The War of the Walls
In Bushwick, street artists and graffiti bombers battle for wall space and recognition
By Natasha Rodriguez
If Bushwick had a body and you sliced that body wide open, you would find paint coursing through its veins. Bushwick is engulfed in paint. It covers Bushwick bricks, Bushwick plaster, and Bushwick concrete. The paint is chaotic, brash, unapologetic. It seeps into the cracks of walls and looks up at you from the ground. It is splattered on plants that grow out of the streets. It’s on the trucks that drive down Bushwick streets and the cans that contain Bushwick trash. Paint keeps Bushwick alive. Paint preserves Bushwick’s authenticity. Paint destroys old Bushwick. Look closely at the images and words that have been created out of paint and you will find evidence of a war waged with markers and spray paint cans.
Some Bushwick streets boast walls that are covered with floor to ceiling murals, painted by fine artists. These murals depict beautiful women, children, Salvador Dali, Biggie Smalls, a gigantic octopus, and a couple dancing in lederhosen, to name a few. Tourists roam these streets with cameras, snapping photographs of the murals and selfies in front of the art. Some of these murals have been vandalized, many with graffiti tags that are indecipherable.
Other Bushwick streets are so quiet that you could assume the neighborhood has long forgotten them. On one particular street the only tenants are the homeless couple squatting there. Around them, empty warehouses stand with their glass windows shattered. Their walls have been conquered by spray paint. The paint is loud, swirling, difficult to comprehend. There are small letters, large letters, thick letters, many spelling out profanities and threats. These walls do not hold street art. These walls belong to graffiti.
Bushwick locals had lived their entire lives looking at layers of paint upon paint making up tags on Bushwick buildings. One day, that paint was covered up to make way for art. The art beautified the neighborhood. It brought visitors. Businesses opened up near that art. A well-known publication listed Bushwick as one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the world, a neighborhood where the walls read, Vandals in control. Fuck Gentrification. Nos querian enterrar pero olvidaron que somos semillas.
Artists from all over the world come to Bushwick and spend days working on large murals. After those murals are finished, several of them are destroyed by spray paint. Someone writes their name over another person’s work. Artists return to Bushwick. They fix their work, cover up the graffiti. Later, their work is destroyed again. There’s plenty wall space for everyone. No More War, Por Favor.
In the urgent mess of graffiti tags, you can almost hear the frantic screaming of the writers. They are shouting for people to remember Bushwick is theirs. They are fighting for their home, which in their eyes, has been invaded by people who look different than they do and have more money and are attracting tourists to their home. Don’t you dare forget about us, the tags seem to say. Sometimes, writers might not be fighting for much at all. Bombing is a way of life. Sometimes, you don’t need to be upset to bomb. You bomb walls because you were taught to do so.
The street artists, meanwhile, fight for their careers. Perhaps they moved to Bushwick in the hopes that their work would take off in the midst of a bustling creative neighborhood. They tirelessly self-promote, put up their art wherever they can, post it online — #streetart #bushwick #brooklyn. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to create art in Bushwick? they ask.
It uncertain when exactly the war between the graffiti bombers and the street artists began. It had been simmering for some time when, in early 2015, a graffiti writer who goes by the name Zexor took his spray paint to Troutman Street and started defacing murals. Zexor bombed murals with his tag, and on one, he left a message: I AM NYC. I AM BROOKLYN. I AM BUSHWICK. I AM EVERYTHING YOU HATE AND LOVE! I AM FREEDOM. I AM ART! I AM ZEXOR.
I first traveled to Bushwick in early September. I had heard about a Bushwick street art tour done by a company called Free Tours by Foot. This tour had been criticized online, with many publications calling it a “ghetto tour.”
I took the tour on a Saturday morning. I met the rest of the tour goers in front of a store on Seigel Street called Raw & Fine Chocolate. The tour leader was a man named Mar. Mar wore a newsboy cap, a blue rain jacket and blue jeans with wide legs. Mar asked where I was from and checked my name off of a handwritten list on crumbled up white paper. For the most part, the other people on the tour were young, foreign, and white. They had big backpacks, hiking boots and Canon cameras. They spoke English, French, and German. Two of them had recently moved to Brooklyn. One was wearing all black and sipping a can of Lacroix.
