Brooklyn Unplugged Tours conducts private and public group tours that introduce visitors to the history and culture of the borough. But, its most colourful offering is a graffiti art workshop that immerses you in the local youths’ favourite form of expression. By Sumeet Keswani
Three months ago, Gully Boy introduced the Indian hoi polloi to many aspects of hip hop, including its graffiti sub-culture. The titular character echoes a whole generation of Indians, with cheap WiFi at their disposal, when he sprays “Roti Kapda Aur Makan + Internet” on a wall covered with notices. Indian streets are not new to spray paint. St+art India has beautified walls in many areas of New Delhi and beyond with large-scale commissioned murals. But, this organised beautification comes nowhere close to Brooklyn’s paint-speckled streets. In fact, if you’re in the right neighbourhood, it’s rather difficult to find a wall that does not bear a unique message or a street artist’s signature—with the owners’ consent or otherwise.
Last year, when I visited Brooklyn on my first NYC visit, I realised the borough’s potential for creative stimulation. Once the home of inventions like air conditioning and chewing gum, Brooklyn is today a melting point of cultures, thanks to its immigrant communities and inclusive attitude. In the colourful Bushwick neighbourhood, the walls reflect the diverse voices of its residents, with individual scrawls fighting for space and identity. And then, there are huge murals that leave you slack-jawed. From Jay-Z to Camilla Cabello, celebrity portraits are in abundance, as are fantastical characters and abstract designs that interact with their surrounds.
These murals add a unique character to the neighbourhood, one that spills into every aspect of its residents’ lives—social activism, advertisements, décor, and etc. I even came upon a car draped—bonnet to trunk—in abstract art by an artist whose spunky Instagram hashtag #findizzcreate was her only signature. I’d later find the artist to be the prolific Isabelle Ewing.
Naturally, my day trip to Brooklyn from Midtown Manhattan had to include an insider look into the graffiti artist community. Hence, I signed up for a session with Brooklyn Unplugged Tours (+1-866-431-5393, [email protected]), which offers public and private tours and graffiti art workshops, and even helps arrange graffiti artists for people who want to commission murals. My private session was a one-hour introduction to the art of graffiti-making, delivered in an empty compound on Wyckoff Avenue by Brooklyn Unplugged’s Jeff Stirewalt and an artist who introduced herself as ‘Anjl‘ (pronounced angel), a pseudonym that reflected in her Instagram account @anjlnyc. Kristin Doeblin was, for all intents and purposes, an angel as she and Jeff led me through the basics of spray-painting on a cloth canvas hung on a wire fence that stood in for a wall for my lesson. From the right way to hold the can, its ideal distance from the canvas for different strokes, and the perfect pressure and angle of the nozzle, the basics were wrapped up in 10-odd minutes, with a side serving of Brooklyn’s history of graffiti. Our venue was surrounded by graffiti in all directions. Apart from the full-wall murals, it all looked like a mangled mass of colours until I was informed that there were three types of street art that I was seeing–tag (small scrawl, usually a pseudonym and done illegally and in a rush), throw-up (medium-sized creatively done-up signature), and piece (large-scale mural, usually commissioned). Wearing a plastic apron and gloves, I took a shot at making my own tag and throw-up with my initials, and ended up with a shoddy dripping-paint look on both. If I were a Brooklyn artist, I would’ve been taken to the cleaners.
Then came the hardest part. Making a ‘piece’ alongside another workshop participant from the UK. Of course, Anjl came to our rescue with her effortless drawing skills as she sketched out the outline for the words ‘New York’ in big bold strokes, never breaking the scale. As we filled in each letter with creative colour couplings of our choice, Jeff and Anjl taught us how to blend the colours at their meeting point (“angular nozzle for both cans, at a distance from the canvas”) for that perfect gradient look. We also learnt that the paint attracts bees, who mistake its aroma for nectar and end up sitting on fresh paint, becoming permanent parts of the murals. As we worked on our masterpiece, we got better and more creative with each letter and believed—probably like every participant of this Brooklyn Unplugged Tour ever—that we could actually be good at this. Out on the streets, photorealistic murals waited to put our new-found confidence to shame. Armed with a graffiti map dotted with the most impressive murals in the neighbourhood given to me by Jeff, I would later take a stroll through the streets and feel humbled by the irrepressible creative spirit of Brooklyn.
After the workshop, as I sat in a corner cafe for brunch, I watched its biggest wall being covered by an elaborate mural. It noted that “American is not a language,” and rather cheekily, “Two tongues are better than one”–with two women sticking their tongues out towards each other. Over a cup of cappuccino, I saw Jeff zoom past me in the graffiti-laden car I’d marvelled at earlier. I was almost surprised to find no snarky latte art in my cup.