Tour of one heavily tattooed N.Y. neighborhood
She pointed to a doorway across Bogart Street crowned by two sets of bubblelike white teeth and pink gums. It's the work of graffiti artist Sweet Toof. To the left of the doorway was a life-size poster of a woman in a black cloak. The brick wall is alive with stickers, stencils, spray-painted illustrations, and graffiti tags.
Izzy and her fellow guide, Mar, were leading our international group of 23 through the gritty yet vibrant streets of Brooklyn's Bushwick section, the choicest canvas for graffiti and street art in New York. Ours was one of several New York tours offered by Free Tours by Foot, which specializes in offbeat tours in cities nationwide.
Not long ago, Mar told us, Bushwick was a neglected, desolate remnant of a once-thriving Brooklyn neighborhood. But street artists had long gravitated here, drawn by the ample industrial wall space, a natural canvas for the outdoor artists' work. Then, as nearby Williamsburg gentrified, other aspiring artists started moving into Bushwick.
Graffiti, of course, is illegal unless you have permission to use a surface. As we navigated the streets, we learned what's legal and what isn't. We followed Izzy and Mar to Boerum Street, lined on one side by brick warehouse walls and across the street by the metal fence of United Transit Mix Inc. This is as bleakly urban as it gets. On the warehouse side, stretching the entire length of the street, is one complicated piece after another, a riot of colors and shapes, figures and words. In each piece there's a message.
Across the street, the fence is lined with writers' tags, or signatures, and with throw-ups, simple quick drawings that also identify the artists. Earlier, Izzy had pointed out a tag that read "Cartoon Bacon."
"A tag can be a way for an artist to get his name out," she said. "He's spreading his name everywhere. People ask, 'Who's Cartoon Bacon?' " When Cartoon Bacon does a piece somewhere, it will be highly noticed.
Back on Boerum Street, Mar stood in front of a piece by an artist called Cod. He explained that Cod and his crew would work out the details of the design beforehand and then execute the piece at night in a matter of hours. Cod's tag prominently caps the work, which also includes the tags of his crew. This piece is in the "wild style" of interlocking letters and arrows. Other styles include bubble style, with large, rounded letters; stencils that can be done in the artist's studio and then spray-painted quickly against a wall; and stickers, which the artist can mass-produce and then slap onto a surface.
Nearby, an artist's tag is clearly visible near the top of a factory tower. A tag in a hard-to-reach spot is said to be in heaven, Mar said, noting that the artist taking risks can gain respect from fellow artists. If the work stays in its heavenly spot for at least five years, it becomes a landmark.
At first, looking at these streets can be a bit frightening, especially given graffiti's connections to gang activity. But where gangs mark territory, artists present a more positive message. "Graffiti artists are like scribes leaving a message for their community," Mar said. It can be a celebration of life or something as simple as the tag "Cornbread Loves Cynthia" - written by one of the first true graffitti artists, also known as Darryl McCray, in Philadelphia in 1967.
We left the neighborhood near the grocery for the long walk to the Bushwick Collective. This was the brainchild of Bushwick native Joseph Ficalora, who wanted to channel the positive energy that goes into graffiti and lessen the need for illegal expression. He got building owners to offer wall space and then invited street artists from across the world to use Bushwick as a canvas.
Today, block by block, life is coming back to Bushwick, driven by the art on the walls. It brings people to the neighborhood who may then stay a while and eat lunch or have a coffee. Stores serving the artistic community pop up, and the whole community starts to rebuild.
Meanwhile, visitors learn, as Izzy said, that graffiti isn't "just a tag on the wall. It means something different than vandalism."
After all, she said, "If it makes you smile, it can't be bad."