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Bushwick Art Supply Stores Meeting Neighborhood's Creative Needs

By Meredith Hoffman | October 9, 2012 8:55am | Updated on October 9, 2012 9:37am

BUSHWICK — For 20 years, graffiti artist Stephen Craig Ebert, Jr. has flaunted his spray painting skills, from tagging walls to conjuring up elaborate images.

But in recent years he's conceived his most unique — and profitable — creation of all: an art supply store in the heart of a thriving community of artists.

"If you're an artist in Bushwick it sucks to go all the way to SoHo to get what you need," Ebert, 35, said.

His shop, Low Brow Artique, which opened over the summer with graffiti materials, is steadily expanding its selection of canvases, acrylic paints and sketching pens, among other materials.

"If I get a bunch of suggestions for something," he said, "I'll order it."

Low Brow and the neighboring boutique, