The Guerrilla Luxury of Williamsburg’s Hand-Painted Murals
Photo by Tanner Garrity

The Guerrilla Luxury of Williamsburg’s Hand-Painted Murals

Cillian Murphy, six-foot bottles of Stella Artois and a neighborhood that won't stop changing

June 9, 2023 6:00 am

Williamsburg’s two-decade transformation is on full display these days.

A 4,000-foot Chanel superstore opens on North 6th later this year; the Domino Park redevelopment has already started to swallow the South Williamsburg skyline; and as of June 2023, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is a shade under four grand. For good measure: McCarren Park’s once-abandoned public bathroom now has a Blank Street.

Earlier this year, New York Magazine declared that the neighborhood “is entering its Fifth Avenue era.” Maybe — but the neighborhood is used to it at this point. Here’s the corner of North 10th and Wythe Avenue in August 2007. Here’s the exact same intersection in November 2022. Google Maps’ image-capturing technology isn’t the only thing that’s changed.

As the neighborhood continues to juggle its competing (and often bizarrely coexistent) concerns — track club culture, Aussie cafes, possibly the best dog-owning cohort in the city, Hotel Row, Berry Street’s weekly impression of Bourbon Street, the culinary empire of Missy Robbins and Sean Feeney, pizza wars, the dives that remain — today’s locals will cling to their anecdotes of upheaval.

Mine is a silly one: walking home with a bagel and a headache, signing a clipboard to grant an international mini golf club a liquor license. It isn’t necessarily luxury that’s taking the L over, but money. And yet, I’ve found this era softened by a unique and ubiquitous Williamsburg tradition: the hand-painted mural.

Photos by Tanner Garrity

If you were to head out on a mural safari throughout Williamsburg — as we did over two bright lunch hours this past May — you’d find the majority of the neighborhood’s painted advertisements on Wythe and Kent. The spreads are perched perfectly for the conga line foot-traffic that collects between North 3rd and North 12th each Thursday through Sunday in the warmer months.

What are they selling? A little bit of everything: jewelry, liquor, sunglasses, short-term rentals, high-yield savings accounts. While many brands showcase limited-run releases or deals, and others opt for the “pithy” commentary (cringey, tired and hollow) of subway duratrans, some settle on a design that simply pits their cause in big and beautiful letters.

Photos by Tanner Garrity

The main agency in town is Colossal Media, which has earned rightful praise for resurrecting America’s “wall dog” golden era. Its full-time painters (who’ve either graduated Colossal’s apprenticeship program or joined the team at the mural painter level) are paid a minimum of $27 an hour. That can really add up, considering some assignments require over a week of work. They paint whatever the weather; on any given day, you’re liable to see a painter up on one of those mechanical easels, AirPods in, fine-tuning Cillian Murphy’s mammoth left cheek for Montblanc.

Colossal has worked at versions of this since for nearly 20 years now — expanding to eight major cities around the States along the way — and essentially birthed its own competitors in the hand-painted, out-of-home space: SEEN Media and Overall Murals. This distinction is immaterial to the naked eye of any passerby. Each agency follows a similar script: rounds of design approvals, “burning” (the intended final product is transferred onto a humongous piece of paper using a mini-hole-poking machine), and then the painting…which involves more than just coloring in between the lines. Painters go through gallons on the road to photorealism.

Photos by Tanner Garrity

All these murals comprise a strange story, with too many variables present for it to be summarized as heartwarming or problematic. A lost art — pushed aside by the trappings of the Eisenhower Era — comes charging back 100 years after its original heyday, to put a punctuation mark on whatever Williamsburg wants to be now.

That’s neither a somber period to the end of the neighborhood’s well-told gentrification story, nor an exultant exclamation point to today’s waltz of hard kombucha and Van Moofs (a friend of mine recently remarked that the area “feels like the 2030s”); these paintings are more of an ellipses…dotting corner after corner, all the way up to that murky border with Greenpoint. They will keep coming, because there are many walls in Williamsburg, and there will soon be even more.

Photos by Tanner Garrity

I find them beautiful. I suppose that will sound obvious to some, or a hot take to others, but I cherish 24 x 48 feet of oil enamel on my way to work. At its worst, living in New York does fulfill the full checklist of cliches: it can be lonely, it can feel inhuman, there is a strange shame in walking through someone’s kitchen with a tour group of five other interested parties, listening to people posture about application materials as you take a shaky video of the pantry.

Williamsburg is guilty of these things, too, and now will be for a very long time. But in an age where major publications must remind us to take “awe walks,” at least, these murals have given us something human to look at. This is my tiny victory, however foolish: when I see one of these murals, I don’t remember the words. I don’t remember the brand at all. I just take the colors with me. I know it must’ve taken a lot of effort to get them right.