There is an inevitability about change. No matter what you do to preserve the present, it passes. This is as true of art and hip-hop as anything else. Culture dominance has shifted; from the Bronx to Brooklyn, from graffiti to street art. Still, we are linked and forever indebted to our history.
The L stopped at Atlantic Ave and I stepped off. The platform was empty. Behind me, the skyscrapers of Manhattan were distant memories of a different city. The surrounding buildings were topped with barbed wire and cameras. This was one of the most crime ridden neighbors of Brooklyn, a shore on which the waves of gentrification had not yet reached. This was East New York.
It was a hot day, and the sun had beat everyone indoors. I walked down the steps into the angry solar gaze. The street was deserted, except for a small team of graffiti writers, painting in the shadows and shade. Each man had his section of the wall, working while they talked quietly, passing along drinks and spray cans. The man I traveled to meet was wearing camo pants and a matching boonie hat, with a thick beard and glasses. Will Power greeted me warmly, but with a warning.
“Man, this is the hood.” He motioned toward the other side of the L. "There’s three shelters around that corner.”
Before we talked art, he told me the story of what had happened the day before. A woman, strung out on something, was watching him paint. Intending to help her out, Will sent her out with $10 to bring back water. He told her she could keep the change, and buy whatever she wanted. 30 minutes later, she returned hysterical, bloody, and sobbing. She’d been jumped, beaten up, and robbed.
“But she still brought me the water. That shows the depth of her integrity.” Will smiled. He let her keep the water, comforted her, and guided her toward a safer road. “Here I am trying to give her some happiness, and this place is so miserable she can’t even get that.” Will shook his head. “So this is why we’re here. We’re trying to paint, so we can give the people here some happiness.”
Will Powers is a man of compassion and understanding. During the week, he works three jobs, and volunteers his free time to paint art for the underprivileged neighborhood. A mural Will made of Santa Clause had earned him the gratitude in the community. Will was happy, watching a father and son take photos with his art. Experiences like this give him meaning. Will is a man of faith, and takes religious inspiration. Half-Thai, half-black, Will credits visiting Thailand with giving a broader perspective on life. His journey has brought him many places he did not expect.
Raised in Jersey City in the late 80s, Will grew up in a culture of hip-hop, when New York was in the throes of transformation. During his coming of age, he b-boyed and began graffiti writing in ’84 when he was fifteen. Will had been lured toward hip-hop for its attitude of free expression. He partied with the old crews and scratched across the city, living the lifestyle. But Will had to put down his spray can when his daughter was born. Will enlisted, earning a steady paycheck and a new level of responsibility. Still, his passion remained art.
“Even when I was in the military, I was always sketching, drawing something.” Will said.
In 2012, Will tried to get back in the scene, only to find much had changed.
"I wasn’t seeing a lot of art that I liked.” Will explained. “No disrespect, it was just art that wasn’t hip-hop.” It was street art.
Will laid out the divide for me. Graffiti was first used as a slur, a derogatory term for the ‘urban blight’ that authorities saw as vandalism. While the term eventually grew acceptance, early graffiti artists referred to themselves as writers. In the early 90s, as the likes of Biggie Smalls ushered in the golden era of hip-hop, graffiti was being redefined by stencil artists, a form of street art. Some, like Le Rat, kept a connection to the hip-hop roots. But a rift had begun.
Through the 00s, street art took on its own identity, and bore less of a resemblance to its progenitor. Street art was raised in an era of greater social acceptance, while graffiti was often associated with crime. It is worth noting, most early graffiti writers were black and brown, while later artists were white and more affluent. The dynamics of change were magnified by the implications of class and race. Will told me there was a sense among some that the culture was being jacked. When Will returned to the scene, he felt the tension.
A man of conviction, Will wanted to build a bridge. He hung with graffiti crews and street art collectives, learning from both. Will began to paint murals like a street artist, all the while incorporating a distinct hip-hop style. He encouraged both sides to paint together, but members of the old guard were suspicious of change.
“Some of the pioneers didn’t want to break with tradition, but you gotta break with tradition because that’s art. I come with the history, because I respect the art.”
The cultures began to melt together, a pool of artists from both the old and new schools.
“We were bringing uptown in with downtown.” Will said. “Guys from Harlem and the Bronx started doing shows with artists from the LES.”
