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In Bushwick, Street Art Comes with a Copious Side of Advertising Billboards

A large painted billboard on Wyckoff Avenue amid the Bushwick Collective murals. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted otherwise)
A large Converse billboard on Wyckoff Avenue amid the Bushwick Collective murals. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted )

The latest additions to the Bushwick Collective, the street art project founded and curated by Joe Ficalora around the intersection of Troutman Street and St Nicholas Avenue in Brooklyn, are a number of big, garish billboards. Since artists began transforming warehouse walls in the area with large-scale murals three years ago, there has been remarkably little infringement by the type of advertisements and hand-painted billboards that have overtaken many popular street art spots in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. But in recent weeks, as Bushwick Daily has pointed out, advertisements have begun appearing on the Bushwick Collective blocks, some of them installed directly atop existing murals.

The displacement of art by ads seems sadly inevitable, especially considering the economic factors for building owners in the area. One local landlord was offered $24,000 to rent one of his building walls on Wyckoff Avenue for one year, while the performance space House of Yes opted to lease one of the walls of its new space to Colossal rather than donate the space to Ficalora for a mural. Its building at 2 Wyckoff Avenue now sports an enormous advertisement for Converse sneakers. Meanwhile, at the intersection of Troutman and St Nicholas, murals by Joe Iurato, Jim Avignon, and others now share the streetscape with a four-story-tall Coors billboard. As the Bushwick Collective murals become an increasingly popular tourist destination, complete with Yelp reviews, Foursquare reviews, and walking tours, the incursion of commercial billboards seems poised to become more pronounced.

Hyperallergic reached out to some authorities in the field, from artists and curators to critics and gallerists, to ask them about the influx of billboards in spaces known for street art. (We contacted Ficalora for comment but received no response.)

A Sprite billboard on Wyckoff Avenue amid the Bushwick Collective murals.
A Sprite billboard on Wyckoff Avenue amid the Bushwick Collective murals.

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Alison Buxton, co-director of Ad Hoc Art and co-organizer of the Welling Court Mural Project:

It’s like the trains in the 1970s and ’80s. Graffiti was all over them. Now you see full train advertising wraps.

Ultimately, more regulation of billboards should be considered, like the state of Vermont’s no billboard policy. Obviously no billboards in the city would not be possible in the near future as there is too much money in that industry for it to close completely. However, it would be great if the city mandated that every billboard company had to donate each board, for one month, to a local artist, each year. Talk about a boost to local arts and culture! But that would be our government supporting arts and culture, which is unfortunately not our country at the moment. If New York wants to preserve the many things that make it full of creative life around the clock, they should regulate the billboard companies in some way shape or form, be it by proximity to other boards, saturation of areas, etc.

Welling Court is not having problems with advertising agencies. At least, not yet. We are loosing spots due to the demolition of old manufacturing spaces and the building of luxury apartment high-rises. This next year will be interesting. We might be loosing several spots, but we were recently given two small buildings. Who knows, only time and developers’ wallets will tell.

Detail of a mural at the Welling Court Mural Project.
Detail of a mural at the Welling Court Mural Project.

Robin Grearson, writer and Hyperallergic contributor (who has written previously about the Bushwick Collective murals) :

The mural project in Bushwick is helping Bushwick become a tourist attraction, and while that benefits landlords and the local hospitality-oriented businesses, murals do not necessarily support sustainability of the neighborhood, because rents in more desirable areas are higher. Collective mural projects are problematic because international artists fly in and fly out but don’t really have an opportunity to consider what kind of social impact the project overall is having on the community where they are working. Also, the rents are going up not just for the local residents in Bushwick but also for the local industrial renters who are struggling to hang on to small warehouses and manufacturing facilities. These buildings are suddenly in demand for other uses and industry is being priced out (which is why House of Yes had to move, for instance). So there is an erosion of industrial space happening (despite much of Bushwick being industrially zoned), and one way that industry and other non-consumer-facing businesses combat that is through the supplemental income they earn by allowing billboards on their walls. This puts money directly into the hands of Bushwick’s employers, and so while billboards might be unsightly, they contribute in some way to the local economy. This does not entirely mitigate gentrification (and is a sign of it), but it’s another of the complex layers to consider.

