The Fight for Inherently Artistic Street Art
Painted across the streets of Bedford and North 9th, this Kobra piece stands as a symbol of artistic expression in a recently changing Williamsburg. A remake of a picture by Michael Halsband, the mural depicts pop art legend Andy Warhol and 80s art superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat in boxing gloves and targeted glares. The reference to both art greats, who were often in contention with the established art world, evokes a sense of veneration to a more expressive time when artistic experimentation and collaboration were welcomed. Warhol worked in an environment where timeworn ideas about the nature of art were eradicating, and Basquiat experienced an age in which NYC underground culture was on the rise. By recreating this symbolic picture, Kobra is attempting to fight for the street art that highlighted artistic exploration rather than economic manipulation that recent Williamsburg pieces evidence. Kobra makes use of non-traditional materials and pop culture appropriations to spin a modern twist on the piece and remind others of the spirit of inherently artistic street art. Contrary to several other pieces we focus on, this recent addition to the streets of Williamsburg emphasizes the symbolism of raw street artistry over the overwhelming economically commissioned murals.
Williamsburg as a whole is a largely changing neighborhood and is the site of a prime example of gentrification. Once an area dominated by large industrial firms, Williamsburg housed some of the most populated blocks in New York City before its modernization. As a result of lower rents and large spaces available following Williamsburg’s deindustrialization, many artists started settling in the area in the early 1980s and the process of gentrification began. The cost of living skyrocketed, as did the price of land, as many abandoned factories, warehouses, and empty dwellings were transformed into art galleries, clubs, cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. This new population has attracted other professionals, including art critics, filmmakers, and indie musicians, and the neighborhood is now the site of paramount street art. The influx of white gentrifiers and their artistic expression are manifest throughout Williamsburg, and over the years, the scene has changed. The street art once deemed vandalism has now become a staple of the neighborhood, standing for its luxury appeal and aesthetic qualities and often supporting economic themes. Many of the new residents in Williamsburg admire the art and even equate their move with it, saying that the artistic and ‘pretty’ scenes drew them to the neighborhood.
Tracking street art in the area is not a simple task, for it is constantly changing. This very site has seen numerous different murals throughout the years as has our other sites. More commercially dominated art pieces are now seen throughout the neighborhood as the demand to live there increases with the progression of gentrification. According to a 2014 study by the American Planning Association, areas of high commercial art are most closely associated with those of gentrification as well as upscaling neighborhoods such as Williamsburg. This Kobra piece stands for a return to the simplicity of the area and the pure artistic motivations that dominated the streets. People who pass by are attracted to the colors and the artistic prowess rather than the associated buildings or businesses. The ‘fight’ for street art is something that native artists care deeply about.