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Bagels, Burgers, and the Branding of Bushwick

Taking cash from McDonald’s to send artists to Europe to paint billboards, then leveraging those billboards to market the brand seems like a win to a businessman, less so to the artists.

Screenshot of a new Dutch campaign for McDonald’s, from TBWA\Neboko (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

Yes, graffiti and hip-hop and bagels are authentic New York. And sure, McDonald’s is also a part of New York … though no more or less than it’s part of every other big city. If McDonald’s wants to sell bagels in the Netherlands as if McDonald’s bagels are a New York thing — uh, fine. America’s with you. But for McDonald’s to sell bagelburgers in the Netherlands by tossing old-school graffiti and hip-hop and gentrified Bushwick and bagel-burgers into a blender, hoping to churn out the next baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet — uhhhh … we … uh … no. We have to take a stand. It’s 2017, so chew on this while you’re brunching, Bushwick: it’s the Bushwick Collective who’s bottled up your Bushwick vibe, added a soundtrack, and shipped it off to the Netherlands, all for the New York Bagel Supreme.

As Adweek’s Gabriel Beltrone  recently reported, “the fast-food giant flew in a half-dozen street artists from the Brooklyn-based mural project Bushwick Collective, and is paying them to paint stylized versions of the sandwich on a series of billboards. McDonald’s is filming all this, and will turn it into TV ads.”

A billboard posted over a mural by the Bushwick Collective (2015)

It’s clear that marketers were hoping to capture some of that sweet, sweet graffiti flavor to spread on their bagels. People I spoke to were unimpressed with the four-minute documentary-style video (which was removed, possibly over rights issues —more on that below). Bucky Turco, who founded long-running (but now dormant) arts and culture site ANIMAL, has been a collector and followed graffiti for years; he even hosted a GHOST show in 2003. Turco told Hyperallergic: “The art is good; the campaign is horrible and an abomination. It also sucks that we live in a time where graffiti artists as good as GHOST and GIZ even have to consider doing commissioned work for the nation’s top cheeseburger maker. Maybe this will inspire their fans to buy more work; Instagram love doesn’t pay rent.”

People may buy more bagels in the Netherlands after the campaign, but graffiti and street-art fans are rolling their eyes, not seeing McDonald’s as edgy for the spots. A jingle about flavor is still advertorial at three minutes long, and a faux-vandalized billboard presents graffiti’s style but not its context. McDonald’s is consistent, corporate, and cheap, and so far, even with graffiti and hip-hop, the brand remains well within the margins of this well-defined space. As Beltrone points out, McDonald’s even adds cringey disclaimers to its own video: “All Bushwick murals are painted with permission of the owners. McDonald’s loves street art when done legally.”

The mini-doc introduces the six (male!) artists — Strider, Poem One, Sipros, Such, Ghost, Giz — as they open their sketchbooks, or draw, or paint a wall. (Note: on March 12, the music video and short film were removed from the Internet. Vandalog reported that several artists had not granted the Collective permission to use their work for an ad campaign and were upset to hear about that happening. Vandalog notes that some of the work featured was not even “Bushwick Collective” work. The Collective’s founder, Joseph Ficalora may now be facing angry artists and an angry client, if he represented the work as okay to film. Some definitely wouldn’t have given consent, in particular to McDonald’s, Vandalog wrote. I sent several questions about the project to Ficalora last weekend, and as of press time, he has not replied.)

Biiboards over Tina’s Restaurant in Bushwick

In the video, Poem One shows framed pictures of trains painted more than 30 years before the Bushwick Collective was founded. These remembrances — one artist mentions Bushwick “before gentrification” — are interspersed with beauty shots of murals, as Joe Ficalora, describes his five-year-old mural project. The narration reprises a role he’s played for press before: the project is about the neighborhood; Bushwick is where he is from; this is about love of the art. Really? Then, why all the promotion? Bushwick Collective leans heavily on its claims of authenticity. It even declares its legal status as a 501(c)(3) organization on its social media pages, as if this confers certifiable purity.

