Gabriel Specter had just returned from Mexico City when I met him at his Bedstuy studio. He had spent that last few weeks working with curator and arts organizer Gonzalo Alvarez, taking part in one of his projects to create a mural on the facade of an abandoned wheat factory in the city. Though boxes containing stencils and other materials lay unpacked, Specter was already at work on his latest piece, a floor-to-ceiling painting depicting what he jokingly called the “plaid gang,” a collage of five torsos dressed in various checked shirts.
“A lot of the time when we look at others, we can size each other up by what we are wearing. When you travel abroad and you expect everyone is going to be wearing indigenous clothing; but in all reality, the only people wearing that sort of clothing are those preserving their culture or are specific to a certain region,” Specter explained. “This one is about Bushwick—I think I’ll call it ‘Bushwick Plaid.’ ”
Internationally known for his original hand-painted style of street art, Specter has travelled to Europe, Russia, and Latin America to create the striking outdoor paintings and murals he has become recognized for. Unique for it realistic qualities and vivid use of color, Specter’s work usually depicts people and other objects involved in mundane daily activities and might be overlooked by an undiscerning eye—a painted façade of a bodega, recycled bottles stacked by a dumpster, a delivery man with a cart of boxes, and boy on his bike.
“Most people don’t notice they are paintings; they look like another bodega window or some discarded glass bottles,” Specter said. “They don’t event think about it, so they just pass by. But some realize, there’s a wrinkle to it, or that it’s distorted. I’d see them go up and touch it, just super puzzled. Then they might start to think, ‘Why did someone put this here? What does it have to do with me.’ ”
Other pieces, like a portrait of a holy-like Muhammad Ali framed in a wreath of flowers or a standing three-sided mural illustrating memories from senior citizens in Flatbush, are harder to ignore.
As a 16 year-old living in Montreal, he became enthralled in the underground graffiti scene. Heavily influenced by a classmate who was a “tagger,” Specter grew to like the thrill of leaving his mark on the city. He actively tagged city walls and buildings for about a year before discovering an emerging sub-genre of graffiti that would soon capture his full attention.
“I started to realize that people were doing a lot more than tagging,” Specter said. “They were drawing and creating murals—there was so much more than putting your name up and working with letters. You could really do what you wanted.”
Although he later enrolled as an art student, Specter found he was drawn more to the wall than he was to the canvas. Street art offered a viable way for Specter reconcile the appreciation he had for fine art and the thrill he got from doing graffiti. Considering himself somewhat of a “public artist,” Specter enjoys creating works of art that can be enjoyed outside the confines of a gallery.
“I love getting to ordinary people,” Specter said. “When you do something indoors, there’s always something written about, there’s always an explanation, and there’s always an expectation that it really does mean something. Whereas I think in public, people are less sort of grasping for the meaning of something and more just interpreting it into their own subconscious or consciously talking about it.”
Counting New York City graffiti duo Cost and Revs among his earliest influences, Specter shares their same preference for anonymity. He believes that, at its heart, street art should give passersby the opportunity to decipher the work for themselves without imposing any sort of superfluous context—even something so basic as an artist’s credit.
“I like that I get to drop out of the picture, which might have something to do with my appearance—I’m very tall, have red hair and have a loud boisterous voice sometimes, so I’m a pretty noticeable individual,” Specter admitted. “I like to sort of not be seen.”
This penchant for subtlety has become central to Specter’s working philosophy for a couple reasons: First, the piece has a better chance for longevity when it’s less noticeable and second, it draws viewers in for a closer, more critical look.
“The loudest stuff I don’t want to know about because it’s just berating my mind,” Specter said. “When the piece is more incorporated into its surroundings, fewer people will get it, but those who do are going to be more likely to form a thought about it and wonder why it’s there, what the hell it is.”
One of his most extensive projects, “Gentrification Billboards” involved four separate street works that visually rendered the changing social landscapes and tensions consuming Brooklyn, particularly Bushwick and Bedstuy. The Museum of Contemporary African and Diaspora Art commissioned the series to advertise its latest exhibit “The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks.” Intentionally adopting traditional styles of advertisement like movie posters and grocery catalogues, Specter’s works dealt with such issues as eminent domain, rising food and living costs, and the construction of high-rise condominiums in a way that was both unexpected and subversive.
