Inside the graffiti turf war over a legendary NYC wall

Over the last 15 years, the corner of Houston and Bowery has gone from being one of the city’s filthier corners to an internationally-regarded fresh-air gallery. The iconic slab at the crossroads, known as the Bowery wall, has displayed work from some of street art’s biggest names, including JR, Banksy and Shepard Fairey.

But, recently, the writing on the wall has changed. Since the spring of 2022, it’s been in a state of feral flux, with numerous lesser known painters tagging it. 

“It was like the streets had taken over,” recalled Olivia Flores, whose husband and collaborator David Flores’

flowery, red mural of a motorcycle was the last formally commissioned piece, in October 2021, to adorn the wall.

“It was a huge explosion,” David told The Post, remembering how the tags piled up slowly and then all at once, overwhelming the wall’s private buffing team and blanketing his creation. 

Initially, the LA-based artist thought the unsanctioned additions to his work were “awesome, art talking to each other, a 21-gun salute,” and a natural part of creating a public mural, but after a while “the graffiti got out of hand.” 

Artist Raul Ayalaâ’s mural on the Bowery wall in 2021. Stephen Yang
People pose in front of the Bowery wall’s commissioned mural and un-commissioned graffiti in 2011. Christian Johnston
Shepard Fairey’s mural on the Bowery wall in 2010. J.B. Nicholas
Fairey’s mural after being tagged. William Farrington
Since Keith Haring famously (and illegally) painted it in 1982, the Bowery wall has become coveted by street artists. Getty Images

As a result of the sudden, ceaseless deluge of fire extinguisher-sprayed names appearing on the wall, its steward, Goldman Properties CEO Jessica Goldman Srebnick, threw in the towel on continuing to curate it. 

“For decades our family has embraced, supported and celebrated the extraordinary art form of Street Art. We have considered it a privilege to own and curate one of the most important public art walls in the United States and a wall considered by artists to represent the pinnacle of talent,” she wrote in a May 2022 Instagram post showing Flores’ freshly defaced mural. “But over the last few months the tagging has become worse than ever. Until this weekend, when in my opinion it totally crossed the line … It is beyond disappointing. It is a violation of something SACRED.”

She promised to eventually resume curation but provided no date, writing only “We will be back.”

The tense situation at the Bowery wall is reflective of a larger graffiti revival. After its golden years in the 1980s, when whole subway cars became moving canvases for inspired vandal, unsanctioned street art nearly disappeared from the cityscape, before making a visible resurgence in the last decade.

But while the bombers are back, their motives have changed, numerous artists told The Post: Many are first and foremost looking for social media notoriety.  

David Flores’s mural of a motorcycle on the Bowery wall. @davidfloresart @artmija
The wall after being tagged but while still recognizable. @davidfloresart @artmija
A taxi burns in front of the tagged mural. @davidfloresart @artmija
“Instagram ruined graffiti,” artist Anna Barratt told The Post. “Back in the day, everyone [was] watching from their window, now everyone’s just looking at their iPhones.” Anna Barratt
The wall during its feral era. Anna Barratt
None of what’s visible here was sanctioned nor commissioned. Anna Barratt

“I think the younger generation of graffiti writers give more props to each other for going over murals — it’s a shortcut for getting fame. Definitely instagram has a lot to do with that,” said Chelsea native and longtime graffiti writer OPTIMONYC, explaining that the internet has profoundly shifted what remains of graffiti culture in New York, making it more about getting credit and being seen than letting quality work live on untouched. “Graffiti no longer respects murals like it used to. I think that happened within the past 10 years.” 

Graffiti documentarian Billy Schon lamented the fact that younger artists seem to prioritize getting clout and attention over showing due respect. “Nothing’s a secret anymore, nothing’s kept sacred anymore,” he told The Post

“Oh my god is the climate of graffiti a mess,” agreed 30-year-old graffiti writer Anna Barratt. “To me that wall is like a metaphor for how narcissistic and terrible art is today…If video killed the radio star, then Instagram killed the graff writer, the Bowery wall its casket.”

Over a year-and-a-half on, the wall remains lawless, although order has made an attempt at a return.

In September, a mural by the Japanese visual artist Tomokazu Matsuyama appeared on the wall’s facade, and a spokesperson for Srebnick confirmed that she approves of the piece, while noting that it was not formally commissioned.

The new mural, which appeared in September, is condoned but not commissioned by Srebnick. Some believe the new piece signals an end to her curation hiatus. Tamara Beckwith
“Looks better than that pile of toys going over each other,” said the legendary artist Duster, known for appearing in 1983’s seminal graffiti film “Style Wars,” referring to the talentless writers who’d decorated the wall before the new mural popped up.  Tamara Beckwith

“Since last fall, witnessing the decline of this wall and our city, has been disheartening. This recent downturn motivated me to take the initiative to breathe new life into the project,” Matsuyama — who was previously commissioned to paint the wall in 2019 — explained in a post of his piece, which has been tagged, although not to the same degree as Flores’.

“Looking ahead, I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a new chapter in this extraordinary program, which has long stood as a beacon of art and culture.” 

As of this writing, the wall appears more or less clean of defacement, but graffiti writers disagree with Matsuyama that the page has yet turned on the recent era of bedlam.

The wall, Schon told The Post, is “definitely still feral.” 

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