Crown Heights

Artist behind torched ‘Mitzvah bus’ finds new footing after arson

March 21, 2019 Sara Bosworth
Lev Schieber, also known as Leviticus. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber
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Almost two years after the brightly painted bus Lev Schieber used as a studio was torched and destroyed, the Crown Heights-based artist looks back on the arson not as a tragedy, but a harbinger of business.

Long before it was burned, the bus, which Schieber originally used as a mobile studio and a way of getting his kids to and from school, brought him good publicity after it was featured in a music video by Hasidic singer Benny Friedman. The song, “I’m a Jew and I’m Proud,” has more than 13 million views.

Schieber’s bus was used by singer Benny Friedman in a music video. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber
Schieber’s bus was used by singer Benny Friedman in a music video. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber

Months after making its music video debut, the “Mitzvah bus,” as it came to be called, was set aflame in June 2017 on the corner of Troy Avenue and Maple Street. Police originally investigated the fire as a hate crime because of what the bus had come to mean to the local Jewish community, but those charges were dropped once a serial arsonist was arrested.

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“[The bus] is bigger than me,” Schieber told DNAinfo soon after the arson, adding that the community responded with “overwhelming sadness.”

The “mitzvah bus” was torched in June 2017. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber
The “mitzvah bus” was torched in June 2017. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber

In the long run, however, that sadness has dissipated. “For me, it turned out well,” Schieber told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday. “It was a surreal experience.”

The arson led to lots of press for Schieber, who uses the name Leviticus in his art. He made back some money through insurance and through a GoFundMe page he and his wife set up after the fire. The site shows that $4,078 of a $10,000 goal was raised by 94 people. “We’re all pulling for you to come back bigger and better,” one donation reads.

Sculpture of the artist. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber
“Making America Great,” a mixed-media street sculpture by Leviticus. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber

Schieber’s art can often be seen on sidewalks around northern and central Brooklyn, where he’ll chain various sculptures, paintings and multimedia projects to posts and fences, bearing his “Leviticus” signature, his Instagram handle and his email.

Today, he gets most of his business from flyers. He hangs them up around the neighborhood advertising commissioned oil paintings through his business, Leviticus Fine Arts.

The artist known as Leviticus advertises via flyers posted around New York City. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber
The artist known as Leviticus advertises via flyers posted around New York City. Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber

Schieber began posting the flyers “years ago,” he said. “I started when I was trying to advertise for art shows on Bedford Ave.” He’s had better results with this old-school strategy than with Instagram, Facebook, Etsy or any other digital sales method.

He’s been arrested a few times in the process, but maintains it’s the best way to do business.

“So many people are selling online; I don’t know how you would differentiate yourself,” Schieber said. “I sell twice a year on Etsy, but you couldn’t buy groceries with that; it’s so random.” Posters, he’s found, are a way for artists to stand out in a crowd. “People respond to posters,” he added. “It gets in their animal brain.”

Of course, not every poster triggers a response. Schieber estimates he gets one response for every 100 posters. He’ll “close the deal” on about 20 percent of those responses, he said.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight at the time since the bus was torched, Schieber concludes the arson was, on the whole, good for business.

“The bus project was one of a series of projects that became recognized,” he said. “I sold a few paintings, my name was a little more recognizable, so I could charge slightly more.”

Left: “Self Portrait As A Deflated Punching Bag.” Right: “Self Portrait As A Scared Man Running Out Of Time.” Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber
Left: “Self Portrait As A Deflated Punching Bag.” Right: “Self Portrait As A Scared Man Running Out Of Time.” Photo courtesy of Lev Schieber

The arson in no way discouraged Schieber from his art. “My whole life revolves around painting pictures,” he told the Eagle. When he’s not painting, he spends time with his wife and two children. “I go to the Y, work out, swim — but I’m pretty much immersed in my art.”

The “Mitzvah bus,” Schieber added, may not be his last venture into the motorized medium. “I want to get a limousine and paint that up,” he told the Eagle. “It costs about the same as a bus.”

Follow reporter Sara Bosworth on Twitter.


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