We all know the typical New York gentrification story: First come the coffee shops, then the weird mustaches and mayonnaise shops, then the shiny glass condos. But for one rapidly changing section of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, things are different. Here, it all started with graffiti. Complex explores this story in our new documentary No Free Walls, which centers on the Bushwick Collective, a loose-knit circle of street artists. Founded and curated by Bushwick native Joe Ficalora, the crew’s aim is to turn blank walls around Bushwick into dazzling canvases, painted by top street artists from around the world.
The art has beautified the neighborhood, but it’s also opened the doors to massive change: European tourists soaking up the pieces via guided tours, new residents who just want to be part of it all, and even a massive influx of advertising dollars. Can the community—and the beautiful art it birthed—survive all the change? By helping make the neighborhood a destination, is the Bushwick Collective sowing the seeds of its own demise? While you watch No Free Walls, check out the primer below, an explainer of the key personalities and key art pieces that make Bushwick—and our documentary about it—tick.
The story of No Free Walls starts and ends with Joe Ficalora. It’s born out of his life, spent in Bushwick since the ‘80s. His father was killed in the street when he was a child, and he lost his mother to cancer in 2011. Joe poured his grief into dealing with the seemingly never-ending tags that covered the walls of his family business and its surroundings. He started learning about, and being inspired by, street arts, and began arranging for murals by top talents all over the neighborhood. That movement turned into the Bushwick Collective, which Joe has funded (pretty much out of pocket) ever since.
Councilmember Reynoso is a rarity in public office: He gives politicians a good name. Born to immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, Antonio currently represents the 34th district, which consists of Bushwick, Williamsburg and Ridgewood in Queens. Reynoso is bringing some young energy to the fight for his district’s long-time residents, and he doesn’t want Bushwick to suffer the same fate as Williamsburg.
A photographer and a lifelong New York City resident, Meisler taught art in Bushwick from the late-’70s through the ’90s, and used her passion for photography to document the area’s decay, as seen in her book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick. She’s witnessed both the neighborhood’s dark days and its new era, and how street art played a role through it all.
As VP of Colossal Media, Lindahl oversees the creation of hand-painted outdoor advertising in Bushwick and elsewhere; his past clients include Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, and TV shows like Mr. Robot and Game of Thrones. He’s even worked with Banksy. Lindhal and Colossal are part of the wave of outdoor advertising companies streaming into Bushwick and competing with the Collective for free walls. While they’re definitely painting for profit, Colossal still adheres to certain artistic moral codes, such as turning down jobs that involve destroying preexisting street art. Overall, Lindahl seems like one of the good guys in a field defined by greed.
Bishop hails from Bridgeport, Connecticut; instead of getting up on trains like NYC graf artists did, he took to the walls of abandoned factories. He’s also the man behind Low Brow Artique, one of the earliest art shops in Bushwick. Bishop calls the art world “fake,” but he supports the grassroots efforts of the Bushwick Collective; he’s reportedly Ficalora’s key supplier of paints for various neighborhood pieces.
D*Face, Till Death Do Us Part
D*Face is a U.K.-based street artist who grew up enamored by the worlds of graffiti and skating. He’s the owner and curator of London’s StolenSpace Gallery, and has worked on album art for stars including Christina Aguilera (2010’s Bionic) and blink-182 (2016’s California). His piece Till Death Do Us Part was completed at The Bushwick Collective’s fifth anniversary party in June of 2016, and is one of the largest done on in the collective’s street gallery. The piece itself is a literal take on one of the key elements of a marriage proposal, done in the style of famous pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
Owen Dippie, Radiant Madonna
Radiant Madonna is a piece that found Dippie paying tribute to the late street-art legend Keith Haring by marrying one of his trademark characters with Renaissance painter Raphael’s “Radiant Child.” Dippie, a New Zealand-based muralist who’s been rocking these large-scale pieces for the last decade, personally funded his trip to Bushwick specifically to get Radiant Madonna up.
Plasmaslug is an OG in the graffiti game who doesn’t like being called a street artist. His works are literally all over New York City, and this vibrant, candy-colored piece was dropped dead center in the Bushwick Collective gallery in honor of its fifth anniversary.
Sipros’ trademark is caricatures and larger-than-life pieces. The Brazil-based artist cooked up a stunning image of Albert Einstein, and if you look closely, you can see some of Sipros’ own “scientific” formulas added to the background.
Ron English, Trumpty Dumpty
Just in time for the election season, we get Ron English’s Donald Trump/Humpty Dumpty mash-up. English is amazingly prolific; his McDonald’s-themed pieces were highlighted in 2004’s Super-Size Me documentary, he painted the cover of Chris Brown’s 2011 album F.A.M.E., and he even guest-starred in an episode of The Simpsons.