BK street artists, on how to make art without getting arrested

Even Arnold knows how to treat the streets. via London Kaye

Even a stoop kid like Arnold knows how to keep it legal. via London Kaye

You see it everywhere. It’s that giant picture of the cute kid outside your yoga studio; it’s the graphic of the young activist throwing flower bouquet bombs on your walk to work; it’s that random square of kid faces and block coloring on the sidewalk outside of your coffee shop. Street art is one of the most pervasive forms of media in the borough. So pervasive that you’ve probably been tempted, at some point or another, to make your own. 

But before your inspirations run wild and you start painting your heart out onto a building wall, it’s important to consider whether what you’re doing is legal. We’re all for stunts and damning the Man, but nobody wants to get arrested. Brokelyn got hold of two elusive specimens from BK’s guerilla art scene: London Kaye (best known for that heavily controversial Moonrise Kingdom mural), and Joseph Meloy, whose art you definitely recognize from various blocks in the borough. Here are their tips to get your work out there, and keep it out there (barring a sudden whitewash—RIP Five Pointz).

GET PERMISSION

“It’s not enough to approach the business owner of a building,” says Joseph Meloy. “You’ve got to find the property owner: whoever owns the building, or the door, or the garage in question.” It goes without saying that if you want your art to stick around outside, you’ve got to get permission.

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London Kaye's work in Bushwick. Photo via Facebook.

London Kaye’s work in Bushwick. Photo via Facebook.

Generally, approaching people is a very positive experience,” offers Kaye. “I don’t think anyone should be scared to walk in and ask, ‘Hey, did you want some art in your space?’ It’s just a matter of their budget, timing, do they want it, and do they want it for free?”

Because sure, you could make an elaborate, middle-of-the-night plan to spend two hours dressed in all black, using a friend as a lookout while you spray-paint the side of a city-owned building. But that’s a bad a idea for two reasons: for one, it’s pretty crummy for the folks who own and maintain that property. You’re not always tagging ‘the Man’—sometimes it’s a longstanding family-owned building.

Second, your art may not even live to see the light of day. City cleanup crews and cops are always on the prowl for night-crawling taggers, and the hefty fines for getting caught defacing New York property just aren’t worth the risk.

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This is great. via Joseph Meloy

This is a grate piece (collaboration with Fumero). via Joseph Meloy

Instead, try Meloy’s approach for getting the green-light from an owner: “When I approach a property owner, I’m looking to fill a void and and bring a little color and positive energy to an otherwise neglected space. A mural gets more eyes on the store, it becomes a piece of their identity, and it serves as a counterpoint to the corporate whitewashing of our neighborhoods.” Meloy basically presents himself and his art, explains the benefit for the business, then asks if he can paint something. “If they say no, I move on.”

London Kaye, on the other hand, settles on a vision before she pitches. “I usually approach property owners with a complete piece or specific idea so they know exactly what I’d be putting up. If the piece isn’t already crocheted, I’ll make a sketch or a computer rendering of the idea so they can see it.”

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Wonder what the Beatles would say about this. via Facebook

Wonder what the Beatles would say about this. via Facebook

It’s up to you how to make the offer. Either way, stay away from places you’re not sure you have permission for—and be ready to explain things to confused cops, whose default assumption is probably that you’re trespassing. “I’ve gotten stopped by the cops a few times while doing it,” says Kaye. “I just tell them that it’s yarn, and that I’m more than happy to cut it down.”

HAVE A SIGNATURE

In order for your art to have staying power with a business, it’s got to have a signature. People should recognize you for your aesthetic, and not just see your work as part of a storefront.

For Meloy, that means focusing more on composition than message. “My work is more decorative than narrative, or political,” offers Meloy.  “I’m more about bringing color and shape to something rather than having an agenda or a message, per se.” Meloy describes his work as “post-graffiti abstraction.”. His sprawling, vibrant wall pieces are easy to pick out from the landscape.

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Meloy's contribution to the late Five Pointz

Meloy’s contribution to the late Five Pointz

For Kaye, signature is more about location and environment. Her large-scale yarn creations feel like stark interruptions of homey intimacy against otherwise industrial landscapes. “Sometimes I’ll go for a specific location, and sometimes I’ll think of a piece first and then find a place for it. I use chain-link fences, mostly.”

 The caveat about your signature is that it’s got to be adaptable. After all, working on commission means that it’s not always going to be up to you to decide what goes up on a building’s wall. “Being given the freedom to improvise is great, ” says Meloy. “But sometimes, someone has a very specific idea of what he or she wants to see, and you have to be willing to meet them halfway, or all the way.”

GROW YOUR FOLLOWING

“I started just crocheting hats and scarves,” Kaye recalls. “Then one day, I took one of my scarves and I wrapped it around a tree. And it was so much fun!”
It goes without saying that you’ve got to make work to get work. You want people to recognize an aesthetic signature on what you do, so they start asking you for more. London Kaye started as a hobbyist, but now receives requests to put up work through her website; she doesn’t have to do the approaching anymore. “I’m very quick. I put up new pieces twice a week. You’ve got to spend time just doing it, then maybe things will follow.”
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Over 1,000 people use Meloy's hashtag on Instagram. via IG user according2g

Over 1,000 people use Meloy’s hashtag on Instagram. via IG user according2g

Growing your audience also means is maintaining an active social media presence—even if you’re a rebel. “It’s great when strangers tag you in their Instagram photos,” says Meloy. “It’s a reminder that your work is reaching people. Almost all of the jobs I get today are word-of-mouth, because other people mentioned my name.”
Remember, if you’re going to take the streets with a brush (or knitting needles) in hand, you can expect some pushback. There will always be haters, even if your work is completely legal and mostly well-received. The point is not to be deterred. Kaye’s response to her critics? “I’m not going to stop.”
Meloy is similarly determined to continue, but offers up a different button on the larger conversation about street art. “I don’t think everything has so heavy and socio-politically motivated,” he tells us. “I think there’s more than enough room for all sorts of forms of expression.  It’s a big city.  I’m happy to get in where I fit in and make things look just a little nicer.”