Can street art transform lives? The Bushwick Collective, a world class outdoor gallery in Brooklyn, New York presents compelling evidence.
Joe Ficalora, head of the Bushwick Collective, can remember a time when fear and poverty ruled the streets. In fact, this child of Sicilian immigrants spent many youthful hours perched on the roof of his family’s steel business, where he could see trouble coming and feel protected from gangs and thugs. In 1991, when Ficalora was twelve, his father, Ignazio, was murdered for his wallet and a worthless chain around his neck. In those days, the Bushwick neighborhood was known for crime, poverty and graffiti. Ficalora, now a successful local businessman, has championed graffiti, purchasing space from local businesses and attracting artists from around the globe to tell their stories in the form of large murals here in this working class neighborhood. He sees street art as a way to redeem Bushwick and cover the horror of its past, while acknowledging the creativity that flourished here even under the worst of conditions.
The recent gentrification of Bushwick has made it the area safer, filling it with organic markets and cafes, and bringing tourists in to admire the impressive artwork on its streets. Although most are happy to live in a quieter world, without blatant prostitution, gang violence, and drug addiction on constant display, not everyone in Bushwick is happy with Ficarola’s project. Some feel that, once it has been legalized and curated, graffiti loses its purpose and its edge. Is it still graffiti, or should that term be reserved for art that springs up unrestrained and illegal? Some resent the tour guides who collect money for knowing where the “good stuff” is and the intrusion of people who can’t possibly understand what they have been through as a community. The truth is that are there are voices on the streets of Bushwick, both local and international, that deserve to be heard. They also deserve respect. This is the first of a series of posts that will bring you just a few of those stories, with a little background about the artists and links so that you can find out more.
What has this youth seen and how does it shape his vision of the world? This fetching piece on Wyckoff Street is the work of Iranian brothers Icy and Sot, born in Tabriz but now based in Brooklyn. Born in 1985 and 1991, the duo has painted and exhibited in cities all over the world, tackling subjects such as war, human rights, hope and despair. Their works resound in the resilient community of Bushwick. The beautiful abstract below Icy and Sot’s piece is by New Yorker Col Wallnuts. You can see another view of it in the next picture. I wish I had a better shot of it, as it is ravishing in its own right.
Around the corner of the building lies this arrested peace sign by world renowned German artist Case MaClaim. Case is the alias of Andreas von Chrzanowski, born in 1979 in Thüringen, East Germany. He began painting in 1995, a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He and his crew paint photorealistic images on backgrounds built up with wood and cardboard. This piece illustrates the choices inherent in conflict. Will the upper hand realize itself as a fist or proclaim peace? What is the motivation behind the hand grabbing hold–to support peace, to tear it down or to ward off a blow from a fist?
Bushwick sent six firefighters to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. None of them returned. This memorial is by New York artist Hunt Rodriguez and utilizes ashes collected at the bombing site. Rodriguez specializes in artistic depictions of resilience, portraying survivors of terrorism, abuse and social injustice.
James Reka, known as RekaOne, grew up in Melbourne, Australia and is now based in Berlin. His fantastic surrealism emphasizes clean lines and creates mythological creatures that are part human, part animal, such as this tough looking character that looks out on the street. He honed his art on the run in alleys and on trains in Melbourne, where his talent and unique vision became inspiring. As a result he now paints many legal pieces, both indoor and outdoor, which makes his mother happy.
Australia is a land where the Dreamtime is never far away, and RekaOne’s art teems with echoes of native Australia, with its fascination for anthropomorphizing nature, as well as cartoons and pop art. His work is easy to recognize, filled with sensual lines and brilliant colors. Below a super grasshopper is poised on the side of a building, waiting to be spotted and admired.
Lexi Bella is an artist residing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A winner of several major street art competitions and the 2012 American ArtBattles Champion, Lexi explores the meaning of beauty and sexuality as portrayed in pop culture. Her work is meant to seduce the eye, producing strong and often unnerving reactions which dance from attraction to revulsion and back again. Most of her subjects are women, many decidedly sultry.
What attracts us to this face? Is it her long, curling hair, voluptuous lips or bedroom eyes? Maybe it is something on the edge of consciousness, such as the the implied warrior princess persona or the unmistakably phallic amethyst crystals over her shoulder. Does she appear vacuous or vulgar? Our reactions say more about us and what we find appealing than they do about her. She remains unexplained and aloof and we realize we’ve been judging a book by its cover.
Wandering aimlessly through Bushwick is a pleasure that rewards the adventurous. The Bushwick Collective is centered roughly on the intersection of Troutman Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. If you have the chance, take the L train to Jefferson Street in Brooklyn, open your eyes and take a walk. The delight that comes up with every turn, the excitement of discovering something beautiful and unique is momentous. Realizing this synchronicity all around you is stunning and requires no tour guide and no cash.
Want to know more about Bushwick?
You can read about the neighborhood itself on wikipedia.
You can read about Ficalora and his transformative work here.
Read more about the controversy over legal graffiti and tourism here.