Looming over a nondescript parking lot on 6th Avenue, a dapper figure stretches to spray paint the ♥ between ‘I’ and ‘NY.’ In Bushwick, a boy peers down the DeKalb Avenue Subway station entrance greeting riders going up the steps, and on Ellis Island, evocative historical photographs appear on the windows of the old abandoned hospital like spirits from a bygone era. With almost every turn, art spills into the streets of New York, transforming the entire metropolis into a vast urban gallery that provides a free and ever-evolving art spectacle to the attentive pedestrian year round.
“The element of surprise is what I love most about street art,” says Ken Brown. Brown is a graphic artist, animator, and independent filmmaker whose distinctive style has been showcased in projects for MTV, VH-1, and Sesame Street. For almost 30 years, Brown has been roving the streets of New York on his bicycle and capturing pictures of street art, scouring the city’s streets for inspiration and delight. “I call this process ‘hunting and gathering,’” explains Brown. “There’s an alluring ephemeral quality about street art that I chase. The artist puts a lot of time and effort into his work but knows that it’s only going to be up there for a little while. There’s something beautiful about that.” Like an archivist for fleeting beauty, Brown catalogues his collection of images into a system (method, material, subject matter, artist) and publishes them on his blog. “My hard drive groans with over 100,000 images now.”
Street art or graffiti first emerged in the late ‘70s and ‘80s in New York in the form of tags on subway cars. Teeming with angst, whimsy, wit, or personal expression, the aerosol can became the weapon of choice and medium for restless creative energy. 5Pointz, a legendary outdoor exhibition space in Long Island City was an international mecca for street art and its closing earlier this year was mourned and protested by many. Last October, the elusive Bristol-born artist Banksy, held a sensational residency in New York City, embedding works through the five boroughs every day. (A new documentary about the artist’s exhilarating New York takeover, “Banksy Does New York,” premieres on HBO on November 17).
Among other things, the phenomenon catalyzed the local tribe of avid street art devotees including Brown. “I love Banksy and I followed his route for a bit. He’s a provocateur and made people think about what’s going on in the world. I believe that this is an important aspect of art-making — art as the antenna of civilization.”
Brown is among the dsgnfix’s esteemed roster of founding curators. For his selects, he shines a spotlight on the Welling Court Mural Project in Queens, a grassroots initiative organized by Ad Hoc Art in collaboration with the neighborhood in Astoria with the mission of “slaying some aesthetic blights” in their post-industrial surroundings. With over 130 murals this year (including a wall commissioned by OHNY), it has become hotbed for street artists from around the world creating site-specific work. “This project epitomizes a lot of the things I love about street art: a small community working with a local gallery to foster urban renewal and making art that is accessible, interactive, and available for everyone,” says Brown.