The cross-cultural pollination continued through to Brooklyn. Will was one of the artists to paint a mural at the Underhill Walls venue alongside Cali Maverick and Zimer; a collection of some of the most talented artists in the city. These collaborations are an example of the wider art revival happening through-out New York.
“That’s what’s happening now. I call it the hip-hop renaissance.” Will declared.
During our interview, a police van rolled up. The officers stepped out, sizing up the spray cans and graffiti. They walked over, sending up a silent alarm, as everyone watched their approach. But rather than lecture or make arrests, the police were full of praise. One officer cited Will’s Santa mural as being a positive influence on the neighborhood. After we’d waved goodbye to the police, Will offered his thoughts: “That’s part of the foundation of hip-hop, community."
We discussed art, wealth, and change.
“I live to paint, but I don’t paint to live.”
Will felt that by depending on art for an income, it will distort artistic purpose.
Will shrugged. “That’s the facts of life everywhere.”
Before leaving, I commiserated on the struggles of freelancing. Will Powers gave me some parting advice:
“Don’t do it for the money, do it for the love."
Art has always been confronted with the money problem. From the old masters to the street masters, art and artist require patronage to survive. Even successful artists struggle financially. Often for this reason, artists are some of the first to move in to poorer neighborhoods.
In her book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art & Music Drive New York City, author Elizabeth Currid lays out her argument that the social fabric of artists define trends and drive cultural consumption. This cultural consumption is a profitable business, and one of New York’s most significant products. Through this cycle, different fashions rise and fall, bringing with it evolving economic incentives.
While Currid doesn’t directly address the question, it’s something of an open secret in the city: that artists are often the first wave of gentrification.
The King of New York resides in Bed-Stuy, near the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Fort Greene. Apartments along the border offer relatively cheap rent to draw demand, before rising with supply. It is likely that foreseeing future change is what prompted Mr. Berkowitz to consider renovations. Just as graffiti was a reflection of urban poverty in the Bronx, street art appears among the shifting demographics of economics.
“Products of their environment.” Zimer told me. “All artists work in their time, and their subject matter will be a reflection of the time the artist lives in.” He added philosophically.
Bushwick, the poster-child neighborhood of Brooklyn’s gentrification and home to New York’s fastest growing art scene. Here, I visited Scott "Zimer” Zimmerman, the co-creator of the King of New York, as he began the work of a new mural. Zimer was painting near the Chauncey stop on the J, at the cross-street of Moffat & Broadway. When I arrived, I found Zimer 2 stories up, putting in day one outlines.
After snapping some candid photos, I called up and Zimer lowered down. After hellos, he invited me onto the electric scissor lift he'd rented for the project. I stepped up and began my questioning, but he cut me off.
“Hold on.” Zimer commanded.
I paused my question.
“No, I mean literally hold on. We're going up.”
He cranked the stick shift, and the trolley rolled forward, then lurched to stop. He pressed a button on the pad, and jammed the stick across the Y axis, and we rose above the street. Zimer eased us in around 25 ft. From the vantage point, I could see across the tops of Bushwick’s low buildings. I took a moment to marvel at the view. Zimer pulled out a black spray can and continued to paint.
Raised in Bayside, Queens, Zimer has a New York cynicism and the skepticism of a discerning mind. As an artist, he came of age in the 90s, in the post-train era. A former architecture student, he paints complex pieces with precision. I watched as Zimer consulted his black-book with a print out of the final design. He had coordinated number blocks on the blueprint to tiles on the wall. This clever innovation is one of the reasons I regard Zimer as one of the most technically proficient artists in the scene.
Despite his mastery of form, Zimer still faces the realities of most artists.
“A couple good commissions a year keeps you going.” Zimer said, explaining to me that he preferred to paint his own designs, but necessity requires compromise. One of his last commissioned projects was a label design for Intrinsic Wine.
Nonetheless, “I’m still a starving artist.” Zimer said sardonically.
We talked a bit about keeping your head above water in a city with a rough economic current, liable to pull you under. In regards to art, Zimer told me: “People who make it their life, deserve to find a way to live off of that.” I am inclined to agree.
