Brooklyn's Heartbeat: The Restoration of The Notorious B.I.G. Baby Mural

 

A striking mural painted on a wall depicting a close-up of a young child's face with large, expressive eyes and a halo of curly hair detailed with elements of urban life and music. The monochromatic words 'BROOKLYN' anchor the image, creating a powerful contrast with the lifelike and colorful portrait.



In a recent turn of events that has captured both my attention and that of our local community, The Emerald Dispensary, a beacon of progressive business being minority-owned and a bearer of a social equity license, made headlines for an action that struck a chord with art and hip-hop aficionados alike. This dispensary found itself at the center of controversy for whitewashing a mural of the Notorious B.I.G. as a baby, a piece of street art that, until its sudden disappearance, had been an unspoken homage to one of hip-hop's greatest icons, Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls.


My discovery of the mural, in March 2022, was serendipitous. At the time, its significance eluded me; what captured my eye was not the identity of the infant with the distinctive afro depicted, but rather the artistic audacity and the white backdrop against which it was set. It was only upon the news breaking on Thursday, February 15, 2024, that the true identity of the baby in the mural—and the reason behind its removal—came to light. Regulatory constraints, prohibiting advertising on the dispensary's walls, mandated the mural's whitewashing, sparking immediate and impassioned backlash from the community.


This incident, while controversial, offered me a unique photographic opportunity to showcase my work. I found myself drawn back to the site, through my archives, driven by a desire to relive what remained of this not-so-lost piece of street art. In 2022, parking down the street, I approached the site on Suydam Street in Bushwick—a neighborhood known for its vibrant graffiti and street art. From every angle, I sought to immortalize the space where the mural once lived, adding these images to my collection of urban art photography, which includes captures of Pop Smoke’s Canarsie mural, the second mural on East 80th Street, and the Kings of New York mural along Atlantic Avenue.


A mural extends along a building's side, featuring a monochromatic stencil of a person climbing up a ladder towards a boombox, next to a large, detailed portrait of a child's face. Bold graffiti tags and the word 'BROOKLYN' in large letters blend street art with a sense of community identity.
The afro is made of radio cassette tapes and 90's radio boom boxes.



This fascinating observation highlights not just an inventive artistic technique but also a powerful melding of cultural symbolism and historical significance. The afro hairstyle, emblematic of the 1960s Black Freedom Movement, stands as a profound symbol of Black pride, identity, and resistance against systemic oppression. By constructing the afro out of car radio cassette tapes, the artist infuses the piece with layers of meaning, connecting the tactile, everyday object with a rich tapestry of cultural heritage and political statement.


Cassette tapes, a medium through which music and spoken word flowed, were pivotal in the dissemination of ideas, music, and messages that fueled and were fueled by the social movements of the time. Music, especially, played a crucial role in the Black Freedom Movement, offering a form of expression, communication, and solidarity. It served as a vehicle for voicing grievances, sharing experiences, and spreading hope. By using these tapes to shape the afro, the artist not only pays homage to the hairstyle's cultural and political roots but also nods to the role of music and oral traditions in the empowerment and unity of the Black community during the movement and beyond.



The mural that stood as a vibrant tribute to Christopher Wallace, known to the world as the Notorious B.I.G., was not merely a spontaneous burst of creativity on an urban canvas but the thoughtful creation of Huetek, a multi-talented graphic designer, illustrator, and musician whose work has enlivened the streets of New York City. Positioned beside the iconic image of Biggie as an infant was the word “Brooklyn,” not just a geographical marker but a symbol of identity, of home, of belonging. This piece of street art served as a bridge connecting the past to the present, inviting onlookers to reminisce about the legacy of a man who was and remains, Brooklyn's most illustrious son.



The mural's existence predates the arrival of The Emerald Dispensary by three years, its backdrop once the outer walls of a building that served as a spiritual gathering place, the House of Pray. This transformation from a church to a dispensary, and the subsequent whitewashing of the mural, underscores the complex interplay between community spaces, regulatory frameworks, and cultural memory. The rules governing cannabis advertising in New York, designed to navigate the intricacies of a newly legalized industry, inadvertently became the catalyst for the erasure of a piece of the community's soul.


The decision to paint over the mural has stirred a profound sense of loss among residents, a sentiment that goes beyond mere dissatisfaction. To many, the mural was more than art; it was a homage to Brooklyn’s biggest hero, a daily reminder of Biggie's indelible impact on music, culture, and the very streets of Brooklyn itself. The abrupt disappearance of this tribute has sparked conversations about what it means to honor our cultural icons, the role of art in public spaces, and the tensions that arise when regulatory mandates confront community values.







The unfolding saga of The Emerald Dispensary and the now-whitewashed mural of the Notorious B.I.G. shines a spotlight on the intricate dance between cultural expression and regulatory compliance in the burgeoning cannabis industry of New York. At the heart of the controversy lies the state’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), the regulatory body tasked with overseeing the sale of adult-use cannabis. Their warning to the dispensary underscored a critical juncture for the establishment: the retention of a beloved community mural versus the operational necessity of passing a state inspection to open for business.