Oh, please.

Purity? In street art? Okay, sure, let’s talk about authenticity, Bushwick Collective, since you brought it up. It is true that Bushwick Collective is registered with the state of New York as a not-for-profit corporation. However, Bushwick Collective Studios is also registered as a corporation. This entity was registered first, as Bushwick Collective Corp., in April 2014. It filed for non-profit status sixteen months later — possibly after some criticism? “I thought that Bushwick Collective isn’t in the ad business,” Turco said when I asked him about the McDonald’s gig. “I also never trust the motives of an entity with the word ‘collective’ in its name. It usually never is,” he explained.

What makes it collective, exactly, has always been hard to understand, because Ficalora, a non-artist, is the guy in charge and artists involved in his collective don’t seem to vote as a group, elect members, or have much say over what happens to their work — how it’s filmed or used, and when it’s destroyed.

A wall piece by Anthony Lister

It’s not just ownership of the artwork that’s confusing, it’s how the Collective fits into the neighborhood that even locals don’t understand. From the beginning, many assumed Bushwick Collective was affiliated with Arts in Bushwick, because it produced events during that group’s weekend-long festival, Bushwick Open Studios. Bushwick Collective brought in food trucks and sold T-shirts and beer to another entity’s crowds. A small, self-funded, entirely separate organization did much of the work creating free events to bring the community together, while the annual block party attracted tourists, leaned on corporate sponsors, and grew into a professionally produced nightmare for many artists. Eventually Arts in Bushwick gave up the weekend entirely, in part to separate itself from the frat-party atmosphere cultivated by the Collective.

Just before 2015’s Bushwick Open Studios, billboards began to be installed around the neighborhood, which comprises adjacent residential and industrial areas. One was even nailed right on top of a mural.  Suddenly, there were billboards everywhere, and to many, this was curious and surprising. I know a guy in advertising who called it out to me right away: “Of course you need murals,” he said. “They help the advertising blend in. Otherwise — just ugly billboards!”

Bushwick Daily took up the issue at the time and interviewed Ficalora, who, like many others, was unhappy with the billboards. Why was he unhappy? As Bushwick Daily noted, 16,000 people came to the Bushwick Collective Block Party that June.  (Um … well … it was also Bushwick Open Studios, but ….) Did crowds come “for billboards or for street art?” Ficalora asked, adding, “their Instagram photos included these billboards as well even though the building owners didn’t want to participate or support The Collective.”

The billboards didn’t support … What!?

A random advertising sticker in the neighborhood

In the project’s early years, most artists weren’t paid anything for their work. They donated their time and supplied their own paint. The walls belonged to someone else, and the block-party was piggy-backing on, while not supporting another organization’s event. But according to Ficalora, it’s billboard companies who should support the Collective, because the murals boosted the exposure that the ads received? It’s tough to follow the logic.

For all my critique — and I have never been a fan of the way the project is run —Bushwick Collective offered some artists free walls, a luxury when legal walls are hard to come by. It’s true: exposure can sometimes lead to other work, can help build a reputation. The attention economy exists. For an artist, building a following and spending time in New York around other artists can be important. But the capitalist economy still sits there on top of the attention economy, and this is the system many street artists overlook in their gratitude for walls. Wherever artists are invited to paint “for exposure” only, there is usually some suggestions that they are giving a gift to the community, doing a good deed. But is that true? If rents are going up and businesses are opening wherever murals appear, an artist should ask: Why am I working for attention, while everyone around me is working for money?

The tour groups and hotel rooms and new restaurants and even the server gigs — an entire economy is springing to life in Bushwick, in part because Ficalora and his sponsors have used murals to birth a tourist destination. The art makes this hub appear that it’s growing out of what was already there, but really, this new ecosystem is being retrofitted into the old — the same way billboard companies buy space around murals. That’s how real estate-driven gentrification works.  So why not get paid?