Formerly, Zimer lived in Bushwick among artists, right as the neighborhood began to develop. From SpreadArt’s Dodworth Street, to JMZ Walls, to the eponymous collective, the ‘Shwick has grown into an important cultural hub; not just of street art, but of the entire New York art scene. But with its flourishing walls, comes rising rent. Zimer’s has since moved, priced out by the costs.
Speaking on hip-hop, in the context of street art, Zimer had some choice words.
“They wouldn’t know about hip-hop and the culture, until people started making money off it. I’m talking about the people who weren’t raised around it.”
I offered my opinions on how fragmentation has come as a consequence of commercialization.
“The connection is so watered down, from what it’s supposed to be.” Zimer lamented. He recalled how the four elements used to be more present. “The culture I came into, [hip-hop] was still there. People were still breakdancing at a graffiti wall.” He added with a shrug. “Haven’t seen that shit in ten years.”
I suggested that the change came with the distinction between graffiti and street art. Zimer dismissed my theory, believing that to define it is to confine it. Art shapes to its environment, and labels will always be inadequate. All the same, a change has brought a disconnect from the hip-hop roots.
“However you want to express yourself artistically, hip-hop has an outlet for you.” Zimer said. He was bitter that people have forgotten their history. “People don’t do hip-hop in the streets,” Zimer shook his head, disillusioned. “I mean, has anyone seen someone doing something like Biggie Smalls, just killing it like that?” referring to the notorious freestyle on Bedford & Quincy.
I asked his thoughts on the King of New York. Like Rocko, Zimer seemed a little skittish on the subject, given how quickly things escalated. He admitted he often felt uncomfortable painting images of the dead, even icons like Biggie, because of how emotionally attached people become.
“It’s weird for me, how it,” Zimer said referring to the KoNY mural, “how it can excite people.”
I suggested that this was the sign of great art, the ability to make people feel strongly.
Zimer gave a harsh laugh. “Yeah.” He added skeptically.
While we talked on top of the lift, passerby gathered underneath to watch. Zimer let one excited man borrow the spray can to hit some fills at the base. Another asked what the finished project would look like. Just some girls dancing, Zimer replied. An understatement so modest it borders the line of deceitful. Zimer’s distinctive style blends graffiti and classical art methods with sharp imagery, often in red and black paint. The result gives his work a striking form.
Although Zimer has adopted the jaded outlook of a lifelong New Yorker, he still has a heart for community, the foundation for both hip-hop and art. I asked Zimer what it was like to be collaborating with Rocko. He acknowledged he had only done 2 projects with the founder of SpreadArtNYC, but that the connection between them was real.
“[Rocko’s] not just another organization… I've painted with him.” Zimer said, thoughtfully. Zimer added that he cared if they were doing well and doing the right thing. “SpreadArt is pretty community oriented.”
When Rocko and Zimer painted the King of New York, they did it on their own dime and time. When we talked about gentrification in Bed-Stuy, Zimer treated it with a melancholy fatalism. He regretted that many of the people who had lived there in the time of Biggie have since been pushed out.
“It’s hard to have a block party when 2/3rds of the community is gone.”
Which is why Zimer was surprised when people came back to celebrate when the King of New York was completed. Everyone from the OGB crew and 50 Grand, Biggie Small’s children, to longtime residents of Bed-Stuy showed up to pay tribute. The ceremony of New York royalty caught Zimer off-guard.
“It felt…” He paused, thinking, “totally legit.” Zimer smiled.
You’re Nobody (Until Somebody Kills You)
“You like my Biggie photo? Me too. You know what draws your eye when you look at that? The crown. Wanna know why? Because everybody wants to be the King.”
So speaks the uptown don, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes of Marvel’s Luke Cage. Shortly, after his monologue, Cottonmouth beats a man to death. A reminder of the violence associated with hip-hop. The camera focuses in on Barron Claiborne’s infamous portrait of Biggie Smalls wearing the crown. This same photo became the template for the King of New York
In 1994, Biggie released Ready to Die, a genre defining album of hip-hop. By 1995, it was certified double-platinum, and is considered a classic of the golden era of hip-hop. On March 9, 1997, sixteen days before his follow-up, Christopher Wallace was shot dead by unknown assailant. The case remains unsolved. The sophomore album is certified diamond, one of the best-selling rap albums, and a landmark in hip-hop history, an album that bridged the mainstream and the underground; Life After Death. At the time of his murder, Biggie Smalls was just 24 years old.
