I recently returned from a week long trip to New York City, and while we were there, we did a tour of street art in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. The Bushwick Collective is a group of artists who bid to do artwork on a specific space and they receive the materials (spray paint, ladders, etc.) to do the murals. Some of the artwork is collaborative between two or more artists, but most is solo work. The Bushwick Collective was the brainchild of Joseph Ficalora whose father was stabbed to death here in 1991. You can read his story here. He wanted to erase the pain of his terrible childhood one mural at a time.

He began the project in 2011, and it has truly revitalized Bushwick. The day we were there was an “open studio” day with artists all over selling work out of trucks or on the sidewalk. As Michael B. from Chicago put it in a Yelp review:

This is raw urban gentrification in progress. No trust fund hipsters here.  Just block by block rebirth of a new, progressive community using artistic expression and tolerance as a draw.

New York has always been a Mecca for urban graffiti and mural artists and the Bushwick Collective shines a light on the site of the most talented urban artists out there. The murals change so go enjoy them and support the local merchants and community.

Each block showcases fabulous works. There are great bistros, music venues and cafes emerging. A great couple of hours exploring one of New York’s emerging neighborhoods.

But not everyone agrees. One piece of artwork, a mural spanning about a third of a block, bore the tag “F** Bushwick Collective” and a reply “I agree” written over the artist’s work, referring to dislike for the Bushwick Collective.[1]  Some graffiti artists object to the idea that street art should be orderly, subsidized, commissioned. They believe that the true street artists do so against the wishes of society, not to gentrify neighborhoods or to give dangerous neighborhoods tourist foot traffic that creates a lifeline to local businesses. To some, street art must critique and stand apart from institutions and governments. It can’t collude with them. It has to be raw and illicit to matter.

Some local businesses have hired street artists to paint murals to advertise for their restaurants or stores, mimicking a graffiti style, commercializing these efforts to fit in with the vibe of the neighborhood while supporting artists financially and benefiting their businesses. The artwork is extremely high quality. You can see photos of it here, here, and follow them on instagram at @thebushwickcollective.

According to Wikipedia, graffiti is writing or drawings that are scribbled, scratched or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view. Graffiti has existed since ancient times. [2] In most countries, defacing private property without permission is a punishable crime; some countries also punish defacement of public property.

Controversies that surround graffiti continue to create disagreement among city officials, law enforcement, and writers who wish to display and appreciate work in public locations. There are many different types and styles of graffiti; it is a rapidly developing art form whose value is highly contested and reviled by many authorities while also subject to protection, sometimes within the same jurisdiction. (Wikipedia)

Image result for graffiti singaporeWhen we moved to Singapore, our tour guide showed us *SCAPE, a local skate park the government set aside for graffiti. Singapore is a very clean, orderly country that has a day of reflection and chest-beating when a train is two minutes late. It’s similar in size and population to Manhattan. In 1993, an American teen, Michael Fay, made headlines when he was arrested for vandalizing cars and public property with graffiti. He was imprisoned for 4 months, fined, and sentenced to caning, 6 lashes with a cane (later reduced to 4). Human rights groups objected to the caning, but Singapore continues to use caning to punish crime. In 2015, two Germans were sentenced to 9 months and 3 strokes with a cane for graffiti damage done to a train and nearby fence that cost the government $1M to remove.

Even in Singapore, there are officially mixed feelings about the value of graffiti. The city has sponsored some street art, but only on its own terms. You can see examples and locations here.

Some characteristics of graffiti:

  • temporary
  • illicit, not endorsed
  • anonymity of the artist to be able to avoid being caught
  • personal expression
  • critical of corporations, governments or society, a wake up call

But not all graffiti works this way. Some artists are simply artists. Some have created artwork to sell. Some have created designs for corporations. Some, like the Bushwick Collective, are not anonymous and their work is not in the shadows.

I couldn’t help but think of the bloggernacle as I thought about the role of graffiti in society. Blogging is certainly about self-expression, and often dissent or a wake-up call to an issue, and as a medium, it has a temporary feel. In a group blog, the most recent writing takes the space; bloggers try not to hide someone else’s work with their own, courteously giving others’ posts their due time. There’s a certain code of behavior among writers, as with taggers. There are also blogs, podcasts, and video series that are sanctioned by the church. One recent example is 3 Mormons, a series of church-subsidized videos in which three students talk about controversies, share humorous stories, and also share fluff pieces on things like dating. Their attempts are firmly pro-church, as you would expect given their subsidy, but of course you get higher production values as a result. [3] Maybe they are the Bushwick Collective.

It seems to me that graffiti and the bloggernacle are a cultural byproduct of Mormonism, something that you can’t sanction and control, that will reform elsewhere if you do. I am reminded of this passage from Jonathan Holden’s poem “Liberace”:

It would have been

trampled underground, but

like a drop of mercury, it was

too slippery. Stamped on,

it would divide, squirt away

and gather somewhere else, it was

insoluble, it had nowhere to go.

The bloggernacle exists as a way to evaluate the things we hear and the cultural hallmarks of our shared faith without the scrutiny and control of official channels like church meetings. Like graffiti, not everyone agrees on what is valid self expression for this medium. There are those who would only embrace the artists who anonymously sneak in at night and scrawl profanity, the bolder the better. There are those who would de-fang dissent, turning every point of pain into a defense of institutional intentions. Where is the sweet spot in all this? It varies from person to person.

Like porn, I know it when I see it. [4]

  • Do you think graffiti is valuable or not? Why?
  • Do you think those same reasons apply to the bloggernacle?
  • Where do you think the sweet spot is between self expression, provocation, and defacement / vandalism? If it’s all about intentions, how can you tell the difference merely from the artistic product?


[1] In a marker, too. This was a low effort scrawl. They didn’t even spell the profanity correctly, perhaps intentionally omitting the C. Then again, unlike Bushwick Collective, they had to pay for and bring their own materials.

[2] One example is the mirror wall in the Sigiriya site in Sri Lanka, another place I’ve been. It’s a royal dwelling built into giant boulders. The wall was built 1600 years ago and covered in so much high quality beeswax that you can see your reflection in it. There’s an adjacent stone room with paintings of some of the king’s favorite wives from his harem–it’s like a Russ Meyer film in that room. Some of the graffiti is about the charms of these topless women. What’s unique is that the graffiti is from the upper class of society in this case, the wealthy privileged few with access to the king’s fortress. One wrote:

The girl with the golden skin enticed the mind and eyes
Ladies like you make men pour out their hearts
And you also have thrilled the body
Making it stiffen with desire

[3] I think their hearts are in the right place, but they feel very kid-splainy to me. Half the time I want to say “Oh, honey. That’s adorable that you think so, but . . . ”

[4] And a Victoria’s Secret billboard is not porn, dummies.