If these walls could talk

Richard Tulloch wanders the backblocks of Brooklyn, getting an education in the gutsy borough's street art scene.

'You know the difference between street art and graffiti?" asks our local guide, Matt Levy.

"Street art is graffiti with a college degree."

Yeah, sure. Whatever, man. In the minds of many of us, any spray paint on public walls suggests a neglected community, a lack of civic pride and an angry underclass.

After booking affordable New York accommodation online, we find ourselves staying in a comfortable apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, where graffiti covers every accessible wall and many inaccessible ones, too.

This is a place with a vibrant energy, with enthusiasm, with flair.

Garbage is piled high outside the pizzeria and the New Hope Healing Series ("Space available for Worship"). In the liquor store beside Kosciusko Street station, we order a bottle of Chilean wine, feed some money through a slot and the proprietor reaches around his thick glass defence shield to slip us a screw-top bottle.

Corners by Malcolm X Boulevard are daubed with graffiti (OK, street art) memorials to young African Americans. We can only imagine the circumstances of their untimely deaths, but we sense that all is not well in this part of "Bed-Stuy".

Brooklyn is big, however. If it were still a city in its own right (and in 1894 it only voted to merge with Manhattan and the other boroughs by the narrowest of margins) it would be the fourth-largest in the US, with 2.5 million residents and a huge ethnic mix. So, naturally, there is diversity.

Nothing illustrates Brooklyn's extremes more than the hairstyles. Nail and hairdressing salons seem to be the most patronised businesses. Life might be tough, but hair must be done. Caribbean dreadlocks, afros, braids, extensions and out-there colours contrast with the beards and sideburns hanging from the tall black hats of orthodox Hasidic Jews.

For the first day or two we feel particularly conventional, middle class and white, until we realise being white and conventional is unconventional around here. And nobody cares anyway, because in Brooklyn anything goes.

Matt from Levys' Unique New York! is leading a group of Australian art students around his home town, showing them the best of Brooklyn's street art. I'm invited to join the party. Four hours later we emerge from the backblocks with a new perspective on Brooklyn, and on street art, too.

This is a place with a vibrant energy, with enthusiasm, with flair, a place where business actively encourages imagination and creativity. Matt (yes, he has been to college) knows every inch of it and his enthusiasm and flair is infectious, too.

Down the street from Brooklyn Borough Hall is the massive parking garage of Macy's department store. It's covered with the work of street artist ESPO, using paint and a commission supplied by Macy's itself. ESPO has enhanced the grey concrete with cryptic messages, some his own, some quotes collected from passing residents. "Take any train", "Life is a fight for life" and "I was nurtured here" are neatly inscribed in letters several metres high.

Above the 99¢ store, he's written, "... this love we have is ... 9999999999999% pure." It's not quite Wordsworth, but intriguing all the same.

Around the corner, a row of shop fronts was slated for demolition and redevelopment, Matt tells us. Storekeepers were moved out but then the project stalled. So under a temporary arrangement, local artists were invited to fill the vacant windows with their colourful work. Three years later it's still there, occasionally getting upgrades. Not all their art impresses me, but I love the idea of putting it out there, free.

Below the busy flyover of Flatbush Avenue, shipping containers are piled higgledy-piggledy in what appears to be a neglected building lot, but when we come nearer we see each brightly painted recycled crate houses an arty-crafty shop or food outlet. This imaginative project is the recently opened Dekalb Market, an excellent place to break for coffee and do a little browsing.

Then we take a short subway ride (past much graffiti that obviously dropped out of college) to the Brooklyn suburb Bushwick. In the 1970s, Bushwick and the Bronx were burning, as, according to Matt, developers found it easier to extract money from insurance companies than from tenants on struggle street.

Now Bushwick is becoming gentrified, with expensive condominiums replacing burnt-out tenements.

"Fashionistas and hipsters," Matt calls the area's newcomers. "When a place gets run down, the artists can afford to move in. Then come the cool cafes that artists like, then come the trendy people who like cool artists' cafes, then come the galleries and the condos and, finally, in comes Starbucks."

Bushwick is not entirely a lost cause, however. Matt leads us to a few blocks where street artists from around the world have been given free rein. It is a fabulous sight.

Out comes the sun and out come our cameras. We take shot after shot of the colourful, whimsical walls.

A black-and-white work brilliantly shows a street scene plucked from an old New York movie. Legendary Belgian artist Roa has contributed his trademark animal sketches on an abandoned, boarded-up building. Sweet Toof's bright pink lips and teeth frame a cafe entrance.

Some of the work is aggressive and, to my taste, ugly, but there is much that is witty and gently thought-provoking, too.

While graffiti is illegal in New York, sanctioned street art is almost becoming mainstream here. The Brooklyn Museum, in the beautiful and leafy Brooklyn Botanic Garden, houses a superb collection of American and world art.

On the top floor we find a temporary retrospective exhibition dedicated to the work of the late Keith Haring, whose instantly recognisable naive black-and-white figures appeared as street art and are now being celebrated in one of the city's most prestigious galleries.

So when does graffiti graduate to become street art? Matt explains it thus: "Graffiti is about someone saying, 'Look at me, look what I did'. An effective street artist is saying, 'Hey guys, maybe we can look at the world and this environment in a different way'."

Their work certainly makes us look at Brooklyn in a different way.

The writer travelled with the assistance of NYC and Company and HostelBookers.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies to New York via Dallas Fort Worth from $3146. Brooklyn is a short train ride from downtown Manhattan.

Staying there

hostelbookers.com

Touring there

Levys' Unique New York! runs regular and tailored tours of the city for small groups. levysuniqueny.com

More information

nycgo.com

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