Yes, it is also taking away “art walls.” But why do artists need to be collected into one project in a single area? We’re talking about urban art that has historically been a wild and free and democratic form that makes use of space wherever it exists (permission or not). And with permission walls that are outside of collectives, the co-creation of work evolves from neighbor-artists working with neighbor-business owners in ways that don’t accelerate gentrification and can strengthen communities. Yes, I think the billboards are ugly and that whoever has been connecting the billboard companies to the property owners does not realize they could have insisted on more interesting advertising for residential areas than imposing so many liquor ads on a neighborhood. But let’s not kid ourselves, street art in collective projects is also advertising — for artists, for paint sponsors, for properties. Plenty of jobs originate from having a wall there. This is not just about neighborhood beautification. Bushwick Collective’s block party was sponsored by a prominent real-estate company, for instance. I sincerely wish artists were paid appropriately for their efforts here, because unpaid artists and local renters look like the only ones losing.

About a year ago I talked about this with a Bushwick-based artist who is also an advertising professional. He explained to me that it’s actually the murals that are paving the way for the billboards. I mean, if you have walls with nothing on them and the billboards showed up, no one would be looking at them. Now, they blend into their environment. There’s something very strange to me about someone planting a garden and then complaining when it grows.

A Bushwick Collective mural by Joe Iurato at Troutman Street and St Nicholas Avenue with a large Coors billboard in the background. (photo by Joe Iurato, courtesy the artist)
A Bushwick Collective mural by Joe Iurato at Troutman Street and St Nicholas Avenue with a large Coors billboard in the background. (photo by Joe Iurato, courtesy the artist)

Joe Iurato, a street artist who has made two murals for the Bushwick Collective:

I painted my first piece on the corner of Troutman and St Nicholas about 4 years ago, in the early stages of the Bushwick Collective. When I reflect on what Joe Ficalora and I talked about that day, about what he wanted to achieve with the landscape, there’s no doubt he’s done that. There’s hardly a drab gray spot to be found. The walls are teeming with color, vibrance, and personality. In my opinion he’s done something wonderful for the local community and tourists alike. But as the area gains more and more attention, it draws more consistent traffic. It has become a “must-see” destination in NYC — and sadly, that’s become part of the problem.

One of the most effective forms of advertising today is social media. That’s true for emerging artists and mega corporations alike. And a billboard in an area saturated with public art is probably going to reach more people than a billboard on a busy highway. Nobody is throwing on the brakes in the middle of the BQE to take a picture of a Coors Lite ad. But in Bushwick, that same ad gets foot traffic and a ton of “coincidental” social media play. It’s like professional photo-bombing.

It’s a shame to see. They have enough money to muscle their way in there, and if the trend keeps up the charm of the Collective will be lost. Unfortunately, I think Joe’s fight for his walls and community will be an uphill battle for as long as the art remains.

Spaces for billboard advertisements at the Bushwick Collective (photo by @christackett/Instagram)
Spaces for billboard advertisements at the Bushwick Collective (photo by @christackett/Instagram)

RJ Rushmore, curator, blogger (and Hyperallergic contributor), and social media and marketing manager at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program:

Think about where billboards are; the best place to put a billboard is where people are already going to be looking. And these are walls that no one was paying attention to three or four years ago. It’s a block where people’s eyeballs are, it’s a block where people are already deciding, “I wanna go here and take photos and look at things.” It’s like going to Times Square. To me the answer seems to be, why don’t we increase the enforcement and regulation of billboards? You can’t do anything about this at the moment, other than shame them. But at the end of the day, even if you’re a little bit shamed, $20,000 still feels pretty good.

What makes me nervous is things like the 5Pointz lawsuit, where you’ve got artists saying, “Visual Artists Rights Act, you destroyed my mural!” If that becomes the norm, if Sheryo and the Yok, whose mural got covered up by a piece of steel or aluminum to prep it to turn it into a billboard, if they say, “ah, Visual Artists Rights Act, you stepped on my moral rights,” then no one is going to give anyone a wall. If the lawsuit becomes the norm, no property owner in their right mind — billboard offer or not — is going to give anyone a mural. To me, that’s the scary solution. You’re going to ruin it for the rest of us.

I think it comes down to regulation and saying: “Just because the space is attractive to you, advertisers, doesn’t mean that we want you there. It’s detrimental to us.” That space is attractive exactly because it’s not covered in billboards. And it’s a funny thing: each individual billboard company or billboard client isn’t thinking, “I’m ruining the neighborhood,” because each individual billboard doesn’t ruin the aesthetic of the neighborhood, each individual billboard just exploits the coolness of it. But when you have 10 billboards, or three massive billboards, now it’s not what you bought into in the first place. How do you say to a company, “don’t do that because you’ll ruin it”?

You can’t self-regulate that, its has to be government-enforced regulation about what we want in public space. This isn’t how I generally advocate for how mural regulation laws should go, but if, for example, you had to go the local community board meeting to pitch your billboard and pitch your mural, yes, some murals that really should go up probably wouldn’t go up, but I guarantee you no billboards would go up.

Keith Schweitzer, co-founder/director of the Lodge Gallery, director of public art at Fourth Arts Block, creative director of the Vazquez:

A custom-painted sign by TrustoCorp
A custom-painted sign by TrustoCorp (click to enlarge)

There is, from what I see, an explosion of advertising in Brooklyn neighborhoods that have a high concentration of artist studios within them, particularly along the L subway line.

It’s a real problem, and it’s going to get worse. Property owners that I’ve talked to are increasingly being approached by advertising companies and being offered large monthly sums to host, in many cases, multiple advertising sites on their building exterior.

At the core of the problem are two things: lazy assumptions being made and a major disconnect to the respective communities. The advertisers assume that, since the murals get attention, then their adverts will too. But then they place Coach handbag billboards along Bogart Street and the like, which proves to me that they haven’t taken the time to do even the smallest amount of groundwork. Artists who are talking about studio affordability are not buying Coach or Perrier.

In my role as director of public art at Fourth Arts Block, I work with a variety of property owners and parks to produce our program, and it all begins with an understanding of the community. Anything in public is a conversation and the community must be part of that conversation. What these advertisers are doing isn’t a conversation, it’s a lecture to an unwilling audience.

The solution to much of this is so simple. If these brands want to win the hearts of or loyalty from the communities they are addressing, and these communities have high concentrations of artists, why not simply initiate and support a public art program, sponsored by that brand? It would be more effective, from their point of view, and more welcomed, from the community point of view. If they don’t know how to do this, tell them to call me.

I love things like New York Street Advertisement Takeover that reclaim these advertisement-polluted sites for the public. But it can be so much better if we just behave better and have these conversations from the start. Want brand loyalty? Show us that you’re loyal to us, too, by supporting what we do. Placing advertisements on our daily walls is like littering, or, more accurately, an injection of printed advertising in our life’s magazine with pages that we just can’t turn.

A mural by Escif as part of the MURAL Festival in Montreal
A mural by Escif as part of the MURAL Festival in Montreal

Jordan Seiler, artist and director of the Public Ad Campaign:

It has nothing to do with street art per se but rather the demographic that is attracted to street art. The boon in foot traffic and the particular individuals who make up that traffic has caught the eye of outdoor advertisers and their profiteering business model, which takes advantage of our mental capacity by filling it with unwanted commercial messages. As far as I’m concerned it is one of the lowest forms of money-making schemes around as it profits off the space inside our heads without our consent or anything in return of value.

This incredibly sad situation is why advertising and public space simply do not mix. I know Anya [Sapozhnikova, one of the founders of the House of Yes] through friends and she is a nice woman. Selling the wall of her building at the expense of the rest of us who must endure that advertisement while she profits from it is not her fault. It is in fact our own faults for not realizing the incompatibility of this type of paid media with the public’s interest. Given that she can profit from her wall, we cannot ask her to have a herculean consciousness while everyone around her takes the money. The only way to prevent a situation like this is to ban outdoor advertising in public space and take away the incentive and the difficult decision many landlords face between profiting from their walls or offering them to the communities in which they own property.

I am not surprised by this development as it has been coming down the pipes for a while now and yet I am still deeply saddened.

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