Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods have undergone many transformations throughout history. From small villages, to bustling dock-side storage centers, to massive industrial hubs, to abandoned post-industrial landscapes, to revitalized cultural centers, these many iterations gesture to the ways Brooklynites throughout the centuries have interacted with these spaces as sites of home, work, and recreation. The DUMBO neighborhood is particularly representative of these changes. In the 1970s and 1980s, many up-and-coming and long-established artists called this neighborhood home. In recent years, DUMBO’s heritage as an artist enclave has morphed from a narrative of struggling artists seeking cheap rents and abandoned warehouses to use as studios, to one in which artists support the neighborhood’s transformation into a trendy residential and retail area. At its new satellite museum at Empire Stores, Brooklyn Historical Society seeks to preserve the history of DUMBO’s art-rich past through the stories of the artists who once called—and still call—DUMBO home.
When I started working as a Research Assistant at Brooklyn Historical Society, I became fascinated by the ways I could turn my love for exploring and discovering street art into a chance for historical research. When I was 13 years old, I remember looking out the school bus window toward a billboard along the side of the BQE. I saw the words “Neck Face” painted onto the board’s metal supports. I didn’t know what those words meant, but they stuck with me. Over the next four years that I rode the school bus from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I would eagerly look out the window trying to spot a new Neck Face tag. At the time I didn’t realize that street art would become a huge interest of mine, but I knew that I liked recognizing someone’s work and discovering it in unexpected places.
Along the Brooklyn waterfront, in particular, the city’s rapid development has had an impact on street art. Many street artists expect that their tags will not have a long lifespan, but some street artists, such as @faile, @Curtis Kulig, and @Cash4Smells, have become the surprising exception to this change. Hints of the past are still visible, if you know where to look—especially on Brooklyn’s waterfront.
If you venture to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you’ll encounter Empire Stores, a brick warehouse that has stood along the waterfront since the late 1800s. In the 19th-century, the Empire Stores warehouse was once an active part of one of the largest commercial waterfronts of the world. It bustled with activity until the 1970s when the majority of businesses left the city for the suburbs. In the late 20th-century artists settled in DUMBO and took advantage of the large, cheap, open spaces to both live and work. With the arrival of artists came more public works and street art that decorated the industrial landscape. Instead of a dark, abandoned warehouse, street artists seized upon the building as their canvas, using the brick walls and metal shutters as a place to display their work. At Empire Stores, street artists used the iron shutters to test their latest designs or to make a public statement through their art. Brooklyn Historical Society has stepped in to help preserve the neighborhood’s street art scene in their new satellite museum—BHS DUMBO—inside Empire Stores.
Today the building’s exterior is cleared of the street art that once decorated it. But inside, the historical society has salvaged two pairs of iron shutters, each showcasing a variety of street art that once hung from one of the building’s ground-floor doorways.
As a Research Assistant at BHS, I spent a lot of time with these shutters while we installed the exhibition. Studying the tags and stenciled remnants of past street artists, I noticed a name I had seen many times before: Tripel. I was familiar with his street art in Williamsburg, but was surprised to see his name painted on the Empire Stores shutters. Tripel, is a New York-based street artist who was born in Sicily; you can find many of his tags throughout Brooklyn. I found Tripel on Instagram (@tripelnyc) and contacted him about the surviving shutters. He replied, “I am very pleased to see these shutters again. I thought everything was destroyed.”
Imagine the joy you feel when you rediscover something you thought was lost forever, like the happiness that Tripel expressed in his Instagram reply. Working to preserve Brooklyn’s street art at BHS, I have realized the importance of preserving the life, character, and history of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, even in the most unexpected places. My interest in street art has made every walk and every car ride an adventure. Perhaps you’ll catch the bug too! Keep your eyes peeled as you walk through Brooklyn. Maybe you’ll see Tripel stencils, and many others, on the buildings and street around you.
Empire Stores Shutters, 2017