(Photo:  Ryan Roco)

Bushwick Collective held its annual block party this month in Bushwick, pairing blocks of street art with food trucks and performances by artists like rapper/pear enthusiast Rick Ross. However, cell phones and pot smoke weren’t the only things in the air. Beside the Jefferson Street L train station, the closest station to the block party, activists hung a bright pink banner reading “Bushwick Collective Exploits Artists + Community.” Activists also stood on a rooftop behind the stage, flying a stark burgundy banner reading “Artists Resist Becoming Weapons of Mass Displacement.”

The activists were members of Mi Casa No Es Su Casa. Founded in 2014, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa is a Bushwick-based organization focused on protecting tenants’ rights and affordable housing. In their campaign to safeguard tenants from eviction and escalated housing prices, the group is taking action against artwashing: when corporations hire artists to put up murals, commercial or non-commercial, to beautify a community but otherwise do not contribute to any of a community’s needs.  

“Artwashing is what’s used by a lot of real estate developers to accelerate the gentrification of an area,” says activist and Mi Casa No Es Su Casa co-founder Pati, who declined to give her last name. Though born in Ecuador, Pati has lived in Bushwick since she was eight months old. “It’s when art is commodified in a community, specifically working class, POC communities.” 

(Photo:  Ryan Roco)

The organization has focused on taking action against specific artwork done in direct collaboration with real estate companies. Its latest action was against the Bushwick Collective Block Party. The collective was founded in 2011 by Joe Ficarola, a native Bushwick resident and advocate for street art who hoped the collective would give artists another option, with Manhattan being overrun and Queens’ 5 Pointz on the brink of destruction. The collective has been hosting their block party annually since 2011. However, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa had grievances with the collective’s main sponsor: Nooklyn.  

“⁅The Bushwick Collective⁆ are definitely working and are customers of these people who are directly responsible for a lot of the displacement happening in the area and a lot of the rent going up,” said Pati. “And also for the rebranding of Bushwick, which Nooklyn did very much so. Rebranding and the whitewashing.”

(Photo: @micasaresiste)

Mi Casa No Es Su Casa creates art installations to display as close to the accused as possible. They also provide this artwork to businesses, residents and homeowners throughout Bushwick and the rest of the city. The group became especially popular for its 2015 “holiday” display in Bushwick:  a series of lit signs with phrases like “gentrification is the new colonialism,” “not 4 sale” and no eviction zone,” made with support from the NYC Light Brigade.

“I often say the kind of work that we do is marketing for revolutionary thought,” says Pati. She says the purpose of the artwork is not just for it to be eye-catching but for it to be simple, as academic words like “artwashing” or “gentrification” can be inaccessible to some New Yorkers. “We are always just trying to use language in an accessible way so that the community can understand that this isn’t their fault. It’s not your fault that you’re poor and that’s why people are trying to push you out.”    

This isn’t Mi Casa No Es Su Casa’s first campaign against Nooklyn-related street art either. Their first action, held in 2017, was against “B-Girl,” a mural by Irish street artist Fin DAC at 1101 Willoughby Avenue in Bushwick. Fin DAC is known for plastering gorgeous women on walls from Australia to California. However, Fin DAC’s Brooklyn installment, consisting of a white, beanie-wearing blonde girl in a“Girl Brooklyn” shirt that looked liked it was from a mall screen-printing kiosk, did not go over well with Mi Casa No Es Su Casa. They projected a giant red X over the mural, as well as anti-artwashing messages. 

“The building where that mural is actually used to be rent-controlled and it went through huge development,” said Pati. There are no available listings at 1101 Willoughby Avenue now but past listings on Nooklyn’s website boast stone countertops, bike storage and a turf roof deck with a skyline view. “That wall is actually located right across the street from a school where there are real Brooklyn girls and they’re black and brown. So, it’s a fucked up wall.”

Mi Casa No Es Su Casa aren’t the only ones talking about art’s possible link to gentrification. A 2016 study by researchers Carl Grodach, Nicole Fostter and James Murdoch found that “the commercial arts were sizably concentrated in areas that gentrified over the study period” and that “this could indicate that a commercial arts presence helps to encourage a process of rapid upscaling.” 

However, Nooklyn denies any association with pricing people out of Brooklyn. Chief Design Officer of Nooklyn, Moiz Malik, told Bedford + Bowery that though Nooklyn has a variety of rental options, the average price on the website is $2,700 for a three bedroom. In addition, Nooklyn provides affordable housing options. They have recently been looking to provide affordable housing in East New York, and have options in Bushwick. As for artwashing, Nookyln also says it has nothing to do with the art at the Bushwick Collective or where the art gets put up.

“We’re not in any way involved in choosing the artists or any of that stuff,” said Malik. Our friend Joe runs the Bushwick Collective and so we help him out because we love what he does.”

Nooklyn says their involvement in the block party was limited to the performances provided. The only thing the company can be blamed for, according to representatives, is the block party’s early-2000s hip-hop lineup.

(Photo:  Ryan Roco)

“We’re just coming in because the event is right in front of our office and we think it’s important to give back to the community a free event,” said Malik. He added that at the block party, Nooklyn sold coconuts and gave all profits to Women in Need, a nonprofit specializing in providing safe housing for women, and continues to look for nonprofit collaborations.

Nooklyn insists their association with gentrification is a misunderstanding of the company. Though the company does have luxury developer investors, they say that investors are less concerned about putting up glass towers and are most interested in Nooklyn’s specialty of maximizing the roommate experience– providing a fair amount of amenities for each roommate, ensuring rent is paid equally and making sure people find compatible roommates. Founder Harley Courts started the company after he continuously paid rent to a roommate who ended up stealing all of his money. 

Still, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa hopes to encourage artists to be more mindful of who they work for and how these companies impact the community. “Artists should be conscious of who’s paying them,” said Pati. “They are profiting from the exploitation of the community– which is what developers do when they hire artists to do large murals when they’re not from the area and they’re not about the area. It mostly used to whitewash the area, basically, and attract higher income individuals.” 

Their action hasn’t been without pushback. “Somebody was throwing eggs at us while we were there!” Pati recalled of their action against B-Girl. “It was crazy!” 

Since the Bushwick Collective Block Party, Pati says local artists and Brooklyn natives have expressed solidarity with Mi Casa’s anti-artwashing campaign. Bushwick Collective features New York natives like Optimo, GIZ, and SUCHsLIFE as well as international artists like Smithe, Blek le rat and Nychos.

“And I think they really need to try to start elevating more local artists at the same time because if you want real arts and culture representation, you should try to start with those who are in the neighborhood, you know?” said Pati on the Bushwick Collective. “Not fly in these people from other places to make something.”

For Pati, the causes of anti-artwashing and anti-gentrification are intertwined. 

“It is the artists’ duty, just like it’s anybody’s duty,” said Pati. “Anyone who works in Bushwick or lives in Bushwick or is benefiting from being in this community. Everyone has a duty to come and fight for our most marginalized neighbors.”