Mar began the tour by alerting us of the fact that the word graffiti comes from the Greek word scribble. He told us about different graffiti styles: tagging, throw-ups, wild style, heaven, stencil, poster, sticker. Mar said that tagging meant writing your name. He showed us examples on a sprawling wall that was littered with graffiti.
“Do you see the A?” he asked, pointing to a curved letter. Who drew it? Why did they do it? Mar didn’t say. Instead, Mar said that the tour would take two and half hours and that we would walk down a total of seven blocks. I noticed pedestrians giving us strange looks.
We had walked down a mere block when a man spotted our group. He began to laugh. He reached into his back pocket, took out his cellphone and began snapping pictures. I was not sure if he was taking a picture of the group or of street art. I wanted to shrink and disappear. Mar ignored the man and began talking about kids in the neighborhood who began doing graffiti decades ago. They were young kids, usually tagging their names on the walls of their neighborhood, their walls. Mar stopped in front of a long wall. There was a painting of a man’s face on it. Mar said that this painting was a tribute to a local man in the neighborhood who was a photographer and had befriended the kids of Bushwick. When the man died, a woman from Australia was commissioned to paint a tribute to him on the Bushwick streets where he had lived.
Zexor is known throughout Bushwick as the person who destroyed the murals of the Bushwick Collective. Every street artist and graffiti writer seems to know who he is. Tour guides know his name and sometimes mention him to their customers. For several years, Zexor had been noticing the changes that Bushwick had been going through. Longtime residents were being illegally evicted. Older businesses were struggling to survive. New businesses were opening up. New people were moving in. Zexor was not happy. And so he set off to do something that would ignite conflict and start a conversation.
I met Zexor at the midtown coffee shop where he works by day. On first impression, he was an intimidating figure. Tall and heavyset, with a buzz cut and covered in tattoos, Zexor could easily stand out in a crowd. He is Puerto Rican and grew up in Bushwick. He presented himself as a tough guy. “I’m from the streets,” he told me. “I went to the school of hard knocks.” Zexor’s father was also a graffiti writer, and although he claims that he hated it at first, Zexor started bombing too. He also began to see, as others did, that their walls were being taken over by a different kind of artist. Artists from places other than Bushwick, whose work covered the walls of the Bushwick Collective.
The Collective, a series of walls on and around Troutman Street, was spearheaded by a Bushwick local named Joe Ficalora who in 2012 wanted to honor his late mother with a mural. He googled street artists and hired one to paint a memorial mural. The collective quickly took off, and soon, Ficalora was inviting artists from around the world to paint on the ever-expanding stretch of walls that made up his outdoor gallery. The local bombers were not happy; the Collective did not showcase their work, although it did include some local street art.
This enraged Zexor. “Graffiti,” he said, “embodies Bushwick.”
Zexor had his target and after he had defaced their work many street artists were furious. Their work, which often takes days to produce, had been destroyed in a matter of seconds by someone armed with a spray can. One of those artists, who goes by the name of Lmnopi, painted over his words and added her own word to her mural: EVOLVE. It was a message aimed at Zexor, telling him to move on.
But Zexor was ready to talk. After he vandalized the murals, Zexor spoke to Ficalora about his actions. Zexor told Ficalora that he wanted to paint a mural in the Collective. Ficalora gave him permission and wall space on Troutman Street. “We have an understanding now,” Zexor explained. “He’s a good guy. He’s a businessman. You can’t get mad at anyone who wants to make money.” But, Zexor says, when Ficalora saw the mural that Zexor had produced, he said, “Wow great statement. Fuck you.” Zexor retorted, “Fuck you too.” Ficalora did not respond to interview requests.
Zexor hates the street art tours. He claims that he almost beat up a tour guide and that he has flipped off the guide’s cap and spat in his face. Zexor doesn’t think that the guides know much about Bushwick or its history. He doesn’t like the feeling of being watched by tourists.
“It seems like we are an amusement,” he said. “It’s like we are the main attraction. Once a woman was taking pictures of me and my art and I told her to tip me. She was confused. So I said, if you take a picture of me I will break your camera.” A friend of Zexor, an artist of color, once tried to lead tours of his own. It didn’t work out. “Didn’t fit the bill,” Zexor said, shaking his head.
