Brooklyn: American graffiti

The building is covered in what looks like a ramshackle selection of tiles, but Matt is excited about it. He's not seen this one yet, and he beckons me to take a closer look.

By David Whitley
Published 24 Jul 2012, 10:13 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 09:47 BST

Each tile is hand-painted, and most bear a slogan of some kind. 'Crazy minds break young' say the tiles that look like red rhombuses from a distance; 'vanity r perfect' say the bits that look like wedding cake decoration nearer the top.

Matt is effusive. "That's exemplary!" he bursts out with joy. "It's a perfect example of highly effective street art. There are so many hidden messages and it does what it should do — recontextualises New York for New Yorkers."

Matt, who runs Levy's Unique New York! with his father, is passionate about street art and the way it can start to transform neighbourhoods.

"In the 70s, graffiti meant an area had collapsed," he says. "Graffiti is ego-driven. It's look-at-me stuff, trying to put your name up as much as possible. Street art desires to get the viewer to re-appreciate their city.

"Now when you see spray paint on walls, it's a catalyst for bringing an area out of the gutter. It usually means an area is on the up"

We walk through Bushwick, a predominantly Dominican area that is starting to see Brooklyn's artist community take over due to rents in neighbouring Williamsburg becoming too high.

He diverts us to what's optimistically known as the Bushwick Street Art Park. It's a giant, multi-themed mural along a wall, featuring smiling crocodiles and an avalanche of moustaches. It's opposite a meat factory; to the outsider such as myself it looks like a bleak, industrial wasteland.

But Matt says the car park fence is indicative. The side facing north, in front of the mural, is wire; the side facing east is corrugated iron. Apparently, it was corrugated iron all the way round up until a few months ago — but the meat factory owners thought it might be nice to let the employees see the mural as they parked.

The rest of the stroll through Bushwick is a case of having eyes opened. Artists and motifs pop up over and over again. Sad owls compete for wall space with paper flowers and glued-on wooden figures; signposts have little statues made of old bits of trolley bolted on to them.

One artist has got hold of some indelible Department of Transport paint and painted little figures on the road. Unless you look at them properly, they just look like splodges that the white line painting crews left by accident.

It's the abandoned factories and warehouses among this guerrilla redecoration that really require a double take, however. When the shutters go up, they're something rather different — a former casket factory turns out to be a watering hole with 16 craft beers on tap; a one-time fire station has rows of chairs outside as a video art projection is played inside; a wall sprayed top to bottom with a kingfisher hides an industrial-chic cafe that swarms with Macbook users.

In the 1970s, landlords in these parts of Brooklyn would sooner burn down their buildings and collect the insurance payouts than fight for meagre rent from welfare-reliant tenants. In 2012, the real estate developers are salivating about moving in. And the street art is acting as a guidance beacon.


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