You might not even notice the Dunkin’ Donuts on Bedford Avenue. The pink and orange sign that typically denotes the coffee and donut shop chain has been traded for one fashioned from dark wood with vintage gold lettering. Compared to the original, it is cooler, hipper and most likely intended to attract neighborhood residents often described as young, fashionable, creative, and entrepreneurial.
20 years ago, Williamsburg was made up of ethnic groups and artists who moved in because of cheap rent. Drugs and prostitution were plaguing issues. But within a few years, things became safer and more stable. A few cafes, bars, and restaurants emerged alongside the mom and pop storefronts. Williamsburg was starting to thrive. Soon, wealthier Manhattanites attracted by lower rent for larger spaces and budding nightlife and art scene were crossing the East River. Gentrification was well underway. Now, restaurants, bars, boutiques, and specialty shops line just about every street. Luxury apartment complexes are a common sight. Dunkin’ Donuts joins business chains Duane Reade, Starbucks, and JCrew.
All these changes have had a profound effect on Williamsburg’s graffiti and street art scene. Up until the mid-90s, many buildings functioned as factories, or were abandoned. Thus, they were ideal spaces for writers to bomb with tags and throw ups. Viewed as pure vandalism, this kind of graffiti had no place in the rise of Williamsburg. By the late 2000s, many businesses inhabiting the formerly rundown spaces were extensions of the neighborhood’s cool culture and artistic community. Or they strived to be. One surefire way to connect with the local scene was through art. Soon murals created by artists, many local and with a street or alternative art background were adorning building exteriors.
The Williamsburg Graff Tour explores these sanctioned pieces. While they might not be motivated by the original spirit of street art and graffiti, they are good and help in understanding how the movement has taken shape since films like “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “Beautiful Losers,” and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’ blockbuster exhibition “Art in the Streets.”
An early stop on the tour is the NY Martial Arts Academy, which operates out of former candy factory. Aside from its exceptional martial arts training, the Academy is known for the colossal mural of Bruce Lee painted by Brooklyn based street artist Cern a.k.a. Cernesto. On the building’s main section are two depictions of the legend – seated in meditation and ready for action. The mural continues to the adjacent garage where Cern has mixed his signature bird and cat motifs with the traditional Asian art imagery of a dragon and pagoda.
The tour also considers how the neighborhood attracts artists who are operating on the fringes. These artists could be working in direct retaliation to gentrification. Or perhaps they know that in Williamsburg, their work will get a good audience. The gigantic industrial building at the corner of N9th St. and Roebling St. is a great place to observe this kind of activity. Here, you’ll find posters by Cost and ASVP, throw ups by the Smart Crew, wheatpastes by City Kitty and Dylan Egon, and a trompe-l’oil piece byDan Witz.
Then you only have to look across Roebling to see the new luxury apartment building located at 250 N. 10th St. bedecked with a ground-to-roof mural on its exterior. The artist behind the piece is Mr. Brainwash. Yes, having one of street art’s most popular artists devise a mural on a fancy rental property is prime evidence of Williamsburg’s changing demographic and the commercial interest in street art. But, at least the concept is thoughtful – it pays tribute to Brooklyn’s founding fathers, John Augustus Roebling,and his son, Charles Roebling. If you want to read more about the project, check out our earlier post.
A few stops later is Rappaport Sons Bottle Co. Inc., a fourth generation business operating since 1939. In 2012, a group of street artists contacted Mr. Rappaport requesting permission to paint on the outside of his building. He said yes, and now his business doubles as a street art gallery with pieces by LNY, Joey Iurato, Gilf, and Icy and Sot. Mr. Rappaport is often on site when we bring by tours and is happy to say hello.
For years, Roa has been making pieces in Williamsburg and Bushwick. One of his most recent works is a huge mural on the outside of Muchmore’s, a music venue, bar, and cafe. Muchmore’s is very supportive of the local music and art scene. Roa’s stack of sleeping animals works really well here. Owner Andrew Muchmore told us that the artist stops by whenever he is passing through.
The gentrification of Williamsburg is reaching an unprecedented level. Once an alternative to the standardization and high prices of Manhattan, it now has numerous chains and is one of the most expensive areas to live in NYC. This mix of local and independent with commercial has produced a street art and graffiti scene that is multifaceted. Here, we can observe firsthand how perception of the movement has shifted in recent years. Artists with a street background are sought after for not just their talent or ties to the community, but also because they are popular and have commercial appeal. At the same time, fresh and unsanctioned pieces by Art is Trash, Mr. One Teas, and Dee Dee appear in the streets daily.
Many of these issues intersect in a mural on the aforementioned Dunkin’ Donuts on Bedford. Locally minded, the piece was painted by Brooklyn based artist Misha T for GroundSwell Community Mural Project. However, it depicts cartoon animals drinking coffee in shades of brown and vintage gold, thus doubling as an advertisement for the coffee and donut shop chain.