Stories Behind the Walls: A snapshot of street art in Brooklyn
The street art scene in Brooklyn gets seemingly bigger every day. One can’t walk down a street in Williamsburg without running into a mural or a spray-painted storefront around a different corner. But street art here has evolved a lot in the past few years as it has been popularized and commodified, and new artists are finding their voices on blank walls across the borough.
Brooklyn witnessed a birth of companies dedicated to public art over the last couple of decades, some devoted to advertisements and others focused on bringing exciting street art to specific neighborhoods. The sides of buildings in Williamsburg and Greenpoint are more colorful than ever before, as individual artists are magnifying their work on a large scale right alongside commercial work.
And as the pandemic put a hold on a lot of indoor art forms, artists poured onto the street to celebrate what can be shared outside. The Bushwick Collective, Bushwick’s popular open-air gallery since its first wall was painted in 2011, hosted its 11th Annual Block Party on June 4. The Block Party attracted hundreds of visitors to the large painted walls, as the public celebrated the vibrancy that outdoor art offers. Joe Ficalora began the organization with the goal of reviving his neighborhood, and the Bushwick Collective has helped to transform the neighborhood into a hub of artwork and excitement.
The Bushwick Collective has hosted renowned artists like French graffiti artist Blek Le Rat alongside up-and-coming local Bushwick artists. Murals last around a year before being replaced, as the Bushwick Collective is constantly evolving as a “living and breathing” gallery.
This year’s Block Party hosted artists Ashley Hodder, Ligama, Robert Vargas, Carlitos Skills and many more. Cody James, Long Island based artist and self-defined ‘jack of all trades,’ painted his second wall for the Bushwick Collective this year.
“I love that the walls are painted in styles that are all different,” James said. “Not only do they bring more life to the surroundings, but they can just bring more cultures together, more conversations.”
James’ recent work is more figurative than his past style, but he has carried his tendency for geometric shapes into his portraits. His wall this year on St. Nicholas Avenue has gained much attention, both in person and on social media.
James spoke about his immense appreciation for the opportunity to paint for the Bushwick Collective. “The opportunity to express whatever you want to design on a really big wall, and see what sticks is very special,” James said.
“Art is an escapism for me,” James said. “Murals gets work out there that people would not see if they were confined to a gallery.”
James wants to push the bounds of street art outside of the city, and take it back to Long Island, after seeing the vitality it brings to neighborhoods. “Painting walls does so much, and places on Long Island need it more than here in Brooklyn where so many walls are covered.”
As a large chunk of the street art scene has shifted towards commissioned painted advertisements that take the form of murals across Brooklyn, James noted the benefits that this has for artists. “Companies that sponsor an artist’s work, even if it takes the form of advertising, is an opportunity,” James said. “It is giving an artist a platform to use their creativity while also satisfying their brand.”
Across town, the Market on Kent brought a new splash of color to the corner of Manhattan and Kent in Greenpoint. The Market on Kent approached artist Estrella Munoz in the spring, looking to decorate their storefront with a mural inspired by the natural flora and fauna that thrived in Greenpoint hundreds of years ago.
Munoz, like James, was excited by the opportunity to take her paintings outside of the gallery scene. “I didn’t know if there was a place for me artistically, but I started doing storefronts, and I started doing murals,” Munoz said. “I am 38 and I am discovering my place in the art world.”
Munoz, born and raised in Greenpoint, cherished the opportunity to work on the Market at Kent storefront. “It is a special love to be able to paint in the neighborhood,” Munoz said. “They wanted to do something beautiful for the community.”
Kris Tapper worked alongside the owner of Market on Kent Cristian Moga to bring a painted landscape to the storefront of the building, which was a garden many years ago. Tapper explained that the Market on Kent was looking for a way to bring more people to the store with something visually appealing that was indicative of the natural history of Greenpoint.
The store commissioned the artist to paint a natural landscape, and Munoz exceeded their expectations. “We really lucked out in finding Estrella,” Tapper said. “She matched Cristian’s vision perfectly.”
There was a group of neighbors that tried to stop the project, with false claims that it was a landmarked building, but they ended up retracting their judgements after they saw how much the mural brought to the block. Munoz understood there was a risk to public art, as it might get painted over or criticized by the community, but the response to the project was overwhelmingly positive.
“The community responded by saying ‘this greenery, these animals, this makes us feel good,” Munoz said. “Greenpoint has become more environmentally conscious too, and it is important that art reflects the community.”
“When I finished, I just stepped back and felt like home,” Munoz said. “So many people and families come by and are so excited to see these animals and plants painted in their community.”
Munoz described an “honesty” to public art that drew her towards mural-making. “It doesn’t have to be buttoned up the way art that goes into a gallery does,” Munoz said. “I appreciate that level of tuning, but I really believe that artists are the history keepers, and their messages should be shared.”
The project felt like more than just a mural on a wall to Munoz, and she reflected that it felt like what people needed coming out of the pandemic. “It feels like something is happening in the art world right now, and the public art reflects that,” Munoz said.
“It is evident that everyone is coming out of the darkness and creating on a whole new level,” Munoz said. “The pandemic brought us a need to communicate in new ways.”
This sentiment is shared on the more corporate side of the current public art scene in Brooklyn as well. Colossal Media, a company dedicated to hand painted outdoor work for both commercial advertising and grand scale public paintings, has experienced a burst of creativity after the pandemic as well.
Colossal Media has been in Brooklyn since its inception in 2004 and has filled the streets of Williamsburg with dozens upon dozens of enormous works. Ahmad Sayar, Senior Vice President of Colossal Media, described that their company is part of the movement to beautify neighborhoods and bring the hand paint medium to the forefront.
“After we all took such a long break during the pandemic, our work now is an opportunity to reconnect, engage, to change someone’s mind or brighten someone’s day,” Sayar said.
“Colossal Media has become a part of the fabric of Williamsburg,” Sayar shared, “Brooklyn is our home.” But Colossal Media has moved beyond just Brooklyn, with wall spaces across the country from Manhattan to Chicago to Portland.
Although Colossal Media focuses much of their work on advertising for the clients and brands that approach them for painted walls, their other line of business is the public art component, where they work with neighborhoods, landlords, museums, or foundations to create work. “We try to make sure that we continue to treat our neighborhoods and treat Brooklyn the way the borough has treated us all these years,” said Sayar.
One of Colossal Media’s most famous public artworks, coined ‘the Mona Lisa’ of Williamsburg, has become a cornerstone of the neighborhood since it was painted in 2018. The mural is an image titled “Lost Time,” by student photographer Steven Paul.
“We have so much support from the community here, from each neighborhood and many fellow businesses. We would not be where we are today without Brooklyn,” Sayar said. Colossal Media collaborates with the community whenever possible.
“We are the production arm and the artistic arm of any entity trying to get behind the public art movement,” Sayar said. “We can work together to beautify these neighborhoods and bring public art to the forefront.”
The reception for building-sized paintings can be varied. Locals tend to have less patience for enormous advertisements, compared to public art projects dedicated to the community. “As long as it’s not just a straight up QR code and product thrown onto a decal on the wall, I am for it,” James said.
This shift back towards old-school street advertising comes alongside more innovative technologies, like the use of QR code on different works, that have given a new spin to classic outdoor ads. Sayar explained that the QR code allows for a new type of interaction on both advertisements and public art projects.
“It can be a one-to-one medium for a person walking by a work. They can pull up their phone to scan a code or take a selfie with it,” Sayar said. “It could be an advertisement for Coke, or it could be a public art project we’ve done for the moment, it is cliché, but the reception of a work really is in the eye of the beholder.”
“As Williamsburg has become what it is today, running through the veins of the neighborhood are our walls,” Sayar said. “Brands and clients want to be a part of that scene, and that goes hand in hand with helping the community thrive and develop.”