On my tour we saw a large wall covered with the image of a blue woman who had big eyes and lips and who was wearing a gold chain that read “Brooklyn.” Mar told us that this was the work of Shiro, a graffiti artist from Japan. Mar told us that the owner of the building had invited Shiro to do the piece. Mar said the owner owned the whole block. Mar said the owner loved graffiti because she could finally rent out her places to businesses. People like the art. Everyone is happy. Shiro’s piece had been spray painted on wood because the building was under renovation and the wood was covering the actual wall. Sometime, when that wood is torn down, the piece will cease to exist.
Mar said that he knew most of the artists he was telling us about. He said that most of them got paid a lot of money to come and paint on Bushwick walls. Mar said that some of his artist “buddies” asked him not to talk about them on the tour. “They’re like, Yo Mar, don’t tell them about me,” Mar said. Someone on the tour asked Mar if gentrification was an issue in Bushwick. Mar began to talk about zoning laws. We passed Roberta’s, a trendy hipster pizza place. Someone had written the words Fuck Roberta’s nearby. Mar said we should all go to Roberta’s. “They have great pizza. Hillary Clinton went there. You should go there after the tour.”
Mar got back to gentrification. He said there was a homeless shelter in Bushwick now, as if this was a novelty in a neighborhood that had been poor for so long. “Some people would say this tour is a part of gentrification,” Mar said. “But I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I don’t know about gentrification. It’s not my thing. Guys, just keep in mind that this area was never meant for living. People were losing their lives to heroin and crack and angel dust and people were shooting up on the street and now it’s safe.” Mar kept on shrugging. He kept on saying that Bushwick was once a scary, not-so-good neighborhood. “Bushwick,” he said, “was once the most dangerous neighborhood in all of America.”
Lacroix man and his friend left the tour before it ended. Mar noticed and called out to them, asking if they were leaving. They looked embarrassed but said yes. Mar was not happy. He took out his piece of paper and asked us if we knew their names. Someone offered up a name and Mar made a note on his paper. “I like to know these things,” he said.
“Kids around here say that gentrification is the new colonization but I don’t know folks.” Mar still wanted to talk about gentrification without actually saying much about it. We walked on a big street and I spotted a tall, ugly, grey building. On it, someone had painted the word Palante and the Puerto Rican flag in thick, sloppy paint. Mar didn’t mention the piece. In Spanish, palante means keep going, keep trying, go forward. I wondered how someone got up to the top of that empty shell of a building to write those words.
I met the artist Sara Erenthal one afternoon in her studio space/apartment in Bushwick. Erenthal has dark cropped hair and wore a loose denim dress. She smoked hand rolled cigarettes as she told me about herself and her art. Erenthal was born into a very strict Orthodox Jewish family. In her late teens, she left her family and the community for good and began to learn about the outside world and about art. Just before turning 30, Erenthal began painting every day and eventually decided to become an artist. In order to become an artist, Erenthal has sacrificed a lot. About six years ago, she decided that she would forgo a traditional job and work solely on her art. There have been times when she has been homeless. Today, she lives on the bare minimum. Luxuries are not permitted.
Erenthal has been living in Bushwick for four months. Before that, she was in Park Slope. Her street art is scattered throughout the neighborhood and easy to spot. She describes her art as subconscious self-portraits. They are representational of different times in her life. For Erenthal, producing these pieces is both her personal healing and a way to possibly connect to other people who are going through similar things.
The first piece of Erenthal’s I ever spotted was a tiny wheat paste (paper glued onto a wall) with the face of a woman and the words: there’s plenty wall space for everyone. Erenthal explained that that particular piece was a statement on the Bushwick art scene. “Bushwick is so full of art and there are so many artists competing with each other,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the graffiti versus the street art. Not to say that graffiti is not art but sometimes they come across like they’re trying to say that the streets are theirs. My response to that is that there’s plenty of walls for everyone.”
For Erenthal, her street art is an extension of her studio art. She walks down Bushwick streets armed with black and white and red markers. She paints her self portraits on trash: refrigerators that have been left out on the street, televisions lying in garbage, cardboard boxes, a table top in front of an apartment building covered in stickers. When Erenthal spots a surface that she wants to add her work to, she will take her markers out of her bag, study that object, and begin to paint. She starts with the head, fills the face in, moves on to the torso, then the hair. These works often take a couple of minutes to complete. At times, Erenthal incorporates words into her art: Make Art from Your Heart. Speak Up Against Catcallers. Support Emerging Artists. On the side of all of her work, Erenthal adds her Instagram handle. Many pieces that she gives to the streets are picked up by people who later contact her on Instagram, telling her that her work now has a home.
