As it’s continued to exist in legal limbo, aerosol art has, under GFNYC’s two-decades-long watch, struck a precarious balance, straddling a public square full of ticket-writing cops and a private sphere eager to convert graffiti’s cultural capital into a quick buck. In the wake of 5Pointz’s whitewashing, Marie-Cécile Flageul and Meres One co-founded a group called 5Pointz Creates, a collective of those who worked at the Queens site, to put on “pop up events dedicated to the spirit of the Graffiti Mecca.” In 2016, 5Pointz Creates was approached by the citizenM hotel to create the Museum of Street Art (MoSA), a free “museum” inside the hotel showcasing the work of artists who formerly painted at 5Pointz.
CitizenM is a Netherlands-based chain of “boutique” accommodations that provides “affordable luxury in some of the most exciting cities in the world.” Its location on the Bowery in lower Manhattan, one of two in New York City, is a far cry from the blighted urban areas that incubated the city’s graffiti scene—it’s not often that getting pushed out of Queens lands one in Manhattan.
Producing work for a corporate client might seem anathema to the hip-hop generation of yore. But, according to Flageul, the legal options for graffiti artists in New York City have dwindled, and when the hotel’s representatives promised wall blanche, the opportunity proved irresistible. The arrangement also seemed to resolve the ethical dilemma of contributing to gentrification. “We don’t want to be a tool of displacement,” Flageul told me.
Every artist Flageul approached to be a part of her MoSA curation said yes. And all the artists were paid the same amount for their work, while receiving the same expense budget, no matter their experience level. Older graffiti artists might have furtively tagged the exterior of such an establishment; now, the artists of 5Pointz were working on the inside, with permission, for a paycheck, the radical ambition of the graffiti project replaced by something much more modest.
Developers are more than willing to take advantage of a changing graffiti culture. Down the street from citizenM is the Houston Bowery Wall, owned by the Goldman family, one of New York City’s highest-profile billionaire real estate developers. In the last two years, the wall has been the site of both protest art by Banksy and an ad for Instagram’s inclusivity and kindness campaign. (It is in the Goldmans’ best interest for these to be virtually indistinguishable.)
The Goldman family owns property in the Wynwood section of Miami, which is now known for the street art at Wynwood Walls. “Wynwood was nondescript and industrial. Where other people would see—excuse my language—shitty tagging all over the place, my dad said, ‘Wow! These buildings are canvases,’” Jessica Goldman Srebnick, CEO of Goldman Properties, said in a recent interview. Tony Goldman is also credited with revitalizing Miami Beach’s South Beach in the 1980s.
Goldman Properties calls its ability to flip neighborhoods “Gentlefication,” but there is nothing gentle about it. In 2016, a property adjacent to the Wynwood Walls sold for $53.5 million, or $1,250 per square foot, according to the Miami Herald. While some homeowners are seeing their property values increase, renters and others are being priced out. And though developers have offered a trifling number of affordable housing units in the area, it’s not enough to meaningfully slow the pace of change.
Not all graffiti artists have been eager to participate in that process. In a strange reversal of the Giuliani years, when graffiti artists were seen by the law as miscreants to be gleefully locked up, artists have started using the law to defend their art against corporate usurpers. In 2016, a photographer used a mural on a parking structure in Detroit that was painted on commission by the Swiss street artist Adrian Falkner as the backdrop for a Cadillac ad without the artist’s knowledge. When Falkner sued for copyright infringement, the court came down against General Motors.
In 2018, H&M settled a lawsuit with artist Jason “Revok” Williams, who had sent a cease-and-desist letter to the clothing company after it shot an ad at a Brooklyn handball court featuring his work. Before settling, H&M fought back on the basis that his work was done illegally.
But those artists are largely exceptions, working against a tide of more corporate-friendly work. “The artists that are co-opted [by brands] the most have a style that plays into the popular notion of what art should be,” Renée Vara, who was enlisted as an art expert in the 5Pointz case, told me.
So if the supposed threat caused by graffiti has been neutralized, why hasn’t the law kept pace? In a CityLab article published in February, a former research and policy adviser at the National Network for Safe Communities wrote, “The broken windows paradigm remains active throughout policing. Perhaps most significantly, it still colors how the public views violence and demands responses to it: both as a danger that characterizes entire poor communities of color, and as a menace that poses a constant threat.” The same style of artwork that gave rise to Wynwood Walls was lumped into a series of policies that terrorized a generation of minority citizens. No matter how many white gentrifiers move to Bed-Stuy, that era is not dead—indeed, it’s not even past.
In Style Wars, then-MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, who is often credited with rescuing New York’s subway from infamy as a graffiti-plastered hellscape, said of the youths tagging the subway lines: “It isn’t the energy that is misplaced, it’s the value system that’s misplaced.” One could just as easily say the same for a city that rewards real estate developers that use street art to lure gentrifiers, while calling that same art ugly and anti-social.
It seems well past time for détente between the city’s power brokers and one of its signature forms of expression. “The laws are the laws. If I could change anything [I’d] do one legal paint park in each borough,” Meres One told me. Such a proposal would hardly be groundbreaking: Public paint parks have had success in cities like London, Prague, and Buenos Aires.
What such an accord would mean for graffiti, an art form that has increasingly been defanged, coopted, and commodified, remains an open question. And at any rate, there’s little evidence that a truce is under consideration. For Meres One and other graffiti artists, there aren’t many viable options.“I have no legal walls. I can’t get up and say I really feel like painting today,” he told me. “Now the options are a mural project that might be exploited,” a paid commission, or nothing. “If it wasn’t for the wall in my yard I’d go stir crazy.”