But as the street art scene in New York is evolving into a bigger industry, it is also becoming more complicated, explained Brooklyn bred artist Katie Merz. “Being around images that sell can be really exhausting,” Merz said.
Merz street art takes a completely different form than other artists or Colossal Media, and her line symbols and drawing style diverges from the typical painting style of murals in Brooklyn. Yet Merz had a similar fall into the street art world as James and Munoz, and her work became increasingly popular over the last 6 years.
Merz had been showing her drawings and paintings in galleries since the 90s, her work usually taking the form of language decoded into symbols and rebus, but she became disillusioned by the gallery scene. In 2016, after looking for ways to push the bounds of visual artwork, Merz began to decode poetry outside on a wall instead of on a canvas.
“Once I started putting stuff outside, I got addicted,” Merz said. “It is like chalking on a street, and now I do that on architecture. Playing on the street and creating things out of nothing is what my work is about.”
Merz began in 2016 with the building on 5th Street in Williamsburg that can be seen by anybody biking or walking across the Williamsburg Bridge. This was the first of many buildings that Merz covered with her work, and it has become a celebrated part of the Brooklyn mural scene.
Merz explained her work is a new way of reading that can be shared by anybody, as it is all symbols and not hierarchical. “Enjoyment of visual work should not be just in a gallery, or very interior, it should be public,” Merz said. “It is about activating the street life of New York, with the people that walk by, using architecture.”
Merz painted the Health and Human Services building in Flatbush in 2018, in which she found a new way to make mural-making a one-to-one medium. Many people would come in and out of the building every day, which was right next to a Methadone clinic, and Merz began to draw portraits of those who walked by on the wall. “I made myself present for anybody that stopped while I was working,” Merz said. “The dialogue with the community is what really is important to me.”
“If people in the community are able to contribute, then it becomes more than a façade,” Merz said. “It becomes the life of the place.”
But as street art has become more commercialized, Merz feels that it has become what she ran away from in the gallery scene years ago. “I found that since I started doing this, it has changed so much in just 6 years,” Merz said.
“It has become restrictive,” Merz said, describing the experience as an artist looking for walls to paint on. “The hustle is so huge, and now it is a system where you need to appeal to whoever is paying you to do it.”
Merz explained that the pricing of murals in New York has a broad range, as different building owners have different budgets. “My commissioned work balances out the work I do free-of-charge for community-based projects,” Merz said. “A lot of it is a sliding scale.” The owners of the building for Merz’ Flatbush mural had a budget of $50,000.
Merz explained that most artists charge a material and hourly fee, and a price per square foot. In New York, the price per square foot can range anywhere from $10 to $50, depending on the intricacy of the painting and experience of the artist. Colossal Media, with their teams of painters that can scale huge walls, has advertisements and commercial work on walls that range from $35,000 to over $150,000.
Organizations like the Bushwick Collective work to give artists a platform outside of the commercial side of mural-making that has become prominent. The Brooklyn Arts Council and the Groundswell Community Mural project are just 2 organizations in Brooklyn dedicated to growing the mural scene from the community-based perspective that Merz celebrates.
“The Bushwick Collective was an amazing opportunity,” James said. “I really give a huge shout out to them, and any organizations like them.”
Non-commissioned street art is still a mainstay of the outdoor art scene, and Merz is eyeing a wall on 9th Street that will likely be covered with her distinctive symbols soon. James has a new piece he painted for pride month on display in StuyTown in the East Village, and Munoz is working on a new mural on Meeker Street to honor the children lost in the shooting in Uvalde last month.
The pandemic brought change and expansion to street art, and the streets of Brooklyn reflect the busy art scene. Graffiti style art stands alongside large, commissioned projects, and all of it is celebrated. What piques the interest of one selfie-taker walking in Williamsburg often differs from the next, and all the murals bring something exciting to every corner.
If one thing is clear, there is enough wall space for everybody… at least for the time being.
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