Welcome to In Focus, a feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.
Have you ever walked down the block with someone who seemed to know who drew every square inch of paint adorning the buildings, the mailboxes, the curb itself? Billy Schon is one of those people: a graffiti head familiar with not just the current kids out tagging, but also the old guys, retired but still influential, whose work is just barely visible under layers of paint that’s been rudely sprayed on top of their original work.
The author of Fresh Paint NYC, a ten-year tour of NYC graffiti and the crews behind it, Schon also runs the blog Fresh Paint NYC, religiously posts to Instagram, and was called "one of NYC's most passionate and knowledgeable graffiti documentarians" by Street Art NYC.
He took a minute from his busy schedule to chat about his life, legacy, and graffiti.
How did you start photographing graffiti and abandoned buildings?
I used to go to abandoned buildings to paint, not even considering you could take pictures there. Now, when I look back on it, it kills me I never documented the places thoroughly and saved the photos.
How is urban exploration in NYC different than in other places?
It has probably the richest amount of history. Like, you could go to any abandoned spot from 20, 30, 40 years ago—you go to other cities, it’s some weird yin yang signs. There’s no real graffiti. In L.A., you’ll probably find some old stuff from the ’80s, but you go to Middle America and there's nothing that's considered graffiti.
What's your favorite abandoned spot in New York?
That currently exists, the Freedom Tunnel, even though it doesn’t really count as abandoned. It’s timeless. The Greenpoint Terminal Market was one of my favorites, but it’s not there anymore. Half the building burned, half is now really luxurious studios.
Do you feel like the city is becoming less photogenic as it gentrifies?
Yes, definitely. It’s kind of getting to the point of becoming depressing. But that’s because I’m used to a traditional way of looking at things. I’m sure to someone who’s got a fresh open mind, they’ll find stuff to photograph that inspires them in the same way, but it’s hard to leave that time when things were mysterious—you would just shoot photos and explore. I miss that aspect of it. Now you see something, what is that, you Google it. What’s the point?
Is it hard for you to watch spaces change over time, or does it make you more proud of your work?
It makes me proud, for real. It hit me late though. I wish it hit me earlier to be a little more conscious. I was there, I saw a lot of the changes, the rapid change—it’s happening before our eyes. You’ve gotta appreciate it … things are gonna keep changing.
What inspires you?
Definitely the older generations. I try to consider some younger kids as an inspiration as well. Like, dudes who have paid dues or been around for a long time, dealt with a lot of the consequences. They manage a life with family and kids and comfortable money with a life of being a bummy ass kid running around. That’s a good direction to go in. It’s really the only option for trying to better yourself.
What’s your favorite thing about your time photographing the city?
When I used to skate a lot in the late ’90s I used to just bounce around in the city, and everything was new and exciting at the time. After I slowed down from skating I would still cruise the same route and reflect on neighborhoods, try to relate, see how things had changed. Trying to bring back that feeling of when it was innocent. Not when it was, like, I wanna be a famous photographer. You’d just put your music on and escape from the world.
Why do you think street photography is important?
It captures the moment in time. Think about 20 years ago when not everyone was taking pictures and people were kicking themselves because they saw things but now they have no way to prove they saw it. Who actually has a picture of that thing that happened in 1985?
What do you want your photos legacy will be?
I want people to know that I was there and I took it. That there was this dude running around taking all these pictures and he managed to document a majority of the time period he was alive.