(Photo by Moiz K. Malik/NOOKLYN)

The Bushwick Collective is well known for putting up murals around the city in collaboration with artists from around the world. But the Brooklyn-based project is perhaps most notorious for the event that started it all in 2011: its annual block party, a celebration combining street art, local vendors, and performances by musicians that draws a crowd of thousands each year.

Last year, the block party was canceled in order to prevent the spread of COVID and uphold the health and safety of the community. But the Collective hopes that this year it will be able to work with local authorities to celebrate the event’s 10th anniversary. This year’s block party is anticipated to take place the first weekend of June, though it may be postponed to August in order to accomodate safety guidelines. 

Mural by artist BUFF MONSTER. (Photo by Jamie Prince)

Joe Ficalora, a Bushwick, Brooklyn native, was inspired to start hosting the block party in 2011. From a big Sicilian family, Ficalora has never been a stranger to large gatherings and celebrations, but it was the loss of his mother to brain cancer in his early 30s that led him to start planning what would become the block party tradition. In hopes of creating an event that had “meaning to it,” he began looking up artists, and a variety of individuals volunteered to contribute resources. Following the success of that first event, Ficalora knew that he had to find a way to continue the tradition beyond just hosting a block party.

“More important to me was the meeting of the artists,” said Ficalora, “speaking to them, the people that come around, watching the work they put up and coming down and seeing it, seeing how other people are enjoying it.” 

Ficalora began working with artists to put up murals around the city that, he hopes, allow the viewer to escape from reality. Painters, photographers, and other members of the Collective come together to create what Ficalora refers to as “the project of the people.”

Mural by artist TATS CRU. (Photo by Jamie Prince.)

At the height of the pandemic, artists from the Collective continued to create murals for the community. Because they were usually masked while working, and often spread 15 to 20 feet apart, their work was able to continue in line with COVID guidelines. Similarly, the content of the art was not impacted by the pandemic, as it remained under the full discretion of the artists.

In contrast, mural commissions took a hit due to the financial strain put on businesses. “There’s not much spending when a business is not sure if they’re gonna stay open or they weren’t allowed to be open,” explained Ficalora.

As New York has begun to reopen, Ficalora has received more inquiries from brands and agencies regarding commissions. But COVID has once again impacted the Collective’s capacity to host its annual block party due to limits on event attendance. 

In past years, block parties hosted by The Bushwick Collective have brought upwards of 5,000 attendees to its home base on Troutman Street and have featured musicians such as Ja Rule, Jadakiss, and Rick Ross.

Rick Ross performing at the annual block party. (Photo by Bushwick Collective Studios)

According to Ficalora, the crowd size isn’t contingent on the performers. “I think after the second, third year, this is our norm…we’re expecting this crowd,” he said. “Our guests, this is something they look forward to in New York that kicks off the summer.”

When the block party was canceled due to COVID last year, artists who work with the Collective convened internationally to put up murals in memoriam of the event. “Some artists were putting up murals in France and Miami, Brazil and Amsterdam just out of love and respect that we can’t be together,” Ficalora said. “But we’re still always gonna be together. So they put up Bushwick Collective murals all over in their respective countries.”

This year, the block party may look a bit different. New York State guidelines regarding event sizes are continuously changing. This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that on April 2, outdoor event capacities will expand to 200 people, or 500 people if all attendees provide negative tests before entry. Ficalora says that whatever the COVID safety guidelines are at the time of the block party, the Collective will follow them in order to protect the community.

“We’re gonna strictly follow the guidelines as per the mayor’s office and how they want us to proceed. We collaborate with them on this city festival. We want to comply and we want everybody to be safe.”

Ficalora explains that the purpose of The Bushwick Collective is for the viewer to be able to get lost in the art — to “just walk around and explore it.” As New York works to reopen and expand its guidelines, the Collective is working to safely bring back all of its services as well. After all, as Ficalora says, “life’s so much better with all this color in it.”