Gabe Schoenberg, owner of Graff Tours, shows us around Brooklyn’s street art community in Bushwick.
JST: Hi Gabe, thank you for sharing your insight. In your older YouTube videos, you mentioned always having an affinity towards graffiti and street art; what was your first introduction to it, and why are you so drawn to this art form?
Gabe: Growing up in New York City, you live with graffiti without realizing. You’re constantly surrounded by it. I’ve always loved hip-hop and it’s whole culture; graffiti is kind of intertwined with that lifestyle.
I’m originally from a small town called Teaneck, New Jersey. It’s only 15 minutes away from the city, so we got a lot of that culture into our little town. I’ve always loved and appreciated it growing up, but I didn’t know too much about it. When I studied abroad in Argentina, I saw how amazing the street art scene was. That’s when I realized graffiti/street art is a global movement that could change people’s minds. There were many political pieces about Argentina’s government; people used this art to rebel and make their voices heard. I was blown away by what was happening. It was so powerful yet so illegal. There was such a disconnect from what you would typically see here at the time.
It’s funny; when I drive around Brooklyn, I don’t use GPS. I use graffiti for navigation. That’s what I love so much about graffiti and street art; the transformational part is inspiring. It can change communities and inspire people. Where I used to live, people would come just to dump their trash on the sidewalks. People didn’t care about the area; they didn’t care who lived there. Just because it looked like trash, people treated it like trash. But then, we started painting murals on the block, and suddenly, people stopped dumping their trash here. Once we began beautifying the location, we brought back life and warmth to the area.
JST: You spoke about Graffiti Tours Network in your YouTube videos, but now it seems you just go by “Graff Tours,” how did your senior year project turn into a full-fledged career?
Gabe: In the beginning, I had this dream of doing all these tours in different cities, but it was a very ambitious project for wide eyes. Maybe one day we’ll get back to trying to make Graff Tours global. Back then, I thought we could expand very quickly, but it’s much more challenging than that. Instead of going city to city, we opened up an art studio here in Bushwick; by doing classes and getting our name out there, we’re starting to get bigger in NYC. We used to have tours in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, but we stopped those to focus solely on the Bushwick location.
As for the inspiration behind Graff Tours, there are street art tours worldwide. I think that’s probably the best way to see a new city. You get to go to places that are not tourist traps; they’re usually more community-based. Whenever I travel, I find myself just naturally walking around and following the interesting graffiti. THAT’S how I came up with the idea for Graff Tours; I thought that there must be other people who appreciate the art as much as I do. Graff Tours is perfect for Bushwick’s personalized feel; it links this underground underbelly with people who would appreciate a different view of the city.
JST: How long have you been in the street art scene, and what was the community’s most surprising aspect?
Gabe: I’ve been in the scene for seven years now but only recently started doing personal art around three years ago. Admittedly, I entered the community as a business venture, but after giving tours for many years, I decided to give it a shot myself. I’ve been lucky enough to watch a lot of master paint and was even given the opportunity to paint with them. Painting has taught me that art is democratic; people’s opinions don’t matter because, in the long run, it’s your art.
In terms of the most shocking, I think many people don’t know that when it comes to most street artists, a lot of them come from classically trained backgrounds. Back in the day, graffiti’s illegal nature did not allow people with a fine art background to really flourish in such a “rough” environment. But now, it’s somewhat legal, and fine art people have opportunities to get employed by local businesses to create beautiful works of art. ROA is a local artist with a classically trained background; he does great, realistic pieces throughout Brooklyn.
JST: Has there ever been an artist that threw up a revolutionary piece, one that changed the style of the surrounding area?
Gabe: Shepard Fairey is probably one of the most popular artists to come from the Brooklyn scene. He’s most known for his work on Barack Obama’s 2008 “Hope” Poster, which was seminal to a presidential election.
5Pointz was insanely influential within Brooklyn’s street art community. It housed over 250 pieces of art. Anyone who saw it before it closed knew how significant it was.
JST: How do you curate your tours? Do you personally know the artists you feature?
Gabe: For the tour itself, we have a mural project that we curate. We’ve been trying to make something of a self-sustaining cycle. The old way of touring was kind of leaching from the community. These artists put up really cool works of art, often for free, and then a tour guide comes along and charges money to tell other people about someone else’s work. We tried to make this an even playing field; we’re all part of the same community; it makes sense to give back when you profit from it. So, we take some money from the tours and pay an artist to paint a mural, and then we take our tours to see this work. We’ve helped create about 12 murals in Brooklyn through this process, and we had hoped to do another 12 this year, but then COVID hit. Hopefully, we’ll be able to pay more artists to do more art once this craziness calms down.
