Graffiti = art? Richard Tulloch is a little sceptical, but that doesn’t stop him taking a spray-painted tour of New York’s infamous Brooklyn district. Will he be converted?

Unless it’s a Banksy, when I see graffiti sprayed on public walls I assume I’m in an area where a community has no pride in its environment, where those running the place have lost control and where young people feel alienated.

“I’m going to show you street art, not graffiti,” our local guide, Matt Levy, insists. “Street art is graffiti with a college degree.”

Some graffiti is more equal than others

Near our modest accommodation in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, there are graffiti on every wall within reach (and many inaccessible ones, too)… Most of it looks like it failed to complete elementary school. There’s a stack of garbage outside the pizzeria and the New Hope Healing Series (“Space available for Worship”). In the local liquor store we feed cash through a slot and the proprietor reaches around his bullet-proof glass defence shield to slip us a screw-top bottle of Chilean plonk. Things are not all hunky dory in this part of “Bed-Stuy”.

But Brooklyn is big, with 2.5 million residents, enough to make it the fourth largest US city if it hadn’t merged with the other New York boroughs in 1894. Manhattan, by comparison, has a mere 1.5 million. So in Brooklyn, expect diversity.

Matt makes a (fashion) statement

We see it in the hairstyles. Nail and hairdressing salons are everywhere. However tough life may be, hairdos must go on. Dreadlocks, afros, braids, extensions and out-there colours contrast with the beards and sideburns favoured by orthodox Hasidic Jews.

At first we feel particularly conventional, middle class and white. Then we realise being white, middle class and conventional makes us weirdos around here. And in Brooklyn, nobody cares anyway.

Poetry and parking

Matt from Levys’ Unique New York! tours is leading a group of art students around his home town, showing them the best of Brooklyn’s street art. I’m invited to join the party. When we emerge from the the backblocks four hours later we have a different view of Brooklyn, and of street art, too.

The melting pot that is Brooklyn has enormous energy, enthusiasm and flair. The city fathers (and mothers) and commercial entrepreneurs active encourage creativity. Matt knows his city and tells a good story well.

First stop is the looming grey concrete parking garage of Macy’s department store. It’s covered with the work of street artist ESPO. Macy’s itself provided the paint and a commission. ESPO has enhanced the walls with cryptic messages, mostly vox pops collected from passing residents, writing in letters several metres high, “I was nurtured here”, “Take any train” and “Life is a fight for life”.

Forgive me old friend!

Above the 99¢ store, he’s written, “… this love we have is … 9999999999999% pure.” It may not be Keats or Shelley, but it’s intriguing.

Matt leads us on a short subway ride (past much graffiti that flunked kindergarten) to the Brooklyn suburb of Bushwick. In the 1970s, Bushwick was burning as landlords found it easier to extract money from insurance companies than from unemployed tenants.

Times change and Bushwick has changed too. It’s in the process of becoming gentrified, with smart, expensive condominiums replacing torched tenements.

Hipster cafes are on the rise

‘Fashionistas are moving in,’ says Matt. ‘When an area gets run down, artists can afford to live there. Then come the cool cafes that artists like, then come the hipsters who like to hang out in cool artists’ cafes, then come the condos and, finally, you get Starbucks.’

There are still parts of Bushwick where old-fashioned traditions of giving the finger to authority have not been lost, however. Matt shows us blocks where street artists from all over the US and from overseas have expressed themselves in an outdoor gallery. It’s a spectacular sight, with colourful, whimsical walls everywhere we look.

Some of the work is aggressive, derivative and ugly, but there is much that is witty and gently thought-provoking – graffiti with a master’s degree.

Art with decay by Roa

A black-and-white work brilliantly shows a street scene plucked from an old New York movie. A cafe entrance is framed by Sweet Toof’s bright pink lips and teeth. Legendary Belgian artist Roa has contributed his trademark animal sketches on a boarded-up building.

So when is graffiti entitled to say it’s graduated and become street art? Matt explains it this way: “Graffiti is someone saying, ‘Look at me.’ An effective street artist is saying, ‘Hey guys, maybe we can look at the world in a different way’.”

Thanks, Matt. We’ll definitely look at Brooklyn a little differently now.

Levys’ Unique New York! run regular and tailored tours of various New York areas. The writer travelled with the assistance of NYC & Company and HostelBookers.

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