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A Tale of Two Street Mural Projects

One of the Welling Court murals (all Welling Court images via Facebook)
A wall piece by Ryan Seslow that was created for the Welling Court murals, photo by Ryan Seslow (all Welling Court images via Facebook)

First it was a faraway hum. Ad Hoc Art returned to Welling Court, Queens, this year. Then it became like drums, still far away, but coming closer, rhythmic. Artists covered 100 walls this year alone. Then hundreds of feet joining drums and percussion and marching in rhythm were nearly upon me in time for the chorus: Support Welling Court Mural Project! Support artists! Don’t let this be the last year! 

Olek in front of the Welling Court collaboration between  her and Alice Mizrachi
Olek in front of the Welling Court collaboration between her and Alice Mizrachi taken by Marcy Marce (click to enlarge)

What was creating all the noise that finally reached my ears? Ad Hoc Art was in the final hours of its crowdfunding campaign for the Welling Court Mural Project, which brings street artists into the Queens neighborhood of Welling Court to beautify the neighborhood by painting murals The campaign, which ended Monday, July 1, at midnight EDT, was a “flexible funding” one, which means the group received all the donations, whether the goal was reached or not.

I’d heard and read about the project, and I’d seen people Instagram themselves in front of noteworthy collaborations such as one between Olek and Alice Mizrachi. Then, last week, in a final push, artists and street-art-community supporters reached out to their networks daily about the Indiegogo campaign — on Facebook, on blogs, friends asking friends to make a contribution to Ad Hoc’s request for $19,000 in funding. Media like Time Out New York covered the project. Collectively, these voices made a lot of noise in the final hours, and yet donations did not pour in and the goal was not reached. The total raised was $2,430.

Still, I believe the campaign succeeded, despite falling far short of its financial goals. Ad Hoc raised awareness about the project and, more important, showcased the commitment of the artists to it. It was the multitude of voices that drew my attention and spurred me to contact co-curator Garrison Buxton and ask: why support this project? (The Indiegogo campaign ended, but other fundraising efforts will follow.) He suggested a few reasons.

Perhaps because Welling Court is a place where the artists’ contributions are a form of social activism, that is helping a neighborhood that’ has been working to save itself and return from the brink of urban desolation. Maybe because the neighbors and visitors hang out and shoot the breeze and offer the artists water or mango slices or whatever they have, to say thank you, and; those exchanges are how a community emerges from a group of strangers. Maybe because Welling Court is inaccessible by train and therefore not attractive enough to developers to trigger the kind of steep acceleration in the gentrification cycle that’s occurring in nearby Bushwick.

And speaking of Bushwick, many of the artists who contributed their time and money to Welling Court (all that beautiful paint, it turns out, does not come free), have also donated their labor to creating murals in a corner of the Brooklyn neighborhood. The curated project, called the Bushwick Collective, is being described as an outdoor art gallery, and the artists likely saw the works they created around Troutman Street as gestures of cultural and civic pride in the working-class/artist hybrid community Bushwick has become. But growing pains are everywhere; the transition into the latest trendy and unaffordable enclave has more than begun. A sharply decreasing supply of affordable apartments and studio spaces is causing hardships for both working-class families and artists who moved into the area just a decade ago. Rents, which typically decline early in the year, saw a 20 percent jump this past February. Artists are seeking solutions to find ways to stay, but significant commercial development is inevitable.

A Bushwick Collective mural by artist Zimad (all Bushwick Collective photos via Facebook)
A Bushwick Collective mural by Zimad (all Bushwick Collective photos via Facebook)

The difference between the mural projects at Welling Court and Bushwick is not necessarily in the artists or the artworks, though; it’s in the function of the art within the context of the space. In Welling Court, artists come together annually to help beautify a community and scrub it clean of the stains of blight. While they’re doing this, the neighborhood throws a party to celebrate the effort. Donations will cover project expenses and reimburse artists, first for materials and then perhaps their time.

Beau Stanton working on his Bushwick Collective mural
Beau Stanton working on his Bushwick Collective mural (click to enlarge)

In Bushwick, however, the dramatic visual transformation effected by the sudden appearance of dozens of new murals within a tiny sliver of a larger neighborhood brings to mind the real-estate adage: location, location, location. Artists have effectively staged entire blocks of commercial properties that are now marketable as upscale business spaces located in the best area of the hottest new neighborhood. (You know, the spot where all the murals are!) Here, too, artists volunteered time, expertise, and materials to beautify a community. And significant rewards inevitably accrue — not to the artists, but to property owners and the incoming tenants who legitimize their businesses by locating them in the creative community.

At a recent Bushwick block party ostensibly held to celebrate the art and the community, no one was ringing a bell, beating a drum, or otherwise making any noise about reimbursing artists for materials or helping to compensate them for their labor. And yet there was commerce — a lot of commerce, including the opening of the area’s newest café, whose lush décor complete with cascading water features is a far cry from its neighbor, the homegrown Los Tres Hermanos tortilleria, where I ate lunch for $4 the other day. AP Café’s owners have already bragged about their prime location on New York magazine’s Bedford and Bowery blog. Co-owner Wes Mapes offered a comment that was simultaneously defensive and naïve about gentrification:

“When you think of people moving into a new neighborhood, you think of them displacing [people] or changing the dynamic. … But it’s not like this was a residential block or anything.”

Adrian Sonni working on his Bushwick Collective mural
Adrian Sonni working on his Bushwick Collective mural

Last year, local street artists were happy simply for a chance to paint outside legally — even better if the wall was in their own community. This year, some are less excited to see their unpaid work speeding the commercial development of real estate. Bushwick itself has become a brand, one that will price them out of their own homes and studios sooner rather than later. Street artist gilf!, who has participated in both mural projects but doesn’t see herself painting new walls in Bushwick anytime soon, summed up her frustration colorfully: “I don’t want to be the asshole who gentrifies myself out of the neighborhood I helped create.”

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