But ultimately, Graff Tours is trying to make tourism fuel the creation of art instead of leeching off it. Our goal is to amplify the community in every way possible. We feature many public art styles like collages, wheat pasting, mosaics, stencil work, portraits, and traditional murals.
JST: What is the legality of street art versus graffiti in Brooklyn? Are muralists given more leeway to create?
Gabe: Historically, graffiti has always been, and still is very much illegal. Once you’ve been given legal permission, the art becomes some other form of public street art, but not graffiti. Graffiti and street art are often misconstrued as the same thing under a different name. One is tagging locations without permission; another is public art that is sometimes commissioned. I normally don’t talk about the legality of street art on my tours; street art is technically illegal. No matter any form, stencils, wheat pasting, or other modes of creation. Street art is illegal until you get permission from the city and/or wall owner. Once it becomes legal, it’s just a mural or public art. For the most part, people use street art to describe public art.
JST: How do tag writers and more mural based artists feel about each other? Are both respected within the community? Or are tag writers not as respected?
Gabe: I believe that there are two camps to public art. Street art’s objective is to beautify, a great way to transform ugly to beauty; you can fulfill your soul through street art. On the other side of the coin are graffiti writers. Taggers create not to beautify; their purpose at the moment is to express themselves. They’re not worried about the viewer, but how to best represent themselves and their art. I see it as a form of self-expression; some people hate on the side of graffiti. They always say, “I wish the artist would have done a mural, not a tag,” but people who think like that miss the point. Some people in NYC feel disenfranchised and taken advantage by authoritative figures. Graffiti allows them to write their name and ultimately create a “lower-level” problem for those who take advantage of them. Instead of doing terrible things, they choose to express themselves differently. You have to learn to appreciate the art for what it is, self-expression in any form.
JST: In your time being a tour guide, what has been the most popular street art style, and what do you think it’s so influential?
Gabe: Muraling is so significant because people know it, and it draws them to the city. I think the color and the characters the artist uses are what draws your attention to the murals. But the tourism from that style is what incentivizes artists to use it more. It’s relatively easier to do something like that than political murals. Private businesses own most of the walls utilized by muralists; they usually don’t want political stuff on their walls or anything that would bring negative attention. This mural style acts as a compromise; the artist gets to create, the businesses get beautified.
JST: How have this year’s many politically charged events affected artists’ messages through their work?
Gabe: The first thing is that illegal graffiti is at an all-time high. Graffiti vandals have had free rein since quarantine began. There has been more graffiti on the streets than in recent years. Politics-wise, there has been a lot of Black Lives Matter-related street art, NYC is notorious for being a huge supporter of the BLM movement, so it makes sense that it’s influencing the art around here. Graffiti really fits in with the movement too, New York has always been driven by its people, so of course, a people-driven movement like BLM would be further driven by the people’s need to create. There have been a few murals popping up in the past two months, reminding everyone to vote in the upcoming election.
JST: Because of the COVID-19 Pandemic, have artists not been creating as much as they used to? Or has it sparked a kind of resurgence in appreciation for graffiti?
Gabe: Things have certainly slowed down because of COVID-19. People are conscientious about what projects they’re taking on; they need to be particular to make a living. That means certain projects are taking priority. We had a warmer October, which gave people a great opportunity to paint. That was so important because as winter comes, you want to paint outside less and less, so to get a few more gigs in before the cold is critical to the artists. Winter is notoriously tough for artists; they rely on that boost of people that come out to try and keep things going.
JST: How does Bushwick’s art differ from other areas from Brooklyn and also Manhattan?
Gabe: Honestly, you have to give Bushwick credit! It was originally an artistic hotbed for the artists living here; you gotta use what you’ve got! It was an artistic neighborhood, the local creatives took it and ran with it. It seemingly started with some businesses supporting local artists and commissioning murals. Eventually, competing businesses noticed that their competition was looking cooler than them and commissioned their mural. The community of Bushwick began to feed off of itself in a way. Bushwick has such an amazing, enriching artistic community. Now, you have people like Joe Ficalora, the Head of Bushwick Collective, who supports the most sanctioned (illegal) mural gallery in Bushwick, helped get tourists to come, in turn supporting the artists and creating an ecosystem where everybody can benefit from the community.
JST: What do you think the future is for Brooklyn’s street art?
Gabe: The sky’s the limit. I wouldn’t doubt it if we saw historical street pieces be moved into museums, these pieces are already considered legendary. I know we’ll see a day when they are preserved like timeless works of art. I don’t know if they’ll be taken directly off the wall, but we’ll see.
I believe this type of art will continue to be the voice of the people. Democratic art is notoriously used within riots and protests. We see that happening right now! Graffiti is part of humanity; think about it, cave drawings are arguably a form of graffiti. As long as there are humans, there will continue to be graffiti.