Conceived and curated by Bushwick native Joe Ficalora, the Bushwick Collectve has evolved into an extraordinary open-air gallery since its first mural surfaced in 2011. Within the past few years, the ever-expanding Bushwick Collective has transformed its environs from a largely grim industrial neighborhood into a vibrant tourist destination. It has faced controversy, but also has had its fair share of defense for its mere existence.
Growing up, Joseph Ficalora would sit on the roof of his family's steel fabrication business. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the 1980s, it was one of the few safe places outdoors. The view was grim. The streets were dirty. Graffiti was endless. After all the factory workers went home for the day, a rotating cast of prostitutes worked the block, withering under their addictions. As a boy, he thought the book "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" had to be some kind of joke. When you ask him today if he has any good memories of the neighborhood, where he lived just up the block, Mr. Ficalora comes up empty. Joseph's father, Ignazio Ficalora, was murdered on these streets in 1991. He was knifed for his wallet and a worthless chain around his neck when his son was only 12. Most people want to hold onto their past as it was, but Mr. Ficalora has found greater comfort in obliterating it, bathing the neighborhood in paint.
If Bushwick's look has been a testament to the neglect of property owners who have never seen fit to curtail the rise of graffiti in the neighborhood, then the mural movement can be seen as a correction of that course. If Bushwick had not been covered in outdoor art all along, in fact gaining much of its urban personality from the proliferation of graffiti in the first place, we probably wouldn't have such a strong presence of muralists. One follows the other but is not a graduation from the other. Their purpose and audience could not be more dissimilar. But here we are in 2018 and Bushwick is one of the most desirable, commented on, visited, name-dropped, neighborhoods in all the known universe. Its urban gritty atmosphere, like beard stubble on a rugged, handsome face, is alluring for its perceived wildness and threat - a theme park dedicated to the storied Brooklyn of the last generation. This is evidenced by many factors, and undeniably its graffiti-heavy streets is one of them. The neighborhood's fangs have been dulled over the years but collectively we wear its antisocial facade as a badge of pride. We only make fun of it when the debutantes want to lead our parade. We are all in on the joke and we know it. One person saw the proliferation of well-curated and gorgeous paintings as an insult to its working-class history and a step in the wrong direction.
Bushwick is not just a neighborhood of post-collegiate dreamers and mainstream America conscientious objectors. It's a very diverse community with families aspiring to a comfortable equilibrium of convenience and safety; immigrants with no choice but to settle where they can afford; in addition to the hopeful, bright-eyed carpetbaggers hoping to glean some cool from the local atmosphere. None of these people are served by romanticizing urban decay. All of them are happier when the streets are cleaner, the buildings maintained, with new businesses of staggering diversity and yes, expressions of our community's towering artistic stature through murals. That is not gentrification. That is progress through diversity.
"This neighborhood is but a canvas to our imagination."
The murals the Bushwick Collective have bestowed on us are valued by an overwhelming majority of the community. Not just by the "gentrifying elite." They give us a sense of pride in knowing that the best artists in the world clamor for our attention and our approval. They've contributed to the success of many businesses lucky enough to be in proximity to them. They are inspiring to the many creatives that would, one day, like to be asked to donate their talent for the joy of anyone that happens to walk by. They were ours.
Graffiti is an outlaw artform with a very long history pre-dating spraycans but usually found in urban areas where individualism can be drowned out by the hordes of the anonymous. It's the mark of the easily forgotten, an official "I was here."
Does it have limits of taste? Are there situations where the criminal act has an objective value beyond its legal concerns? Is Banksy, the darling example of graffiti legitimized, a hero or common miscreant? What's the difference between painting on an unadorned brick wall and making a position statement over a commissioned artwork? Graffiti by its very nature is combative. It is without rules plotted by legislative bodies, but does it police itself?
Like the guy who knows he's about to piss a lot of people off, I sigh and clear my throat.
First let's not conflate muralists and graffiti writers into the same group. If you made a Venn diagram of muralists who were once (or still are) engaged in illicit art, sure, the intersecting blue and red circles would be showing a LOT of purple. They are NOT the same thing however.
One is made for public consumption with its themes and palette vetted by people concerned with its acceptance at large. The other is a personal statement - with varying levels of acceptance due to location and artistic merit. The difference between good street art (including well-imagined graffiti) and random tag throw-ups is that one has a message and the other is just barking loudly.
Graffiti isn't about the critic though. It's never about the critic. The critics can go "f" themselves. It's about the artist and whatever crew he or she rolls with. Sometimes these unsolicited works connect with the community they're surrounded by and are preserved. Sometimes it's washed away or painted over by annoyed property owners. Most of the time though, it serves as a reminder of neglect of the community and left to decay on its crumbling canvas unperturbed. The statement made by its lingering existence is in itself, artistic.