King of New York: Part 1
Rocko was caught in the crossfire. Legal threats were coming from the landlord’s lawyers and a public outcry was erupting across social media. The mayor’s office had gotten involved, and offers were coming from the Brooklyn Nets.
An artist by trade and a lover at heart, Rocko never expected to find himself at the center of a public feud.
The situation had escalated in a matter of days, spiraling out of control. Rocko was stressed, on the frontline of the divide, pleading for peace from deaf ears. All the same, the founder of SpreadArtNYC wasn’t entirely surprised. People were willing to fight to defend the King of New York.
I Got a Story to Tell
The trouble begins, as it often does, with money.
In early May, Naoufal “Rocko” Alaoui received some dismaying news. The Notorious B.I.G. mural that he and fellow SpreadArt member Zimer had painted would be destroyed. Reason being, the building was to be renovated for higher rents.
Solomon Berkowitz, owner of the building on which the mural was painted, wanted to add several windows to generate more revenue from potential tenants. Seeking to preserve the icon, Rocko offered Mr. Berkowitz $5000 to forestall an overhaul. The owner gave a counter-offer of $1,250 per month.
Rocko, unable to afford the price-tag, resigned himself to the renovation. Feeling an obligation to inform fans of the impending destruction, he posted on Instagram to announce the downfall.
“[K]ing Of NY" Mural will be put to rest sometime very soon! Special thanks to all the fans for your love and support! We promise you Bigger and Bigger Projects!” Rocko wrote on May 12th.
The post generated considerable feedback, with many confused and alarmed to see the popular mural come down, prompting Rocko to provide an explanation.
In another post, Rocko elaborated on the failed negotiation, and noted that the landlord had complained about the crowd the mural was bringing. As Rocko later told me, the local deli had reported a robbery in front of the B.I.G. mural, as well as other minor confrontations. While it seems a stretch to fault a painting for crime, the grievances gave credence to the landlord’s decision to do away with it. By May, Mr. Berkowitz had already purchased permits for the renovation.
The story was picked up by DNAinfo, a hard-hitting newspaper that covers the five boroughs. DNAinfo had reported on the artwork when it first went up, in addition to 20 Big Years, a celebration of Biggie’s life which had been hosted by SpreadArt in March. A local journal, DNAinfo has a reputation of taking on stories of community interest. The article broke on May 18th; it did not paint Mr. Berkowitz in a favorable light.
Soon after, the story began to gain traction as part of the larger New York discourse on gentrification, bringing with it the perennial questions of class and race.
Support poured in from across the city. Members of the mayor’s office sought a political solution, and Congressman Jeffries, who represents New York's 8th district which includes Brooklyn & Queens, voiced his sympathies to SpreadArtNYC. Calls came in from other high profile figures, such as T.I. and the Brooklyn Nets, offering financial and spiritual support. The issue went viral across social media. Fans began an online petition to landmark the building and prevent the landlord’s renovations. All this, within four days.
When we talked, Rocko revealed to me it was the push for landmarking that angered Mr. Berkowitz most.
“He’s not a bad guy. He’s just a business owner. I get where he was coming from.” Rocko said sympathetically. The founder of SpreadArtNYC bemoaned the petition. The attempt to make-public the private property led the landlord to feeling attacked. “People forget what happened with 5pointz, he can just buff the mural. It’s still his building, he owns it, he can do whatever he wants.”
Rocko reached out, sending a private message that asked for the petition to come down, but the fans turned on him. They accused the artist of acquiescing. But Rocko was just trying to make peace. Caught between the desire to be respectful to Mr. Berkowitz, whose generosity allowed SpreadArt to paint in the first place, and the public outcry, a maelstrom that grew more intense with each passing day, Rocko was trapped.
When we spoke after the affair had ended, I had the impression Rocko was still a bit shaken from how quickly things had escalated. Something in the story triggered a nerve that sent emotions running across New York.
The more I learned, the more I realized that the battle for the King of New York was a reflection of something bigger than Biggie. The mural rested on the surface of something more. To understand, I began to investigate deeper.
When things began to unfold one of the questions thrown at SpreadArtNYC was, why not just paint a new mural somewhere else? After all, murals of Biggie are not an uncommon site around Brooklyn. Master of flow, innovator of East Coast style, Biggie’s legacy is cemented in the foundations of hip-hop. However, what is often unappreciated is the impression that the rap legend made on Brooklyn street art. In many ways, the Notorious B.I.G. has become a visual reminder of the connection between hip-hop and Brooklyn. In the words of Talib Kweli, from Black Star’s Definition:
“Brooklyn, New York City, where they paint murals of Biggie.”
On the corner of Fulton and South Portland Ave, another Notorious mural stands guard. Known as ‘Comandante Biggie,’ the image fuses the rapper with revolutionary icon, Che Guevara. The piece was commissioned by Habana Outpost, an eco-conscious Cuban restaurant in Fort Greene, as a way of tying together the geographic roots. ‘Comandante Biggie’ was painted by Cern One, and with collaboration from graffiti legend Lee Quiñones, who added the adjoining memorial pigeons.
Speaking with Cern, he recalled meeting a young Christopher Wallace in 1994, shortly after the debut of ‘Ready to Die.’ The encounter happened in LaGuardia, as the up-and-coming rapper was on his way to Philly. I asked his impression, what was it like to meet such an iconic figure? What was Christopher Wallace really like? Cern gave an unexpected answer:
“Well, he was a pretty funny guy.”
For such an iconic symbol, it seemed to me a very human description.
Across the borough, on the north side of Prospect Park, an outdoor exhibition at Underhill Walls displays the work of some of the most influential artists in the street art scene. The series of murals, curated by Jeff Beler and Frankie Velez, had no theme. Rather, they let the artists choose what inspires them; as such, there are several tributes to hip-hop and the Notorious B.I.G.
I spoke with Cali Maverick, rising artist and founder of his brand, MADE: Maverick’s Art, Design, Education. The Californian native is a recent Brooklyn transplant. In the past, he’s done set design and hats, but the Underhill project was his big break into the New York scene. Inspired by SpreadArt’s 20 Big Years exhibit earlier this year, Cali Maverick wanted to pay homage to Brooklyn’s finest. His piece for Underhill is a painting of Biggie in his infamous coogie sweater, with the titular quote “It Was All a Dream.”
He told me how he felt the need to present something positive, as his contribution to the community.
“Biggie to me is huge,” Cali Maverick said, “I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d want to pay tribute to.”
When asked why those lyrics, he responded, “Juicy, to me, is happiness. It’s summertime, it’s love.”
It’s a sentiment that I heard echoed by most of the artists I interviewed.
On the corner of Bedford & Quincy, the King of New York looks over the residents of Bed-Stuy. Painted by Rocko and Zimer, as part of the SpreadArtNYC mission, the illustration of the Notorious rapper went up in 2015. The mural was born from Rocko’s desire to give something back to the community. He reached out to the landlord for permission to paint, free of charge, and Mr. Berkowitz gave his okay.
“I’m the kind of guy,” Rocko explained, “give me a wall, and I’ll paint it.”
After the work was finished it quickly became a shrine where fans came to pay homage. Aspiring rappers, hip-hop heads, and other onlookers visited the corner where Biggie first made a name for himself, in his infamous Brooklyn freestyle. The then 17-year old Christopher Wallace wrote his page in history with the lyrical finesse and steady flow that became his trademark. The King of New York was even visited by the royal court; DJ 50 Grand and the OGB team stopped by. Together, they produced 'Microphone Murderer’ with Notorious, the lyrics to which are layered behind the big man’s portrait:
"B.I.G. down with OGB. Old Gold Brothers for the others that missed me. The crew stay deep on Bedford and Quincy.”
The corner has come to represent the legendary origins. The mural is symbolic of B.I.G.’s contributions to hip-hop, to Brooklyn, and to art. In an Instagram post, SpreadArtNYC explained the importance of why the mural couldn’t simply be painted elsewhere.
"Community is our goal, we like to give back and we thought [a] biggie mural at the corner of #bedfordandquincy was needed to keep the culture alive, to keep Brooklyn Alive. We always say, Brooklyn is Biggie and Biggie is Brooklyn.”
Biggie is remembered, both for his humanity, good humor and charm, as well as for the iconic status he achieved. What the Notorious B.I.G. represents is something bigger than himself. Bigger than hip-hop, Biggie has also come to represent Brooklyn itself. This is part of why his imagery resonates so deeply. But the history goes deeper. To get why Biggie has become such a subliminal figure in Brooklyn street art, I searched to understand the relationship between street art and hip-hop itself.
So what is the relationship between hip-hop and street art?
Born of the South Bronx, the children of hip-hop have grown up. The hip-hop family is composed of four core elements: DJing, b-boying, graffiti writing, and emceeing. Now, each has developed into its own art form: DJing to producing, b-boying to a variety of dance styles, and graffiti to street art. Emceeing, rapping, has become synonymous with what people now think of as hip-hop. Although, graffiti and emceeing have gone their separate ways, the familial thread remains.
The quintessential hip-hop film, 1983’s Wild Style, documents the early days. The loose narrative follows Raymond, a shy Bronx graffiti artist who masquerades by night as Zorro, a notorious bomber who hits the train-yards in the dark of night. Raymond rejects the trend toward commissioned & commercial-sanctioned murals, fearing the money will corrupt the spirit of graffiti & hip-hop. As the plot unfolds, Raymond meets Phade, a nightclub owner and former graffiti writer. Eventually, a blond journalist, well intended but ditzy and naive, investigates the graffiti scene. The characters are swept through New York in a series of vignettes, book-ended by music montages. The climax comes when uptown meets downtown and a rap battle ensues in the Lower East Side bandshell; Raymond, convinced that he’s not betraying the culture by getting paid, paints the backdrop to the show. Themes of positivity, respect, and the power of self-expression permeate.
Wild Style blurs the line between art and artists, featuring actual celebrities of the era. Raymond is played by Lee Quiñones, one of the best known train bombers and Phade is Fab 5 Freddy, a pioneer of hip-hop. Cameos from emcees, DJs, and b-boys pop up through the film, with notables like the Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash, and Busy Bee. Wild Style’s legacy is compounded by tributes paid by modern hip-hop; Common, J Dilla, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, MF Doom, Jurassic 5, all have sampled clips.
34 years since Wild Style’s release, hip-hop remains the soundtrack of street art.
Jay Shells, a Manhattan based creator, has made this bridge visually evident. I met Jay for the first time in 212 Arts, an upscale East Village gallery, which was presenting a collection of his watercolor art. But the first time I met his art was walking through the streets of Bushwick.
The 37-year old father is a New York native. Growing up, he was surrounded by hip-hop and rap culture, which made a deep impression on his aesthetic senses. Jay’s done album design, and the musical influences extend into his street art. But before Jay was splashing Brooklyn walls, the project began on twitter. Jay and his brother ran the twitter page @therapquotes.
In early 2013, Jay was listening to Big L, when he realized how common name-dropping New York streets was in rap lyricism. Liking the concept, Jay started to search out songs that specifically named spots across the five boroughs. Taking this idea one step further, Jay decided to post up the quotes on the streets themselves.
A man of detail, he curated the quotes based on the most site-specific streets. Jay would bolt signs onto sign poles; below stop signs, yield signs, crosswalk signs. Signage worked for two reasons; the design was to be visual, let the lyrics be seen, but keeping in mind the gray legality, the other ambition was to do it quickly, without being caught.
Investing hours to research, listen, scout, and hit signs, the project became very personal. For Jay, it was his tribute to the culture that raised him.
“Hip-hop is the soundtrack to my work.” Jay said, explaining how rap quotes became his mission. “It was my way to contribute to the hip-hop community.”
Jay’s affinity for art and hip-hop brought him in with similarly minded artists, such as Rocko and SpreadArtNYC. Jay was invited to collaborate on several exhibitions. On Bushwick’s Dodworth Street, SpreadArtNYC organized a series of mural, creating a small mecca of art. For this, Jay contributed a quote from the other half of Black Star, Mos Def. Jay also produced art for the 20 Big Years show.
One day, it hit Jay: he hadn’t made a sign on the Notorious B.I.G. He scanned Ready to Die, Life After Death, and even Duets, but Jay had a hard time finding the right lyrics. Although Biggie was always representing the borough, there was a surprising lack of street specific name drops. Until, someone forwarded him Microphone Murderer.
Jay knew what had to be done. For one of his last bolt-work projects, Jay laid up a sign on Bedford & Quincy, in view of the King of New York.
The Microphone Murderer piece has since been stolen, but Jay has come to accept that this is part of the ephemeral nature of street art.
Jay has since begun to evolve his work, experimenting with new mediums and styles. Over-Looked & Under-Exposed, his watercolor show, demonstrates Jay range and progression. But while he continues his rise into the gallery world, Jay remembers his roots. Hip-hop is his history, and hip-hop is his soundtrack.
Written by T.K. Mills
All photos provided by T.K. Mills
Index of Instagram’s:
Cali Maverick: calimaverick
Cern One: cernesto
El Xupet Negre [The Black Pacifier]: elxupetnegre
Frankie Velez: artface7
Jay Shells: jayshells_
Jeff Beler: jeffbeler
Lee Quiñones: leequiñones
Will Power: theartofwillpower
Author's Note: Attempts were made to locate & credit all artists. Those that were missed, please reach out to be included in future editions of this article.