Erenthal said she doesn’t quite understand some of the art projects going on in Bushwick today, like the Bushwick Collective, which she has not participated in. She notes that it seems quite VIP, saying, “It’s all about who knows who or who is some really mega famous artist. They’re not giving emerging artists much opportunities unless you’re super connected.”
On a piece that Erenthal painted in Park Slope, she wrote: If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. This relates to Erenthal promoting herself by asking Brooklyn store-owners if they would be interested in her painting their storefronts, usually free of charge. On a walk down Bushwick streets with Erenthal, she went into a restaurant that was just opening up. She asked for the owner, talked to him about her work, and asked him if he would consider having her put up her art right outside. She left the owner her business card and as we left she told me, “He’s not going to get in touch with me.” I asked her how she knew. “I can just tell,” she said. In Bushwick, Erenthal is more likely to get a yes to requests of painting on walls than in another neighborhood because street art is part of the culture. Each case is different, but Erenthal said she rarely gets paid for her murals on the street and is lucky if she can cover the cost of materials.
Erenthal’s work has not been safe from vandals. “Everyone who does good work gets haters,” she said. “Not to say that I’m doing good work but I’m feeling more and more so after I get fucked with a lot.” Erenthal said that people write messages on her work trying to insult her, calling her work lame. But she doesn’t care.
“The vandalism bothered me at first but I’m getting used to it, sadly,” she said. “A lot of the shit that people try to fuck with, it’s kids, it’s not a serious artist. Real artists who work hard respect art. No matter what form they do, whether they do graffiti or murals. They respect anyone who puts in work. Kids will be kids.”
Mar told us that we were about to enter the Bushwick Collective. To get to the collective, we had to walk through a residential area. People began to notice us as the streets became narrower and quieter. They gave us looks of disgust. I felt like we were invading their home. A couple of people began to boo us. “Let me tell you the real story of Bushwick!” someone yelled. “Don’t listen to his lies!” another shouted. I wanted to lean against the walls that held the art that we were here to see and sink into them and vanish.
In response to the hecklers, Mar said, “These people don’t know me. Just because I look like I haven’t had a hard time, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t. I got a scholarship.” He shrugged. “I took it. Sue me.” Mar held up his hands and said that he had scars. I couldn’t quite make out the scars on his hands but perhaps to Mar those scars contained evidence that his life had been hard. I wondered if he had ever tried to show his hands to a Bushwick native.
We finally made it to the Collective. Every inch of the Collective’s walls was covered in art. People began to take pictures. They began to smile. They became excited. Many of them stood in the middle of the street, hunched over their cameras in an attempt to get the perfect shot. Mar had to tell them to watch for the cars that were speeding towards them. Towards the end of the tour, we walked past a couple of kids who were filming a music video in front of a mural. Mar explained that they could get sued because someone’s art was in the background and the kids didn’t have the rights to show that art.
The tour ended and people clapped for Mar and handed him cash. As I waited for on the L train platform for the train, I reviewed the pictures that I had taken of the Collective. Many of the pieces were visually stunning. There were no overarching themes or messages. There wasn’t a lot that seemed to be specific to Bushwick.
I spoke with the artist known as Hops Art at a coffee shop in Bushwick, right under the elevated tracks of the J-M-Z lines. Murals were spread throughout these streets underneath the tracks. The area was not a touristy one and rarely did people stop to take pictures of the art. Hops Art grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant and Bushwick. He is Puerto Rican/African American and is in his 40s. He had a long grey beard, and was wearing a large white t-shirt. He spoke eloquently, in a quiet voice, about his work and his neighborhood.
Growing up, Hops Art was inspired by comic books and graffiti. He drew cartoon characters and decided to use them to reflect his culture and community. Hops Art began as a graffiti bomber. He bombed city trains and city walls with his tag. “Back then, you had to watch what you were doing,” he said. “You couldn’t just paint over any artist. You would get beaten up. Or worse.” Ever since then, Hops Art has been conscious of the work that he puts up. He said his art needs to have the kind of content that is appropriate for its environment.
“There’s some people who do portraits of women on the walls and it’s just a woman on a wall and it’s like okay, where’s the story?” he said. “People should try to reflect the community that they are painting in in their work.”
Hops Art went to Massachusetts College of the Arts in the mid-90s. After graduation, he returned to Brooklyn and watched his neighborhood change. He saw condos being built and people being pushed out. “The neighborhoods are now blended with young life, young people who want to come in and do better for themselves,” he said. “That’s great. I love a mixed neighborhood. My issue is affordable housing. You’re building all these condominiums and luxury apartments and what about the people who are being pushed out? Where are those families going to go? That’s my story. I’m putting it in as many murals as I can.”
I asked Hops Art about Zexor. He knew who I was talking about immediately, and described him as an important part of Bushwick. “Zexor did some illegal shit. But he had to,” he said. “He was able to get us noticed and even get some sponsors. We did the Bushwick Collective.” Hops Art has a mural in the Bushwick Collective called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The mural depicts the late Charlie Murphy, the older brother of actor Eddie Murphy and a well-known actor, comedian and writer, best known for his stint on the sketch comedy series, Chappelle’s Show. The mural also includes a lot of graffiti lettering. “It was a metaphor saying that community is being pushed out but we’re still here we’re still a powerful presence in the neighborhood,” Hops Art explained. “The graffiti culture, the latino culture, the black culture, Charlie Murphy himself.”
Hops Art said his work had only gotten vandalized once or twice. “When bombers see my stuff, they know who I am,” he said. “I’ve been around for a long time.” Hops Art always includes graffiti lettering in his pieces. He believes that this is one of the main reasons why bombers leave his work untouched. He sees potential in collaborating with street artists. He would love it if people could come together and do work. He has done it before, but it always troubles him. “If I go ahead and collaborate with another artist I’m kind of contributing to us not having nothing you know?” he explained. “I’m going to contribute to more grandiose luxury apartments going up. And that’s where the clash is.”
For Hops Art, the greatest thing about social media is the fact that people will contact him through other images that he puts up around Brooklyn, always including his Instagram handle. Sometimes, he will get paid to paint murals, other times, he won’t. If he doesn’t receive payment, Hops Art wants to get sponsored for the paint supplies, the lift, the ladders, things like that. “New artists who are very well known from out of the country, they are being flown in, hotel paid for, to paint,” he said. “I’m pushing myself to get on that level. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be.”
Once, while painting, Hops Art turned around and saw what looked like a zombie hoard. It was a group of people following around a man with a cap. They all had cameras and weren’t looking at any art through their own eyes. “It was bizarre,” Hops Art said. “I think the street art tours are crazy. I just don’t get it.” When the tour guide approached Hops Art’s wall, the guide didn’t say anything. He didn’t talk about Hops Art’s piece. “I think he shoved the people to the corner and then spoke about what I was doing,” he said. “It seemed like he knew everything about graffiti and I had no idea who he was. I was like, how do you know? Did you read a book?”
Hops Art has a plan for a new mural: A mass of people holding up cameras, just shooting.
I decided to walk by myself down the same streets that Mar took the tour on, to see what I could see without having someone tell me what to see. It was a bright day and the sun shone on Bushwick tags and bombs and murals. I had to squint to make out some images.
The first thing I noticed was that someone had written Aren’t we all #Dreamers? In thick black paint on the bottom of a warehouse wall. Why did they choose to include the hashtag? You couldn’t press your finger on those letters and be taken to other letters on walls that also said #dreamers. The writing looked sloppy and rushed. It wasn’t pretty. I walked down Siegel Street, past the Fine & Raw Chocolate store. There was a new Adidas ad that was trying to blend in as street art. Its perfection gave it away. Everything was done exactly right. The piece was stenciled. It lacked character.
I failed to recognize one street because the art had changed completely. What was there before had been mostly tagging, people writing their names into the wall. Now the wall had different names, different styles, different colors. Fuck Donald Cunt. Someone spray-painted that in thin black all-caps. It was on a wall of an abandoned lot, at the very bottom. Between the words Donald and Cunt, someone else had drawn a big pink heart. On the tour Mar never talked about how much of street writing seemed to be made up of people’s internal dialogue.
Piss live die.
God < Cum.
Ya tu sabe.
Out of nothing came something. The words were thick, in lilac scribble. I saw that phrase throughout my walk. Sometimes I could make it out under layers of paint. Other times it was newer, more imposing. Out of nothing came something. I wanted to know the story behind that. I wanted to talk to the person who wrote those five words over and over again around Bushwick. But they didn’t leave their name behind. Out of nothing came something. I wondered if the author was thinking about Bushwick when he painted his words on its walls.
I walked past the giant Shiro mural of the blue woman that we saw on the tour. This time it was covered by scaffolding. Beware of buyouts, someone wrote on a wall nearby. I stopped to take pictures of Shiro’s covered art. A group of French tourists walked past me and I hoped I didn’t look like them. They talked loudly, taking pictures of each other in front of a mural depicting two characters from Seinfeld.
When Shiro, the graffiti artist from Japan, first came to New York at the age of 25, she practiced spray painting in a factory in Queens. Once, a group of teenagers surrounded her and tried to take away her spray cans. Back then, Shiro barely spoke or understood any English. She didn’t know how to say anything. One of the teens, she says, pointed a gun at her. The gun might have been fake but she wasn’t sure. The other kids began throwing rocks at the factory’s glass windows and shards of glass fell on her, cutting her neck. Shiro didn’t know what her assailants were shouting at her. She didn’t know why they were harming her. “Was it because I didn’t speak English?” Shiro asked. “Because I was Asian? Because I was a woman? I didn’t know.”
I met Shiro at Union Square. As we talked on a park bench, homeless people came up to her, complimenting her shirt, asking for money. Shiro, now in her 40s, deflected them effortlessly. She spoke with great enthusiasm about her work and her experiences in New York and around the world. Shiro was animated, excited. When she was six, Shiro began to draw her character, the woman who appears on most of Shiro’s work. Shiro thinks of the character as herself or what she dreams to be. Shiro didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. Her character was an exception. “That character was my friend,” she said. “She was always with me. I’ve travelled around the world but I’m not lonely because I have my art and I travel with my character.”
Shiro studied nursing in college. She worked as a nurse for three years, saving money to move to New York. She chose New York because she had seen a movie, Wild Style, about old school graffiti and realized that that was what she wanted to do. In New York, Shiro couldn’t connect with anyone and after two years, having run out of money, she returned to Japan. “It was so hard,” she said. “I spent two years looking for graffiti friends and I couldn’t find anyone because I couldn’t speak English.” After leaving New York, Shiro began to paint around the world in such countries as Germany, India, Brazil. Her work now lives in 17 different countries. In 2014, she got her U.S. artist visa and moved back to New York City.
In New York Shiro paints mostly in Bushwick. She is friends with a couple of local Bushwick curators who give her wall space to put up murals on. When she paints in Bushwick, it is for fun. “I do it to hang out with my friends,” she said. “I don’t charge money and I just paint whatever I like.” Shiro said that she often sees politics and conflict between street art and graffiti played out on Bushwick streets. She prefers not to be involved.
“I’m like peace, peace everybody,” she said. “Let’s have a good time!” Shiro doesn’t talk to too many people. “By connecting with other people that means that I’m going to get more into politics,” she explained. “Art can be like a fucking game. People have beef. I got so tired of it so I don’t look, I don’t listen, I don’t talk.” Shiro notes that there are local artists who are not happy when many international street artists are invited to Bushwick to paint. “I understand why local artists have an issue, she said. “I understand both situations because I travel. In China and India, people are very welcoming. New York is harder. People are watching each other. People are competing with each other.”
Shiro notes that Brooklyn is a prime example of the way people use graffiti and graffiti culture to attract a younger, more affluent population to a neighborhood. Graffiti and graffiti art attracts people to a neighborhood, and then that neighborhood begins to get beautified with street art. “In the beginning, developers don’t care because they think that graffiti writers and graffiti artists are cheaper than street artists,” she said. “And then they move on to street art and they make everything look snobby. I try to make my artwork high quality because of that.”
Besides creating murals on the streets, Shiro also works from home. She does freelance graphic design. She also paints storefronts and inside stores for money. She creates jobs for herself, making and pitching proposals. Once, someone took a picture of Shiro’s work and printed it on a leather wallet. They were selling the wallet in a souvenir shop in New York. Lately, since work gets copied often, people have suggested to Shiro that she gets each of her walls copyrighted. She hasn’t done it yet. “It’s a lot of work and it costs a lot of money,” she said. “Maybe I need to do it to protect my art. But I just paint so much. If I had the time or money for that I would use it to paint a new wall.”