OCM’s regulations are designed with a specific intent—to govern the advertisement and signage associated with cannabis retail locations strictly. These rules aim to navigate the complex terrain of a newly legalized market, setting boundaries to ensure that cannabis advertising is informative rather than promotional, a nod towards responsible consumption and community safety. According to the guidelines laid out by the state’s Cannabis Control Board and enshrined in the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York, outdoor advertising for cannabis retail stores is permitted under stringent conditions. These conditions dictate that such advertisements must solely alert individuals to the presence of a retail dispensary authorized to sell cannabis products, with strict limitations on the content and placement of signage.


This regulatory framework, while essential for maintaining order and safety in the cannabis market, inadvertently placed The Emerald Dispensary in a precarious position. The mural, a vibrant tribute to a cultural icon and a beacon of Brooklyn's rich heritage, fell outside the narrow scope of permissible signage, leading to the dispensary's decision to whitewash the mural to align with OCM's regulations. This action, though compliant, sparked a debate that transcends the immediate issue of advertising restrictions.





In an unexpected twist to the story of The Emerald Dispensary and the controversial whitewashing of a mural dedicated to the Notorious B.I.G., clarity emerges from the fog of miscommunication between the dispensary co-founders, De Giovanni and Ray Ramon Roman, and the state’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM). Contrary to the earlier narrative, the OCM has clarified that at no point did it mandate the removal of the mural on the grounds of regulatory compliance, as the mural did not advertise a cannabis business nor did it entice youth towards an adult-use dispensary. This revelation underscores the complexities and nuances of navigating regulatory guidelines and highlights the potential for misunderstanding in the absence of clear communication.


The public's response to the initial whitewashing of the mural was a testament to the deep cultural significance of the artwork and its subject, sparking a fervent backlash that echoed through the community and beyond. In a heartening turn of events, the OCM's clarification has paved the way for the restoration of the mural to its original glory. The Emerald Dispensary, seizing the opportunity to rectify the misunderstanding, has announced a "Blast Off" event scheduled for February 17, 2024. This event promises not only the return of the Biggie mural, thanks to the use of jet-black anti-graffiti paint that can be safely removed but also a celebration of the community's resilience and its unwavering commitment to honoring its heroes.


The "Blast Off" event is poised to be a significant moment, symbolizing not just the reinstatement of a piece of art, but a reaffirmation of the values and memories that bind the community together. It serves as a beacon of hope and a lesson in the power of dialogue, advocacy, and collective action to effect change and foster understanding. The legacy of the Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher Wallace, stretches far beyond his music, deeply embedding itself in the very fabric of Brooklyn, New York. This borough, famed for its vibrant culture and artistic expression, has become a living museum dedicated to commemorating its most iconic rapper. From towering statues to evocative murals, each installation tells a part of Biggie's story, reflecting not only his impact on the music industry but also his lasting influence on the community that raised him.





In August 2023, Brooklyn took a significant step in immortalizing Biggie's legacy with the installation of a 9-foot statue at Cadman Plaza. This remarkable piece, composed of bronze, resin, stainless steel, winter stone, and wood, captures a moment forever etched in the annals of hip-hop history—a famous photograph of Wallace adorned with a crown. This statue is not merely a representation of the man but a symbol of his enduring reign over the hearts and minds of his fans, a tangible acknowledgment of his title as the "King of New York."


This title is further celebrated in a mural on Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street, where Biggie is explicitly named "King of New York." The artwork serves as a bold declaration of his undying influence and status within the hip-hop community and beyond. Meanwhile, another mural on Fulton Street and South Portland Avenue portrays Wallace in a manner reminiscent of the revolutionary Che Guevara, highlighting the rapper's impact as a cultural and social icon. These murals, each unique in their approach, collectively celebrate Biggie's legacy, weaving his story into the urban landscape of Brooklyn.


Beyond these artistic tributes, Biggie's memory is enshrined in the very streets of Brooklyn, with thoroughfares named in his honor and basketball courts in Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy bearing his name. These dedications are not just memorials but vibrant, living spaces where the community gathers, reflecting the profound connection between Biggie and the borough that shaped him. As we look forward to the mural's restoration, this saga offers valuable insights into the challenges and rewards of preserving cultural heritage in the face of regulatory frameworks. It highlights the essential role of clear communication and community engagement in navigating these waters, ensuring that the tapestry of urban culture remains vibrant and intact for future generations to appreciate and learn from.




Sources


1. Adams, Benjamin, "Brooklyn Dispensary, Notorious B.I.G. Mural Causes Stir," February 15, 2024, High Times

2. Ulrich, Katelynn & Carrion, Aldofo,  "Bushwick community outraged after Biggie Smalls mural painted over by new dispensary; mural will return," February 15, 2024, news12Brooklyn

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