In Brooklyn, a stretch of previously desolate streets has been transformed into an open-air gallery by the graffiti artists of the Bushwick Collective. One in particular—AC2BSK—has made it his creative mission to celebrate the impact and legacy of Ralph Lauren
Decked out in a Ralph Lauren Yankees™ cap and matching baseball jacket, Ralph Lauren is smiling from his perch on a sun-splashed wall on Troutman Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He shares real estate with another outer-borough success story: Biggie Smalls. The expressionistic homage (which measures 20 feet tall) is the latest work of the New York City–born graffiti artist AC2BSK.
For the last several years, AC2 has been contributing murals, many of which involve Polo imagery, to the Bushwick Collective, an open-air gallery of street art in Bushwick, Brooklyn. A few years ago, on an early June afternoon, Joseph Ficalora, the Collective’s founder and chief curator, got a call about a large group of people congregating on Troutman. The Collective was in the midst of its annual block party, but the main music stage was a block away. Curious, Ficalora went to investigate and discovered a bevy of people around the corner clamoring to get their pictures taken in front of AC2’s mural of larger-than-life Polo Bears.
“There was just a sea of Ralph Lauren clothes, Polo everywhere, everyone in the same uniform,” Ficalora recalls. “They’re all in front of the wall, all their kids are rocking it. For a moment I had to pause and take a step back. Three generations in front of me. No one invited them. I still don’t have the right words for it two years later.”
That AC2 would be responsible for creating something of a Polo pilgrimage site makes sense. He’s a longtime Polo aficionado. When we meet on Troutman Street, he’s head-to-toe: P-wing pants, Stadium Polo, 1992 cap. It’s his everyday uniform, he explains, his daily affirmation. His Instagram feed corroborates this: There are photos of him in a Polo Bear hoodie and Ski down jacket at the hospital waiting for the birth of his granddaughter.
He’s also firmly part of New York’s graffiti culture. Spray paint runs down his family tree. A Bushwick native and lifelong Brooklynite, he began writing in the ’80s, inheriting his tag and the fundamentals from his uncle, who went by AC1 before he retired to Puerto Rico. His style, an exuberant explosion of color and flowing geometry, is rooted in nostalgia. The “AC” in his tag refers both to the self-assured timelessness of his technique—“Another Classic”—and to a very specific sense of nostalgia. “Every time you see something I do, I want you to go back and be like, man, I remember this,” he says. “It’s about bringing back that good vibe that reminds us of when we were kids, and that time period.”
That vibe bounces from Wu-Tang to The Warriors. More often than not, it intersects with the minutiae of Polo history and, more broadly, Ralph Lauren’s legacy in New York, a potent swirl of Polo’s brand codes and a string of ’90s collections that were made indelible by communities like this one. AC2’s affinity for Polo is rooted in a particular New York flavor.
“Growing up, I couldn’t afford it,” AC2 says of Polo. “It influenced me, seeing everyone rocking it. I started getting my pieces here and there. I fell in love with it.” He still remembers his first piece: a red Polo Sport spell-out T-shirt he bought in the ’90s.
That love translated to his art, manifesting itself in spray paint but also smaller drawings and canvases. To date, he’s done five Polo murals in Bushwick. His first, from 2015, a Polo Bear wearing a Polo pullover, paws stuffed in his pockets, took inspiration from one of the now-innumerable Polo Bear pieces in his personal wardrobe. He followed that a few months later with a Snow Beach graphic, an iconic piece he’s still chasing, painted on a roll-down gate, appropriately enough, in the peak of Brooklyn winter, with snow falling just as he applied the finishing touches. In 2017, as Ralph Lauren released a new series of Polo Bear T-shirts, AC2 painted the hugely popular composite mural of four bears for the Collective. The next year, feeling the need to one-up himself, he completed a massive design incorporating a bright color-blocked regatta flag motif and yacht racing graphics from Polo’s influential CP-93 collection, which had then recently been re-released.
“Everyone fell in love with that wall,” he says. “People were doing photo shoots in front of it. Three months in, the building owner wanted something new. People would drive by cursing me out as I was painting over it, not knowing I was the same artist. I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got something here.’”
Looking to push himself further, he decided his latest piece would be a departure, not just his first wall-scale portrait, but potentially the most important. The rare and reissued pieces his murals referenced were often hard to come by. A mural of Ralph himself would be more direct, more of a democratizing effort to reach as many people as possible. “I thought, you know what, let me paint Ralph. You can wear what you wear and pay homage like that.” As Ralph Lauren celebrated its 50th anniversary last fall, AC2 was struck by Mr. Lauren throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. “He’s one of us,” AC2 explains. “An American brand built by someone from the Bronx. It’s always maintained relevance.”
AC2 is just one of the dozens of muralists who have contributed to the Collective, a loose association of artists from New York and beyond who ply their trade on the neighborhood’s walls, and who in the last eight years have helped transform it from an overlooked, largely industrial, often violent patch of outer-borough New York, into an internationally recognized locus of street art.
The man who runs it all—Ficalora—didn’t grow up writing graffiti, but he was a part of the culture that nurtured it, witness to the many-layered dramas and triumphs that played out on the streets and gave graffiti culture its weight. “Graffiti and street art touched my life,” he says. The Collective grew out of his love for the art community he made for himself when he needed it most. On the first Mother’s Day after losing his mother to illness, Ficalora invited people in his neighborhood to an impromptu gathering. Some offered to paint murals to mark the occasion. That informal party grew into the Collective, a way for Ficalora, and Bushwick, to commemorate their own lives and each other’s.
When it comes to content, Ficalora prefers to let the artists express themselves as they see fit. “Joe doesn’t know what I’m painting until he sees it,” AC2 says. “He gives me the freedom to paint whatever I want to paint, no questions asked. As an artist, to have the freedom to paint what’s on my mind, that’s the best part.” Over two days this spring, painting in the spare moments between his work schedule and with the help of a scissor lift, AC2 committed the Ralph likeness in question to the street on a heroic scale, a full-circle homage. “He’s an NYC original,” says AC2. “You can’t replace that.”
- Images courtesy of AC2BSK