Writing on the Wall: The Evolution of Brooklyn Street Art
Ever since graffiti culture made its way from Philadelphia to New York City in the late 1960s, Brooklyn has been a hotspot for new and legendary street artists to make their mark on the city’s walls. Today, warehouses in Bushwick, Williamsburg and DUMBO have become canvases for murals, wheat pastes and stencils, showcasing the evolution of the graffiti movement from bubble tags to large-scale commissions.
While the controversial art form was once widely viewed as a form of vandalism, it is now embraced by building owners and galleries who tap emerging and renowned talent from around the world. On a recent trip to NYC, Here & There Magazine explored the historical and contemporary highlights of Brooklyn’s street art scene.
The history of graffiti in NYC
It’s hard to believe it was almost 50 years ago that New York’s graffiti movement first exploded. At the time, influential writers like TAKI 183 and Tracy 16 attracted media attention for tagging in Washington Heights and “bombing” a train with their work.
In the 1970s, the subway system was key to the spread of neighbourhood-specific graffiti styles. Graffiti on trains allowed work to move and be seen in different boroughs, and promote the interconnectedness in the muralist community. With the train yards being located in Brooklyn, artists like WAP and The Fabulous 5 graffiti group quickly became known for painting the sides of subway cars. While bubble lettering was popular in the Bronx, artists like Cliff 159 and Blade One pushed it even further by adding illustrations and cartoonish characters to their tags.
New York City’s graffiti landscape completely shifted in the 1980s when the New York City Transit Authority began a program to eradicate vandalism. As a result, rooftops and Brooklyn’s industrial walls became some of the canvases of choice.
Street Art Today: Brooklyn’s best murals
While recent developments have gentrified areas of Brooklyn, leading to the rise of mural-style advertising campaigns, there are still several places to spot authentic works by global street artists. An ideal starting point for a self-guided tour is in Williamsburg where a mix of American-style tags and throw-ups complement European-esque poster work and stencil art. Many of the murals can be spotted at Keap and Hope, while stencil pieces by artists like Nick Walker and C215 can be seen near Roebling and Metropolitan.
While Banksy and other luminaries have decked the walls of Williamsburg, there are several community initiatives that celebrate emerging talent. Take the Bushwick Collective, a project that has turned Troutman Street and St. Nicholas Avenue into an epicentre for international street artists. Joseph Ficalora, a local resident, started the venture in 2012 as a way to beautify the area and reduce crime. Today, he curates the outdoor gallery and partners with local building owners to provide new spaces for artists to paint their murals.
In other areas of Brooklyn, businesses and organizations have partnered up to improve the neighbourhood aesthetic. While walking near the Manhattan bridge and the BQE, you can spot murals by greats like CAM, DALeast, Shepard Fairey, Faith47 and MOMO. The series of outdoor murals are part of DUMBO Walls, a project presented by the DUMBO Improvement District and Two Trees Management Co in partnership with the New York City Department of Transportation Urban Art Program (NYCDOT), Jonathan LeVine Gallery and the Wooster Collective.
Through a combination of historical work and new initiatives, graffiti is being embraced in Brooklyn more than ever before. For locals and tourists, experiencing art beyond gallery walls is only an L train ride away.
Words by Julia Eskins
Photos by Aleyah Solomon
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