In his short life, Biggie made a massive cultural imprint, on hip-hop and rap, and on Brooklyn and New York. In death, he has become an immortal icon, one that continues to reign over art and pop culture, a link between worlds. On a personal level, the Notorious B.I.G. has also had a substantial impact on my life; Biggie was my bridge into hip-hop.
I first came across the master of flow on a mixtape, Blue Eyes Meets Bed-Stuy. The underground album mixed Biggie rhymes with beats pulled from another New York King, Frank Sinatra.
Prior, I was a hater. Like the punk wannabe I was, I looked at hip-hop as criminal, not worthy of being considered music. Not unlike the condescension held toward graffiti as an art form.
Embarrassed as I am to admit how close-minded I was in my younger days, I’ve changed. I’ve come around. I’ve been around. I’ve learned my history. These days, I’ve come to revere hip-hop with the highest respect, as one of the most innovative, artistic movements to have ever been born of New York City. Epiphanies, courtesy of the Notorious B.I.G.
Juicy/New York, New York
Rocko was in crisis mode. The DNAinfo article broke on May 18th, and by May 20th, Rocko was desperately trying to sit down and talk with Mr. Berkowitz. Rocko has the gentle heart of an artist, and confrontation is not his style. But he needed to talk man to man with the landlord. He was terrified the King of New York was about to be destroyed over a misunderstanding.
The founder of SpreadArtNYC is man of community and compassion. Like Will Power, Rocko paints for free, and does so because he wants to spread positivity through this often grim city. Blending graffiti and calligraphy techniques, Rocko tries to mix old school style with new school expression. 'Give me a wall and paint it,’ is his motto. Rocko’s day job involves caring for the elderly at a Brooklyn senior center. It was among the older residents, that Rocko was inspired to paint a memorial of Brooklyn-past. Rocko wanted to create something that connected hip-hop, street art, and community.
The King of New York was meant to be a preservation of history. The demographics of Bed-Stuy and Brooklyn are changing, and the community with it. Although Rocko understood change can’t be stopped, he wanted to commemorate the old days, while still staying welcoming to young artists and others moving in. To Rocko, Brooklyn is for everybody. Even landlords.
After agonizing for 3 days, through missed phone calls and unanswered emails, Rocko finally got in touch with Mr. Berkowitz. They set up a meeting, where the two talked for over 2 hours. The men were cordial, seeking to get where one another were coming from.
“He asked me, ‘Where’s all this stress coming from?’ He didn’t understand the importance of Biggie to the culture.” Rocko explained me.
Rocko appealed to Mr. Berkowitz to reconsider his plans for renovation. Laying all his cards on the table, Rocko pointed out that the outcry wouldn’t have followed the destruction of most murals. But the King of New York was different. It meant something, to hip-hop heads, to street artists, and to Brooklyn.
Mr. Berkowitz began to see. He and Rocko came to an understanding. In exchange for dropping the petition to landmark the Bedford & Quincy building, the landlord would keep the mural. Rocko made the calls, and the petition was closed; it’s mission accomplished. The gentlemen’s agreement was sealed with a handshake and mutual respect. On May 22nd, SpreadArtNYC announced the mural had been saved, and implored the public to show gratitude to Mr. Berkowitz for his consideration. DNAinfo wrote an article, word spread, and the city rejoiced.
And so, the King of New York lives on. But many questions remain.
Gentrification continues to wash over Brooklyn, displacing communities, and fragmenting neighborhoods. The commercialization of culture is a booming industry and the vultures of capitalism are always eager to exploit rising artistic movements. It can be demoralizing to artists, caught in the riptide of the city, trying to keep your head above water. This story says only what it may say, about hip-hop, street art, and the Notorious B.I.G. But the King of New York is something bigger.
When Rocko created SpreadArtNYC, he found inspiration in Biggie Smalls. He curated an exhibition to celebrate Biggie’s life and death, painted a mural in his likeness, and fought to defend his legacy. However, perhaps the greatest tribute to the King of New York comes from the art collective’s name, amended from the lyrics to Juicy; So what’s it about? In the words of Biggie Smalls: