"Do they have a hashtag?"
This is the type of thing one overhears at the opening of “Brooklyn Is the Future,” a street art exhibition and charity event in Bushwick.
The once-shabby, working-class neighborhood has been transformed by recently transplanted artists into a shabby neighborhood with skyrocketing rents. This is the Brooklyn of Midwest natives, not the Brooklyn of Brooklyn natives.
The exhibition title feels a decade too late—Brooklyn was the future, now it's the present—and obsessed with the idea of the borough as an egalitarian community and artists' utopia.
Many of the works fetishize the gritty "old Brooklyn" and sense of “community” that has been lost to gentrification.
A large sheet hanging near the entrance to the exhibit serves as a canvas for the iconic taxi cab, with giant block letters hovering over the vehicle: “UBER: The Death of the Yellow Taxi!!!”
Various depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge in murals that portray a diverse, “authentic" New York City that is now threatened with extinction.
In a partially coherent explanation of “Brooklyn is the Future” on the blog brooklynstreetart.com, the exhibition "deals with inter-generational transmission of concepts of the city of Brooklyn as the purveyor of the future and its trends globally."
If this sounds pretentious, the high-minded thinkers at brooklynstreetart.com assure us that the work is "above political rhetoric and academic theorizing."
But is it?
The idea of the exhibit is on its face political: to incorporate the "community" into Bushwick’s art scene, so that neither the artists nor the working-class natives feel like interlopers. (It's always the artists who feel compelled to "include" those who have long existed in a neighborhood, and never the other way around.)
“We want everyone to live peacefully in Bushwick,” says Naofal Alaoui, better known as Rocko, a Brooklyn-based calligraphy artist who helped organize the event.
Rocko has been heavily involved in the Brooklyn art scene ever since he moved here from Morocco in 2000. He directs a senior center in Bushwick and works with the Brooklyn Arts Council which, according to its website, “gives grants, presents free and affordable arts events, trains artists and arts professionals, teaches students, incubates new projects and promotes artists and cultural groups across our borough.”
Bushwick is a “hard neighborhood to gentrify,” Rocko explains, because the natives—mostly immigrant families—who have lived there for generations resent the scourge of young, hipster artists for driving them out of their community. But Rocko doesn’t blame the art scene.
“There are no arts' projects in Bed-Stuy, but the neighborhood is completely gentrified! I think everyone wants a slice of Bushwick, and to be honest with you, I’m all for that.”
Rocko seems to be the ringleader of the street-art scene in Brooklyn. He and exhibit curator N. Carlos J. (real name: Nars Carlos Jefferson) invited some 40 graffiti artists and muralists to contribute to “Brooklyn is the Future”: Appleton, Ben Agnotti, BK Foxx, Cern, Col Walnuts, Cosmic Slop, Eelco, Just, LMnopi, Lexi Bella, Ll-Hill, Mason Eve, Misha T, Mr. Prvrt, Nepo, Pesu, Rubin 415, Savior Elmundo, Szize, Damien Mitchell, and Danielle Mastrion, among others.
These are their “street names,” N. Carlos J. explains.
“There’s a fine line between what’s considered ‘fine art’ and graffiti,” he says. “Half of the people here are self-taught, and the other half went to school and were classically trained, like me. We all come from different backgrounds, but we all love to paint.”
30-year-old Zimer, one of the self-taught artists whose work is displayed at “Brooklyn is the Future,” laments how Bushwick has changed in recent years.
“People come from out of town for the experience, but they don’t bring the experience,” he says. “I was painting on the street once and this girl asked me, ‘How come this art is kind of ‘ghetto’ instead of ‘Bushwick’?”
Zimer was so put off by the incident that he left Bushwick and moved back to Queens, where he grew up.
“I guess SoHo used to be a bad place, but when people think of SoHo now they think of it as a fancy place, and that’s how she was talking about Bushwick. It’s funny because my friends from Bayside won’t even come to Bushwick, they think it’s this dangerous place.”
Zimer's contribution to the show is a graffitied take on Argentinian painter Fabian Perez's "Dancer in Red," her back turned to the viewer.
Zimer's pays tribute to her for the same reason that Perez does: she evokes a different Argentina, the one he remembers from his youth, that was "more romantic than the present day."
Elsewhere in the exhibit is a parody of—or tribute to—Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942), one of the most oft-parodied paintings of the 20th century. (There are several famous ones from the ‘80s, and Banksy even did his own version in 2005.)
Hopper’s “Nighthawks” depicts a diner at night as a threat to the sleepy mom-and-pop shops on street.
The diner would later become a New York City institution, fetishized by Woody Allen in his 1979 classic, Manhattan.
Now, it’s a New York City relic, a talking-point for nostalgists that has long been replaced by the ubiquitous “hip” restaurant, with its kale salads, subway-tiled walls, and filament lightbulbs.
To the untrained eye, much of the art on display is indistinguishable. So I ask for input from graffiti veteran Jonathan Cohen, aka Meres One, who curated the “graffiti mecca” 5Pointz, an outdoor exhibition in Long Island City.
“It’s a great space,” says Meres, “but they don’t have anything identifying the works, so I can’t really tell which artist did what.”
My sentiments exactly.