While I don’t always enjoy being in the photos, I find joy in spotting an interesting subject and capturing it on my camera roll. I used to have a Nikon digital camera that was about 12 megapixels, but I hardly used it, except for whenever my mother would make me lug it with us to take those awkward photos during our family vacations. It didn’t really offer the full range of photographic experimentation that I was looking for in a camera, and anyway it was always too costly to buy a professional-grade camera. When I started blogging and learning what I could about web and graphic design, however, I eventually started thinking about taking up photography as a hobby and possibly as a side-hustle. I just needed to develop my photography skills — oh, and save up for a DSLR camera.
Fast forward to the time I finally traded my ancient Android for my first iPhone (still no DSLR camera, though). I love taking snapshots of everyday moments on my iPhone. Instagram, though I had initially resisted using it, has since become addicting. I was more interested in the experimentation aspect of capturing and editing the photos, not so much in garnering more likes and followers on the social media platform (though those are nice, too). How did people get their Instagram photos to look so bright, crisp, and clear? Of course, there were those photo-editing apps, especially VSCO and Afterlight. But there would always be a certain kind of off-centered and well-lit quality to their photos that made you feel like you were just taking a peek into their lives and they were welcoming you in by curating these photographs on their Instagram accounts. Usually these would be photos of beloved city landmarks, weekend brunches, colorful floral arrangements, coffee and latte art, or tasteful book collections set against a backdrop of white sheets or a marble countertop. But there’s usually a few Instagram accounts that would stand out from the rest, particularly the ones that would literally splash the walls with splatters and shapes of raw imagination…
One of those unique accounts belongs to a group called The Bushwick Collective — a band of street and graffiti artists from around the world, many of whom found their new home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, who blurred the lines between graffiti and various forms of postmodern art. The Bushwick Collective was founded in 2011 by Joe Ficalora, a lifelong Bushwick resident who threw a block party as a fundraiser for children with brain tumors (after grieving the loss of his mother to cancer) and invited some prominent street artists to paint murals on a few of the local walls. Their works transformed an entire Brooklyn neighborhood which used to be considered desolate, industrial, and even dangerous back in the 1980s and 1990s. I grew up along the borderline between Ridgewood, Queens and Bushwick, Brooklyn, and I remember both of my parents warning me and my two younger sisters about the dangers of walking alone in the more industrialized parts. And you would feel it — it felt creepy because there just weren’t enough people walking around those parts, and there weren’t any stores that you could visit. The landscape mostly comprised factory plants and warehouses.
I recall the story of Arbitration Rock at the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House on Flushing Avenue, when in 1769, people actually used this old glacial formation as the marker that separates Brooklyn and Queens. It always made me wonder at how one side of Flushing Avenue, where the historic home was located, would feel residential while the other side would be beset with industrial factories that produced textiles and were used as loading docks for various shipments of spare electronics and auto parts. As a child, you definitely didn’t want to wander into the industrialized parts, where it felt like a creepy deserted ghost town covered in random spray-painted scribbles of graffiti tags on the buildings.
I used to go to a Catholic elementary school around the area — Saint Aloysius School, which has since closed by 2009 — and I remember during my middle school years how my classmates used to talk about Bushwick being the center of underground hip-hop culture and rap music. It was considered cool to be part of that underground scene — it meant that you were tough and you knew how to survive, especially in the ‘hood known as Bushwick. Some of the popular kids in my class would even create doodles of their own stylized graffiti art, designing different variations of “Bushwick’s Finest” across the backs of their notebooks. I mean, come on. Gentrification? What’s that? That word was foreign to us locals, until we started noticing the new blood trickling in around 2007 and realized there were now more transplants moving in and living among us. For some, like myself, it’s a welcome change (albeit I had mixed feelings about it, being a local). For others, like long-time Buswick resident and graffiti writer Zexor, it was the bane of rising rent prices and the erasure of street culture.
Before the artists, the hipsters, art students, and the young creative professionals spilling over from Williamsburg and swarming into to claim it as their new home, Bushwick’s population was mostly Latino and Hispanic. When you crossed over into Ridgewood, you would find Asian immigrant families (mostly Chinese and Filipinos) along with generations of Germans, Dutch, Irish, and Italians who have settled there as the first wave of immigrants. You knew, once you crossed over from St. Nicholas Avenue and past Cypress Avenue, that you would get an entirely different neighborhood.
Nowadays, the borderlines aren’t as clear cut as they used to be. The old, abandoned factory buildings are now converted commercial space for businesses and lofts, put up for sale by real estate companies like the Corcoran group and a hip new real estate start-up called Nooklyn. Granted, there are still traces of raw spray-painted graffiti tags on the walls of some of these buildings. I have to wonder whether Nooklyn, for instance, plans to remove them or keep them as part of the natural backdrop (as shown below).
You see more condominiums being built in spaces that used to be empty street lots. A couple of those street lots are now open spaces where artisans come to together every other weekend to showcase their creations and sell their wares. You walk down along Wyckoff Avenue and Jefferson Street, and you see a smattering of small subtle coffee shops, cafes, and brunch spots that have just newly opened in the area, inviting you in with aromas of avocado toast and French pressed coffee. The walls are decorated with knitting and crochet art (as someone who’s crocheted scarves and centerpieces, I have no idea why people take this seriously as an art medium), posters, and various billboards advertising everyday products in a way that you don’t often see mediated on television or in the newspapers. Once you wander into the side streets, such as Troutman Street and Starr Street, that’s when you realize that you’ve walked into a whole new wonderland: a living, evolving, massive art gallery with a thriving, diverse neighborhood to sustain the visuals.
Despite the gentrification debates and local residents’ concerns about rising rent prices, I feel that the street art adds another dimension of character to the neighborhoods — reflecting the rapid-paced change that cuts beyond the neighborhood landscape and transcends into the local demographics and culture.
And so here begins my journey as a photography novice and media design student exploring and documenting the artful street murals along the industrialized walls of Bushwick, one of the neighborhoods which I call home.
Street Art, Graffiti & Photography: The Interplay Between Aesthetics & Screen Forces
Below are 10 of the photographs and notes I took along the way, while learning how to use a DSLR camera and studying photography concepts.
1. Carlos Game, the street artist known as “See TF“
While walking along Troutman Street and Scott Avenue, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon an actual work-in-progress by one of the street artists who would paint these colorful surreal-like murals. I briefly interviewed Carlos Game (follow him @see_tf on Instagram) about his inspiration behind his artwork. “I don’t know,” he said. “It just came to me.” He then recapped how he was hanging out at a bar just two blocks away the previous night with a few friends. They were watching a burlesque show, and there was a tattooed woman with a distinct look who performed and captured his imagination, whom he felt compelled to paint. He was talking to another Bushwick resident, Nic Lyte (shown far left), a photographer who goes by @real_newyorker on Instagram, and who enjoys taking snapshots of her travels and street art. The photo she took of the finished artwork later appeared on the Bushwick Collective’s Instagram profile.
I took several shots of this scene, but this photo stood out to me the most. I had to crouch down on the sidewalk at an oblique angle, in order to fully capture the mural itself, the set of spray paint supplies, See TF standing on his ladder in the act of adding more details, and Nic Lyte talking to him as he worked on his latest installment. The angle from which I took this photo created an asymmetry of the frame (as seen by the diagonal direction of the building), and the tilting of the horizontal plane also gave the scene a dynamic balance. See TF and Nic Lyte, who were facing each other while conversing, were the converging vectors.
2. “Zimad Says…”
“Zimad says… If you don’t build your dream someone will hire you to help build theirs.”
A bold quote with choice, succinct words that hearkens to the debate of whether it’s better to get hired as an employee or start your own business. Some might even interpret this as the individualism vs. collectivism dichotomy. Should we continue working for a company or organization whose mission and values we adopt, or should we create our own company, build it from the ground-up and define it according to our own terms? Of course, then you’re probably going to need employees to help you visualize and realize your dream.
I was going to take a snapshot of just the quote, but then the black and yellow graffiti next to it caught my eye, since it matched the boxes encasing the quote. Was this the tag of Louis Zimad Lamboy, known as “Zimad” the mural painter and graffiti artist? (Honestly, I’m not entirely sure, as I’m not an expert at identifying tags… but I like to think that it could be Zimad’s mark. Apologies in advance if I’m wrong.)
I thought this photo was interesting, since the size juxtaposition between the quote graphic and the graffiti right next to it caught my attention. In terms of photography concepts, I would say that the black and yellow quote box is the focal point and carries more graphic weight than the graffiti (the darkness of the black backdrop against the stencil font appears to give it more weight). There is also a “rule of thirds” at play in the photograph: both the graffiti and the quote are off-center, but they somehow balance each other out in the overall composition.
3. Jef Aerosol: “The Sad Boy in the Corner”
The artist who created the stencil art was Jef Aerosol. However, since I could not find the name of this particular piece in the midst of doing some online research, I dubbed it “The Sad Boy in the Corner” for the purposes of this post. Note the graffiti scribbles on the wall above the boy. I’m guessing that the spray-painted graffiti was added after Jef Aerosol created this stencil — it’s like the words and the shapes are weighing down heavily on the boy. I chose to take this photo using a vertical orientation of the frame to give the image a more dramatic and dynamic feel. It also just so happened that the street area was cast in shadows at the time this photo was captured; there wasn’t much sunlight on this part of the street, which further provided a gloomy mood to the photo. I would say that there is a strong magnetism of the frame in this photo. The red grated window at the top-left corner has a strong magnetic pull that is balanced out by the stencil of the boy sitting in the lower-right corner.
