of art. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is no exception. A neighborhood that began heavily attracting artists in the ’90s, the hipster haven has continued to do so to this day, carving out a name for itself in the city’s art scene.
While galleries are now abundant in Williamsburg, art there is most certainly not confined indoors. Most walls, lampposts, billboards, mailboxes, apartment buildings, restaurants, and businesses exhibit at least a few examples of its prevalence in the community. Turn almost any corner and you’ll see everything from stickers and commonplace tagging to murals and intricately painted graffiti.
“I think the only way to really build a career for me personally is to go outside of the gallery and make the street your gallery,” said B.D. White, a Williamsburg-based spray paint stencil-artist. “Let the public decide if you’re a sellable artist or not, not just one person.”
White was inspired to take his work to the streets in 2011 after moving to Brooklyn and seeing Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary about street art directed by Banksy, an anonymous street artist famous (or infamous) worldwide for his simple but punchy spray paint installations.
“I didn’t realize that people were putting actual, real paintings on the street,” recalled White with a smile. “It really just blew my mind, and I thought, ‘I wanna [sic] do that!’ I was really happy that anonymous art was appreciated for the first time.”
Banksy himself chose to install several pieces in Williamsburg this October as part of his month-long invasion of New York City. Street art and Banksy fans throughout the city have been abuzz, trying to track down his work before graffiti clean up crews buff it away forever.
And thus a conundrum arises. Artists who want to share their work with the community outside the gallery must face the fact it will likely be buffed, likely lasting only a few days or a week.
Though street art may be nice to look at, the fact remains that according to New York City law, it is illegal to “write, paint or draw any inscription, figure or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure” unless “express permission” is granted by the city or the building owner. If caught in the act, artists could face arrest and fines of thousands of dollars.
Misha Tyutyunik, a painter, illustrator, and muralist who has lived and worked in Brooklyn for 12 years, doesn’t think installing illegal street art is worth the risk. A few years ago, he and some fellow artists were arrested for trespassing in a train yard where they planned to paint. Having to post bail made it an expensive ordeal.
“Maybe some street artists have a lot of money and like getting bailed out of jail,” Tyutyunik said, as he added mustard yellow tones to a mural he and a few other artists were commissioned to paint on the exterior wall of Williamsburg’s new Dunkin’ Donuts. “I’d rather spend my time getting paid to put something up that I like rather than rushing to throw something up on a wall and risk getting arrested.”
Others are not so deterred. Jilly Ballistic, a Brooklyn-based street artist known for her popular culture commentary and installations of World War I and II-era decals on subway platforms and cars, plans her installations carefully, paying attention to her surroundings to avoid being caught or fined. She’s been approached and stopped by MTA officials in the past but hasn’t been seriously reprimanded so far.
“It’s a risk, but I’m cool with taking risks as long as it’s a planned, smart risk,” Ballistic said. “There’s no reason to be stupid. You can still put it up somewhere – there’s so much space! If it’s not going well, don’t force it.”
Ballistic doesn’t make her living off her art and enjoys the process more as a creative outlet and a way to spark discussion with the community, so gallery work has never really appealed to her.
“I’m so comfortable outside in the real world, with using my environment and the subway,” she said. “I have no desire to end up with a gallery or single show. I just see myself doing this.”
Williamsburg seems just the place for artists like Ballistic who seek to create an open dialogue with the community.
“I love it!” said Kevin Mastman, a Park Slope resident who frequently visits Williamsburg. “I think it’s sort of a renaissance; [street art]’s changing a lot, because the public perception of art is changing.”
Stephane Billiart, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, enjoys street art culture so much that he created a directory on his computer. On weekends, he takes excursions to Williamsburg and other places in Brooklyn to photograph and document new installations.
“Sometimes it conveys a message… Makes you think. And sometimes it leaves you puzzled,” Billiart said. “I try to have an open mind and try to figure it out.
White says he, too, seeks to get the public thinking, and usually includes messages of social acceptance and equality into his pieces with that goal in mind.
“I mean, I’m just one person so there’s not a lot that I can do,” he said. “But I can help people try to see what’s going on – some issues that they might not be aware of or something – and then I can just throw my opinion down their throat and see if they agree with me.”
As for White’s career goals, he says he’d like to harness his work on the street into commissioned work. “I’ll still always go out illegally and throw stuff up there, because I like to do that. ” he said. “It’s fun, but the goal is to get legitimate work from it, so work that pays and I don’t get in trouble for doing.”
Whatever the artist’s ultimate aim or goal, it seems the common thread of passion and love of creativity motivates street artists to keep doing what they’re doing.
“I’m just hoping that people will appreciate the artists that do it and try to act as preservationists if that’s even possible,” Ballistic said.
“If that could somehow translate into the law, that’d be great.”