Trator. Silver spray paint. I wondered if whoever wrote that wanted to write “traitor” or meant to say “trator”. I wondered who that message was intended for. Does that person look at that word and know that it’s about them, do they get knots in their stomach when they see that?
As I headed towards the Bushwick Collective, I walked past the Dunkin’ Donuts drive through. Someone had drawn a giant face of a woman about to sip her Dunkin Donuts coffee. Commissioned art. Paid art. Worst art I had seen all day. The public schools I walked by had pristine white walls. They had been left untouched.
I walked through a long and narrow residential street and saw that even the mail boxes had been covered with paint and words that I couldn’t make out. There was a broken fridge out on the street and someone had drawn a very neat, nice painting of a person on it. Thin lines, all white. Underneath, it said: Support living artists. A giant white truck that drove by was drenched in graffiti tags and paint.
I finally made it to the Bushwick Collective and I saw the tourists snapping away. I walked by many tours. There was a man giving what appeared to be a private tour to a couple. He had a big black binder in his hand. I walked down streets that surrounded the Bushwick Collective. There was still street art everywhere. I saw a mural that held a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. It was written in both Spanish and English. There was a giant American flag that has small flags of different nations inside of it. There was art that had been marked Bushwick Collective, 2014. After all that time, it was still here. On smaller, quieter streets, I saw political art. Art about incarcerated mothers, about Martin Luther King Jr., about closing Rikers. These streets were overflowing in trash. Cheerios were scattered everywhere, along with plastic bag, utensils, diapers, shards of glass.
To prep a wall for a mural, Hops Art begins by painting over it. He rolls the walls and scrapes and sketches. He uses a base color so that he can save spray paint. Each can costs $7. Decades ago, it cost less and people would steal it. After prepping his street canvas, Hops Art does a pre- sketch. The next day, he will flesh out his imagery: the letters, the background. He composes the sketch. Then, he fills in his sketch with colors. Over the years, Hops Art’s process has changed. He describes the process of creating a mural as a form of meditation. He says it is therapeutic. The paint is opaque, so if you make a mistake, you can layer it, cut it. A mural will take Hops Art anywhere from three days to a week to complete. He doesn’t like to work on a mural for too long because it will begin to get stale. He wants rapid change, process, layers. He doesn’t focus on one part. He gets every section at a certain level and then continues this way. If you focus on one thing and leave everything else white, there’s a good chance someone will come and bomb your work because it looks like an open canvas.
There’s a video online of Zexor doing his work. It’s 17 minutes of Zexor bombing city walls. Zexor tags walls in broad daylight, in front of people. Zexor does not give a fuck. He sticks mostly to black and white spray paints. His tags take him seconds to put up. There’s an art to what he does. At times, it takes a while to discern what he is writing since he doesn’t always start with the first point of the first letter. Zexor looks around, perhaps looking out for cops. But most of the time, he seems fearless. He tags his name on walls, garage doors, basketball courts, scaffolding. The tags often contain giant floor to ceiling letters. Zexor is methodical, writing quickly and efficiently, shaking the cans in his hand.
I remembered a moment from Mar’s street art tour. We had reached the Bushwick Collective and everyone was taking photographs of the art, images that would last longer than the art itself. I noticed a couple asking someone else to take a picture of them in front of a large piece. This piece had been painted over a garage door. At the top of the piece were two hands outstretched. The hands were bleeding. Blue clouds rested behind the hands and blood. Between the hands was a yellow path pointing upwards, a path to the skies. On this path were the words: BUSHWICK IS DEAD. PRAY. Below those words, in pink, purple, and green, was the name of the graffiti writer who created this piece: Zexor.
Zexor is now part of the Bushwick Collective, which today features the work of other graffiti artists and writers. “I achieved what I wanted to achieve,” he said. But he is not fully satisfied with what the Collective has brought to Bushwick. Zexor believes that before the Collective, gentrification was happening, but at a much slower pace. Once the Collective took off, he said, his neighborhood changed overnight.
“The Bushwick I grew up in is dead,” he said. “The hard knock life, the ask your neighbor for some sugar life is dead. Now there are people who have been in your hood for 2,3 years and they never speak to you. Maybe they are even afraid of you.”
Zexor knows is aware that he cannot stop the transformation of Bushwick. “All you can do is adapt to it,” he said, “and move ahead and find a way to thrive from it.”
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