“There was one piece called ‘Caucasian Invasion,’ that was done in the style of the 1970s Black Dynamite movie posters, which always had these funny black characters who kick serious ass,” Specter said. “It was the opposite of that, these white people coming in and kicking peoples’ asses. Some people got really mad about that, which was the point. I was funny about it to disperse a little bit of the anger, but the issue is a very serious one. I wanted to get the idea out there and get people discussing gentrification.”
With the popularization of street art over the last five years, Specter has seen a significant departure from this way of thinking. Many young artists take to the streets with hopes of becoming recognized as the next great street art sensation. He has noticed that most work on the street has since become more graphically driven, lacking a solid conceptual foundation or purpose.
“It’s become more about doing the freshest, coolest thing, but it’s almost like an ad at the point; so, it loses a bit of its soul,” Specter said. “The initial illegality of street art showed a lot of character for those who were willing to put themselves at risk to go do stuff that they weren’t really ever going to be able to take credit for.”
When Specter was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, he was never lured by the prospects of fame and financial gain because there was none to be had. Pre-Internet, street artists had very few viable ways to legitimize and exhibit their work within the contexts of the art industry. And this is the beauty of the foundation of street art: a portion of the industry that people like Specter still find exhilarating.
“It is definitely good for the culture because it has given street artists this opportunity they never would have had before,” Specter said. “Pre-Internet, there wasn’t a market for it. You couldn’t take your portfolio to a gallery and interest them in seeing it. Through its popularization, it really allowed street art to become more accepted within the art industry.”
Specter recognizes that, in part, this growing appreciation for street art in the mainstream has allowed artists to make careers out of a practice that they would have been arrested for a few years ago, let alone paid to do. “I’m lucky,” Specter admitted. “I’ve been able to succeed in calling myself a street artist—it’s become how I make my cash, that’s how I’ve been living.”
He does, however, identify that one of the biggest issues of the growing number of so-called street artists is the tendency for the industry to force them all into one category when qualities like craftsmanship, concept, and effort can vary greatly from artist to artist.
“I still hand paint everything, whereas a lot of street art images are photocopies,” Specter said. “I think that’s fine, but for me—because I am so invested in the actual space and the people who perceive it—I really want it to be one of a kind for them; I want them to experience something that a lot of work and thought went into. It’s something that you would find in a gallery or be professionally paid for, but it just happens to be free in a space where nothing was before.”
This idea of using space in a way that is constructive and relative to the community in which he is working is of foremost priority for the artist. Particularly aware and receptive to his surroundings, Specter scouts spaces while walking or riding his bike through various neighborhoods, often revisiting them several times before finalizing his vision. Generally he prefers to be influenced by the environment, allowing the location to inform the layout and subject matter of the piece, rather than searching for an ideal spot.
“What most artists do is if they see one street art guy did something, they put it right next to it thinking, ‘that lasted long, so mine will, too,’ ” Specter said. “I don’t want my work to just be next to someone else’s, just so it will last; I still want it to have this point, this real story.”
Specter soon started to notice several abandoned storefronts and decided to develop ideas for project that would transform these locations. The “Sign Project” became a long-term initiative in which Specter handcrafted signs and installed them on the dilapidated storefronts. “Say you have an abandoned store that’s gone through five different hands in the last ten years, it’s got layers of culture and history in it. I just began to notice all those different subtleties to it, the different textures. From there, I was sort of stuck on it and had to put it in my work.”
He rebranded an out-of-business hardwood flooring shop in Toronto, changing its name to read “Gentrification Since 1997.” Another storefront earned the new name “Mom” because of the timeliness of Mother’s Day and dusty fake flowers in the window.
“A couple years after I did the ‘Mom’ storefront, I got an email from this girl who said, ‘My friends and I talked about it forever, like what’s the Mom store? What’s in the Mom store?’ ” Specter said. “Finally, she looked at my website and realized that it was a piece of art. She was just blown away; all this thought that went into it was validated because she figured it out. I love that kind of thing when people really question why something is there.”