Often considered the “United Nations of Graffiti,” Long Island City’s 5Pointz reached peak levels of output and fanfare in what turned out to be its final years of operation, in the late 2000s and early ’10s. Art aficionados flocked from around the city and the world to see the latest works, with new pieces often actively in progress, covering every surface of the five-floor warehouse structure. Centrally located only a couple stops from Midtown on several train lines, its visibility set it apart from other street art projects in the city. Commuters on the 7 line caught a glimpse every day through their train windows, while MoMA PS One visitors would amble across the street to marvel at the graffiti artists’ very different take on modern art.
Of course, this Graffiti Mecca is now long gone—its murals whitewashed under cover of darkness late one November 2013 night, the building torn down in 2014 to make way for the twin luxury high-rise apartment buildings currently under construction (slated for completion in 2017). And although owner David Wolkoff made a few concessions, like promising a 60-foot wall near the towers where street artists can eventually return to work again as well as setting aside 200 affordable units out of the 1,000-plus apartments planned at the site, many find it hard to trust the man who so unceremoniously did away with an iconic art building without prior notice. Such trade-offs don’t sit well with several artists still angry about what many saw as a severe, extreme example of Western Queens’ gentrification, one that flew in the face of the desires of community members who had worked to improve it.
“Gentrification doesn’t always have to be this predatory experience that a lot of the time it is, and I put that on the developers,” says Kimyon Huggins, a street artist and event curator in Brooklyn and Queens. “They leave a very horrible taste in people’s mouths when they come in and just want to grab things up and kick people out, and triple the rent. But the travesty was that so much work that should have been protected was destroyed, that was the real loss. New York City is the real loser there.”
In some ways, the situation at 5 Pointz frames a paradox within the art community. Street art is a practice once frowned upon by the establishment as a petty act of vandalism that infamously marked up 1980s subway cars but has since come of age, and has been embraced by most as a legitimate art form. But does its accepted legitimacy dull its edge, making it complicit in the gentrification happening in so many New York neighborhoods?
“Developers are absolutely using these murals to up the price, up the rent, and make people feel safer,” says John Carr, a street artist who has worked since 1992 at several locations throughout Queens, Brooklyn,and Manhattan. “You know, they have become like a beacon for change. Like, if you see this thing happening, then ‘There goes the neighborhood.'”
Life After 5 Pointz
The New York street art scene has moved swiftly ahead in the wake of 5Pointz, though it remains to be seen whether a new location will emerge to replace it at scale. Most recently, there’s the “Top to Bottom” project, which features dozens of works by local and international artists on the outside of a Long Island City warehouse, much like 5Pointz once did. There’s also the Brooklyn Collective, around since 2012, and the even longer-running Welling Court Mural Project near the Astoria waterfront.
Garrison Buxton, a curator with the Ad Hoc Art Gallery in Brooklyn, has worked to manage Welling Court since 2009, connecting interested building owners with artists he’s worked with in the past, along with other local artists who have come onto the scene since the project’s origins. Walking around the neighborhood pointing out pieces over several blocks of the area’s crooked grid pattern, Buxton highlights the difference between this place and the monolith that was 5Pointz.
“I’m not sure how many owners are involved with this project, exactly, but it’s dozens,” he says. “If 5Pointz had been owned by 40 people, it may have been a different story. Here, if one or two building owners decide to stop participating, it wouldn’t be too big of a deal.”
Since starting the project, Buxton has overseen its growth from 40 to 150 murals, with several street artists coming together to work on new murals on June 11th for its seventh annual celebration. He chats about artists he’s worked with, such as Carr and Huggins, of course, but also others like Caleb Neelon and Sacsix, who add to the diversity of pieces and designs and continue to improve the experience of walking around a neighborhood that years ago featured several expansive, sterile blank walls around its many industrial spaces.
“We look at art as a vehicle for social interaction and community, increasing community involvement,” Buxton says. “And ultimately, those things lead to positive social change, increased quality of life for everyone. The more people you have that are active and engaged in their environments, the better their communities are.”
The gentrification tag
Perhaps the chief loss that came with the teardown of 5Pointz was a concentrated location for the general public to enjoy hundreds of such pieces they wouldn’t otherwise see, with visitors often treating it like a museum exhibition.
Its demise was an exaggerated version of a trend seen throughout the rest of the city – decades ago, a barren, dilapidated neighborhood offered a cheap place for artists to live, with a free space for them to exhibit their work.
5Pointz became a legal place for street art and graffiti in 1993, when Wolkoff began offering studio space to artists for nominal rents inside the building. The fact of the matter is that 5Pointz made the neighborhood better, more vibrant, and more desirable—it helped create the real-estate demand that eventually led to its displacement.
At the Welling Court location, Buxton says he has seen positive change within the neighborhood firsthand, and although that has gone along with some development of condos, it hasn’t reached anywhere near Long Island City levels, with the area still dominated by NYCHA’s Astoria Houses and nearby industrial facilities and small storefronts that feature most of the murals. He’s undeterred by the prospect of realtors looking into the area’s prospects.
“There’s definitely lots of apartment buildings and condos going in for sure. I mean, this whole area will be totally developed,” he says. “But gentrification has been happening in New York since its beginning. Since displacing the Native Americans, and then, whether it’s the Irish or the German or the Italian immigrants, or whatever is the wave that’s the latest to be exploited and discriminated against. So New York has been doing that all along. Art does not create anything like that.”
Regardless of the potential ramifications, these artists just want to get their work out there, to be noticed, appreciated, and understood. “Simply put, the ultimate goal is the more art everywhere, the better,” Buxton says.
Carr compares the progression of street art from its bold, youthful roots with the evolution of skateboarding—a culture that over the course of a couple decades went from an alternative, cultish lifestyle to something people were able to go pro in, with endorsement deals and cable TV appearances for the best riders.
“It’s the course of things,” he says. “It was bound to happen – I mean, some people hate it, that [street art]’s sold out, but I look at it like, everything does that. At least to a certain extent.”
Space that’s contested and communal
John Carr’s latest Welling Court piece is black and white, featuring a world-weary woman in front of a dreamy, geometric backdrop, flanked by other artists’ pieces that include a rat wearing a hoodie and a blue elephant. Proud, he takes a minute to snap a photo of his mural before having a look around at other artists’ pieces. Of course, he wants to show it off, maybe post it on Instagram, but the bigger reason for the photo session is to simply document the moment: You never quite know how long a piece will last out on the streets.
Carr acknowledges that in general, “bombers” – old-school graffiti writers who sign their names, often territorially – are respectful of work at Welling Court, although last year his work got bombed after he was assigned a spot that already had a piece on it; the original writer came back to reclaim the spot. Carr, Huggins, and other street artists seem to take this in stride though, realizing that it comes with the turf and that getting angry about it will accomplish nothing.
“If you don’t give [bombers], who do that style, equal say and equal representation, they are going to bomb over all your shit,” Huggins says. “It’s just the nature of the streets, and no one has any claim to shit on the streets. Sometimes, it’s simply on racial lines and these are minority-filled neighborhoods that are being overrun by kids from the Midwest who have no respect for the neighborhoods they’re coming into, then they do a mural. It’s very deliberate.”
Still, graffiti writers and street artists, for the most part, work alongside each other and respect one another’s pieces in places like Welling Court, where the murals appear to have improved the look of the neighborhood without contributing to an overhaul of who’s living there.
According to Carr and Huggins, the increased mainstream enjoyment of street art has, if anything, also ramped up the old-school bomber approach, sometimes as a protest to “gentrification artists” in certain parts of the city where developers hope to drive up the potential rents of an oncoming neighborhood, like Bushwick.
Carr describes a piece he’s made into a poster that he plasters on blank walls throughout developing areas of Brooklyn, near new luxury high-rises and large condos.
“It’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz dressed in a sideways Nets hat—kind of that homegirl look—and she’s giving that look like, ‘We’re not in Brooklyn anymore.’ It’s a simple image that people like. It usually doesn’t get vandalized or busted.”
The more art, the better
Having legal spaces to work for street and graffiti artists, without the clear ulterior motive of development interests directly or indirectly encouraging it, is the ideal for many of the city’s artists looking for the best locations to exhibit their pieces. Such a goal is, unfortunately, likely unattainable in a city that is constantly changing, with the trendy and newly expensive neighborhoods constantly pushing further out toward the edges of the outer-boroughs. A hotbed of street art activity can only go on uninhibited for so long before outer interests come into play.
Difficult as that may be to accept, the flexibility and grassroots nature of these artists and writers are at the core of the practice, and that’s why the loss of 5Pointz may very well have been a bigger loss for street art viewers than the artists themselves. Many of them are skeptical of the ‘Graffiti Mecca’ term that was bestowed upon 5Pointz. It’s not that they don’t think it was great, but they worry that elevating it to such a status may have undercut the significance of several other locations throughout New York and the world.
And also, Carr insists, the “old days” of prevalent graffiti writing are very much alive: “It’s not like street art crushed the old days. It’s more, ‘oh, here’s street art,’ but then there’s the discipline of going out and bombing. That’s definitely trending up, if anything.”
The medium has always been amorphous and transient, and although legal spaces, better spray-paint technology, and evolving societal attitudes have changed the scene in a major way, it’s still a bottom-up, raw approach that prevails among most artists and writers out there. And when it comes to some within the subculture who see their legal outlets taken away from them, Huggins says many are more than ready to find another way to have their say.
“A lot of them react by going, ‘If you’re not gonna give me space, I’m gonna take it,'” he says. “‘And I know there may be repercussions, but I’m gonna go ahead and risk it because it’s that important to me to be heard.'”
City Limits’ coverage of the intersection of art and policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.