NYC's Graffiti Walking Tours: Finding Art Hidden In Plain Sight

NEW YORK CITY — On a walking tour of New York's Lower East Side, Gabe Schoenberg, founder of Graff Tours, signals his group to stop.

"That's the work of the famous graffiti artist, Space Invader," says Schoenberg, indicating a small installation of tiles resembling a '70s-era arcade game character on the side of a nondescript building. Space Invader is so renowned, Schoenberg notes, several tiles are missing: Someone tried to pry the work off the wall.

Hundreds of people who walk by the corner daily don't notice the piece. Schoenberg's job is to point out to tour-goers what is sometimes hidden in plain sight. His 90-minute walks meander through back alleys, by community gardens, and down side streets. On a recent excursion, his group, comprised of people ages 15 to 50, viewed a black and white bird mural by Belgian artist ROA, a tribute painting of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the "Flowering Lotus" stencil by Shepard Fairey of the Obama HOPE poster and OBEY sticker fame, and the work — a blast of black spray paint low on the wall by a Chinese restaurant —– of global street art sensation Banksy.

"Unless you know where to look, you'll miss stuff," says Schoenberg, who started Graff Tours in 2009 while a senior at New York University, and is a graffiti writer. "The scene's changing every day."

New York streets have long been a canvas for artistic expression. But lately, interest in street art and artists has grown. The Museum of the City of New York (see "Gearing up for Graffiti") currently features an exhibit of 1970s and 1980s graffiti, the era when writers sprayed their bold chunky tags on trains. The Brooklyn Museum boasts an installation by Swoon, known for her large, intricate prints on industrial buildings. The exhibits are popular, but in summer, many visitors opt to stay outdoors and take walking tours that highlight fleeting, fascinating art.

"Street art is having a moment," says Lia Buffa, founder of Saddleshoe Tours, a company offering two themed street-art tours in the city. "Some tour-goers have been to the museums and want to explore New York from a different perspective. Our walks together are about discovery — learning to see small signs of joy everywhere you look."

Buffa credits an increase in tour traffic to Banksy, the elusive British graffiti artist known for his provocative stencils. His 2010 film, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," featuring Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, and Banksy himself (in a black hoodie and disguised voice), became a global sensation and won an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature. Last October, Banksy arrived in New York for a one-month residency, during which he unveiled a new work in one of the five boroughs daily. His "Better Out Than In" campaign catapulted his brand and interest in unconventional, thought-provoking installations.

"Street art is now on the mainstream radar," says Buffa.

Schoenberg, of Graff Tours, has even created a "graffiti getaway." The two-night, three-day vacation includes visits to graffiti sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, hands-on experiences ("learn the proper technique of any graffiti tagger") and accommodations in the Banksy Room at the Carlton Arms Hotel (a.k.a. Artbreak Hotel), where Banksy completed an artist's residency in 1999. He painted his room and stairwell with cartoon-like animals, including beavers wearing hard hats and an elephant and a lion playing cards. Fans can sleep in the midst of the menagerie.

Beyond Bubble Letters

In addition to viewing art, tour guides talk about who made it, why and how. The difference between graffiti and street art, an oft-debated topic in the art world, usually comes up. Definitions are hazy and subjective. As a general rule, graffiti tends to refer to lettering, specifically writing one's name, but it can expand beyond the alphabet. Street art is a broader, more encompassing term. In either case, the art might be illegal, commissioned or created with permission. Many artists and graffiti writers have experience with all three scenarios.

Michael DeFeo, whose work is cited on the "Lower East Side to SoHo" excursion offered by Saddleshoe Tours, is one of them. Known as The Flower Guy because of his signature pop-art-style flower graphic, DeFeo has been a street artist for more than 20 years and briefly appeared in "Exit Through the Gift Shop." His work has been shown in galleries and museums in Paris, London, and New York, and he has installed his work internationally in more than 40 cities.

"When I'm looking for a place for my work, I'm drawn to surfaces that are in some sort of state of decay," says DeFeo, whose body of work includes manhole cover rubbings, abstract self-portraits, and community wall murals. "I like to think I'm brightening up what some people would consider an eyesore in the neighborhood."

While bubble letters still rule on some corners, street art comes in all stripes: large and minuscule, spray-painted and wheat-pasted (artists adhere graphics to a surface with a mix of wheat flour and water), created in broad daylight or under the cover of darkness. Besides paint and brushes, some artists use yarn, Legos, stickers, and balsa wood. The variety of expression intrigues Buffa.

"Art is everywhere," says Buffa, who leads tour-goers to, among other places, the High Line, the elevated freight line turned urban, art-filled park, and Mulberry Street, home to vibrant murals coordinated by the Little Italy Street Art (L.I.S.A.) project.

Gone With The Wind

The ephemeral nature of street art is part of its appeal. "An important part of the work is its destruction," says DeFeo, who is married to Buffa. "It gives me great joy to create it, but street art isn't meant to last. It's like the cycle of life —- it exists for a time, and then it's gone."

Graffiti and street art are vulnerable to the elements, the whim of landlords, and the authorities. In New York City, graffiti writing is a crime. The New York Police Department's Citywide Vandals Task Force dispatches plainclothes police to "keep tabs on what is happening on the street, and parlay this information into arrests or more comprehensive investigations," according to its online mission statement.

"I know people who have spent 36 hours in the clinker for putting a sticker on a telephone pole," DeFeo says.

Because of the art's vulnerability, tour itineraries frequently change. The tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman that Schoenberg showed on Graff Tours is gone. Painted by Michael DiNicola, the mural was part of an ever-changing rotation of artwork on a First Street trailer run by the Centre-Fuge Public Art Project. A photo remains online (centre-fuge.tumblr.com).