4. The Boy Pointing Up (Part I)
I wasn’t sure who the artist was (Jef Aerosol again, perhaps?), but I felt drawn to this image because the bright blue background made the stencil of the boy stand out against the urban landscape. The lighting, since I was outdoors, can be described as flat. The boy is both the subject as well as the index vector — there is no doubt that he’s influencing the direction of our gaze. He has his head facing up, and his eyes are fixated in the direction of his fingers pointing up. This then brings me to the next image I want to show…
5. The Boy Pointing Up (Part II)
This was the larger backdrop of the previous photo — the whole picture, if you will. What is the boy pointing at? The small white sign that resembles a cloud, hanging on the rusty pillar right above him? Or at the old brick commercial building that looks like it had been recently converted into loft apartments? This photograph also incorporates the rule of thirds. The tall brick building appears to have the most graphic mass and weight in the photograph, as it’s the first thing that our eyes are drawn to, before skimming downwards to the small wooden structure that looks like it could possibly be a new storefront or hipster cafe. Who knows? Then our eyes finally settle on the boy pointing upwards, at the very structures we just discussed.
In terms of lighting, the falloff (rate of change in this case) is gradual; the sunlight is coming in mostly from the left side of the frame, which thus creates shadows and a shaded area over the stencil of the boy looking and pointing upwards. The boy, of course, still remains an index vector. The electrical wire, stretching across the entire frame (direction unknown), is a graphic vector.
6. Gestalt Graffiti Face (Part I)
As viewers, we often seek psychological closer in order for our minds to process the raw information and make sense of what at first seems like chaos. We mentally fill in the gaps in visual stimuli to arrive at patterns that make the most sense to us. In this photo of a graffiti face by Anser, we are doing just that — imagining that the person represented in this particular graffiti art has a complete face. Our minds fill in the missing cheeks and forehead on the person’s face, thus resulting in a gestalt image.
7. Gestalt Graffiti (Part II)
The same psychological closure and gestalt pattern can be discerned in this photograph as well, where we see two gestalt faces created by the same graffiti artist. I snapped this photograph from a different angle, this time as though I was walking up the sidewalk and just discovering the faces on the wall. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the right side of the photograph, where it’s obvious that the larger of the two faces creates a magnetic pull to the right side edge. The diagonal line where we see the building meet the sidewalk, provides asymmetry of the frame and a dynamic viewpoint, and we can also apply the rule of thirds in this situation.
8. “Build Community Not Condos”
I found this quote spray-painted on the ground and decided to take a photo of it, since it also captured the essence of the graffiti wars and the concerns about gentrification in the area. The lighting here, since I was outdoors in the middle of the afternoon, is flat. The tips of my sneakers, as well as the vertical crack in the sidewalk running down the left of the photo add a certain depth to the overall composition, framing the words and providing emphasis on the words being in the center of the photograph. Even though you don’t see the entirety of my feet and ankles, you can tell based on using the top of my sneakers as a graphic cue and through psychological closure, that I deliberately stopped in the middle of walking, just to take this snapshot. The slight off-centeredness of the crack on the left side also hearkens to the rule of thirds.
9. Corner of Willoughby Street & Wyckoff Avenue
I thought this photo provided another angle from which to view the changes in the neighborhood landscape. From the left, you see a geometric mural on the side of the building, followed by the entrance of a new cafe once you turn the corner, then there’s an organic juice bar, an Indian restaurant, a storefront for rent, and a fairly new tattoo parlor. Above these businesses are apartment spaces where people live.
The lighting in this photo also appears to be flat. The electric wires on the top are continuing graphic vectors whose direction remains ambiguous. The asymmetry of the frame lends to a dynamic balance in the image: the electric lines and the rooftops of the buildings are at a diagonal. You get the sense that the passerby is moving as she walks forward, toward the right side of the photo based on the angle.
10. Andy Warhol: “Isn’t Life A Series of Images…?”
This Andy Warhol quote stenciled with spray paint onto the concrete made me think of moving images and film, as well as a poem by Edgar Allen Poe that asks the question, “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?” It felt so much like inception.
The lighting in this photograph is also flat. The spray-painted vertical line next to the quote and the small red arrow in the lower-right corner provide us with a framing effect, similar to the one discussed in the “Build Community Not Condos” photo. The words here, however, can be described as having a screen-centered magnetism of the frame. The horizontal orientation of the photo lends a calm mood to the viewer contemplating the meaning behind Warhol’s words.