If we all, artists, critics and cultural producers, started treating work as work, it would become obvious to artists whether they are helping communities, or are instead in the real-estate business.

If it’s not cool to the Collective that billboard companies leverage artwork for exposure, it would be equally uncool for artwork to leverage authenticity to attract a whole new residential demographic — but that’s what’s happened in Bushwick. If we think of the Collective as a neighborhood developer, then taking cash from McDonald’s to send artists to Europe to paint billboards, then leveraging those billboards to market the brand seems like a win — to a businessman, perhaps less so to the artists. So we can close the book now? Bushwick Collective is a brand; it develops neighborhoods using art. It gets paid. So artists, get paid.

A mural on a business available for lease in Bushwick

Is that too blunt? In this year of obfuscation, propaganda, and lies from our leaders, let’s try not to lie to each other. Life is too short. I believe Bushwick Collective exists not to improve its community but to commodify it. Bushwick is becoming Brooklyn’s Times Square for the Tinder-date crowd.

I’m not the only one who credits Joe Ficalora and his artists with commodifying Bushwick; he does it himself. Complaining about the billboards in 2015, Ficalora told Bushwick Daily, “I made this part of the neighborhood desirable and now they are cashing in on it while doing nothing for the community.”

Here let me briefly digress on the weirdness of gentrifying a neighborhood while cashing in with McDonald’s. Photographer and writer Chris Arnade has invested substantial time engaging with people at McDonald’s restaurants around the country and writing about McDonald’s-as-signifier for The Guardian. Yes, the food is cheap in cost and quality, so even with free Wifi, people who have other options aren’t hanging around Mickey D’s. Who does that leave? Arnade says McDonald’s attracts — and, significantly, does not kick out — people who are homeless, people looking for a place to get high or to be high, myriad groups who arrange social meetups there. They spend long hours in McDonald’s because they have nowhere else to be, and because they like it there.

Arnade feels strongly that McDonald’s knows who its customers are and is cool with being what he describes as “de-facto community centers and reflections of the surrounding neighborhood.” His work suggests there are interesting discussions we could have about how we find meaning and community in spaces that are both  public and private, and how McDonald’s functions as a community amenity somewhere between the two. Through this lens, McDonald’s appears to offer a real value to low-income communities — accessibility — that the constructed fabric of a neighborhood like Bushwick, focused on trendy restaurants and bars, does not.   

I thought about Bushwick when I recently read about Delmira Gonzalez and her efforts with neighbors in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights to resist gentrification-by-artwashing. Boyle Heights used to be similar to Bushwick — a large immigrant population of working-class families, close enough to a city center to be a target for developers who want the land. Neighbors there are fighting the changes that Bushwick has mostly halfheartedly fought. Small art spaces are opening, along with big-money galleries, as if all cities read from one script.

Boyle Heights, like Bushwick, suffered the same scourges of crime, drugs, gang violence. How did it come to attract big money from Beverly Hills? Ms. Gonzalez described for Link TV how “women organized to create safe passages to escort children to school … occupied known drug-dealing spots by setting up impromptu barbeque grills and serving free food,” and that “dealers, when interrupted, accepted plates of hot food before scurrying away.”

Neighbors persisted through bold, hard work for years. This sustained effort has built up a reservoir of resilience the community can tap as it fights gentrification. Under a coalition called Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), activists from groups like Defend Boyle Heights and Union de Vecinos confront what they call “the current crisis of evictions and abusive real estate practices in L.A.”

The Alliance points out that it’s not art, per se, that Boyle Heights is rejecting, noting on its website that “many artists and cultural workers in Los Angeles are sick and tired of being used in the process of gentrification and are seeking meaningful ways to refuse their participation in the cultural economy of displacement.” In other words, not every community aspires to a “Bushwick Vibe.” In fact, an art gallery recently closed in Boyle Heights, and locals consider this a win.

I wonder if Boyle Heights has a McDonald’s.

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