Graffiti and Gentrification in Brooklyn

Zach Gottehrer Cohen
7 min readDec 20, 2018

How murals and vandalism tell the story of changing neighborhoods.

(For a scholarly version, check out Graffiti and Gentrification)

Take a stroll around Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and you’re bound to notice the graffiti. It’s all around. It’s inescapable. But be careful in your appreciation of the public art: not all graffiti is created equal. Some of it follows the the tradition of artistic vandalism, and some have been planted by real estate developers and business owners cashing in on gentrification. Take a look at the two types of graffiti shown in these pictures, “tags” and “murals”, respectively:

If you ask them (and I did) you’ll find that residents of Williamsburg have vastly differing opinions about tags and murals. And it depends on who you ask. Many Brooklynites, especially newcomers (a gentler term for gentrifiers), say that murals help make the neighborhood beautiful, and that “tags” are pointless at best, or, at worst, ugly, selfish acts of ego-boosting. But for the most part, they conceded that even graffiti they considered “ugly” helped add to the character of Brooklyn.

Listen below to interviews with a few people from the neighborhood. The first track is three men in their early 20s, who have lived in Williamsburg their whole lives. Two of them were (formerly or currently) graffiti artists themselves, and they talked a lot about what the point of “ugly” graffiti is. Then, there’s a Belgian ex-pat who’s lived in Williamsburg for three months, and his visiting European friend. Finally, there’s a young woman (and her cute dog) who grew up in Williamsburg, and after becoming an artist, found that her opinion of “ugly” graffiti had changed.

Let’s break down what the locals had to say. There’s an overwhelming sense that the idea of Brooklyn is inseparable from the visual language of graffiti. The Belgian ex-pat’s friend says that “Williamsburg is like a big gallery.” (0:44), but whether he’s talking about murals only or graffiti generally is unclear. But the ex-pat tells us that graffiti is “part of the city” (0:13), and that even though he thinks tags are ugly, “it’s New York, it doesn’t matter, it’s already ugly. [his friend then mumbles: ‘It’s part of New York.’]” (0:01)

The young woman tells us that tags are a visual reminder of “old Brooklyn,” and that murals are a sign of “the new, gentrified Williamsburg.” (1:12) When I asked her why she thought that Williamsburg property owners often opted not to have graffiti removed by the city (see below for a discussion of this data), she said “If you’re from Brooklyn, you’re proud of it, so why not keep a bit of the heritage of it there?” (1:50)

When I asked the three young men the same question, one of them said “Just take a look at the people. They like antique shit, they like old shit.” By “they“, he meant gentrifiers. This local has the sense that “old, dirty Brooklyn” is part of what attracts more affluent newcomers.

For the people who have lived in Williamsburg their whole life, they said that as they watch the neighborhood gentrify, they see fewer tags, and more murals. Take a look at this building, a brand new development a few blocks from the Bedford Avenue L-Train.

In a gentrifying neighborhood, a new development sticks out like a sore thumb. But, by slapping a mural on the facade, developers can increase a property’s appeal, giving hopeful residents the sense that they’re not taking part in changing the local landscape, but rather joining a community whose character has been developing on its own.

Interestingly, members of the guerrilla graffiti culture, like the gentlemen I spoke to, have a name for this. It’s called “ups”. A new tagger can increase (up) their celebrity by tagging a surface nearby a more recognized tagger. It’s basically an attempt to legitimize yourself based on physical proximity to an already accepted visual marker. Branding by association. Gentrifying developers get “ups” by creating their own visual markers that monopolize the space, defining themselves as a new landmark.

Beyond tactical similarities, gentrifiers, and the murals they commission, share a common aesthetic thread with more organic graffiti. In the pictures below, you can trace the visual language of graffiti from tags, to throw-ups (stylized graffiti, between tags and murals), to commissioned pieces.

Note how the mural uses intentional collage which, to some extent draws upon the accidental collage of surfaces with many tags. Note how it uses similar techniques to create depth, of the stylized bubble letters do. And between bubble and line style tags, notice the artistic fonts, and the overlapping and geometric characters.These are the classical elements of graffiti, and it’s no accident that the commissioned murals attempt to fit themselves into this visual vocabulary. As the locals I talked to mentioned, part of the allure of Brooklyn is its visual character. To completely redefine the aesthetics of Brooklyn murals would be to erase the history that so many newcomers are seeking.

It cannot, however, be understood as a simple homage to the origins of graffiti. As with any facet of gentrification, questions of power arise. The flipside of the Williamsburg mural is larger numbers of graffiti complaints made to NYC’s 311-based graffiti cleaners. The taggers I spoke to said that they noticed far more Graffiti NYC vans and crews now than when they were younger. So even though murals use the visual language innovated by taggers, the developers who pay for those murals don’t want taggers from the community to get “ups” from them. They want to keep them clean and controlled. It’s a question of who has the power to design the visual space.

The city gathers data on graffiti cleanings that bears this conclusion out. If you want the raw spreadsheets get them here. Otherwise, here are some key takeaways from the data:

  • Of the 16 community districts (CDs) identified as gentrifying, 14 have above average graffiti density. Half of them have graffiti densities above the 75th percentile. The 5 CDs with the highest graffiti density are all “gentrifying”.
  • The communities that have the highest Wanted/Unwanted ratio are in non-gentrifying neighborhoods with relatively low graffiti densities.
  • Communities with the highest high graffiti densities tended to have low Wanted/Unwanted graffiti ratios. The exceptions are notably Williamsburg and Greenwich Village/SoHo. Williamsburg reports the highest change (by far, 78% compared to 53% in Central Harlem, the next highest change) in average rent since 1990 (an indicator of how far along into gentrification it is), and Greenwich Village/Soho, which is not listed as “gentrifying” could arguably be described as having gentrified prior to the 90s.
  • Bushwick’s and Bed-Stuy’s “Wanted/Unwanted Ratio” are around the 25th percentile, which is notable for their proximity to Williamsburg, whose ratio is close to the 70th percentile. These adjacent neighborhoods tell an interesting story. Look at the map below:

In conjunction with the interviews and discussion above, this data suggests that a neighborhood’s relationship with graffiti reaches a turning point somewhere along the gentrification spectrum. The forces that want to see a neighborhood gentrify, local businesses and developers, transition from “cleaning up the neighborhood” to attempting to retain (or, to put it more confrontationally, appropriate) a neighborhood’s “character”.

One can look to the rate of graffiti removal, the graffiti density, and the proliferation of murals to tell them more about the power struggles that underly neighborhoods in transition. As will all lenses through which to explore gentrification, the story of a neighborhood’s graffiti is about taking what was already there, and making it fit with the desires of affluent gentrifiers, natives be damned.

But without looking for those conflicts, all we see are neighborhoods coated with art, from tags to murals. Look closely, because while most gentrification struggles happen behind the scenes. The story of graffiti is one that plays out right before your eyes.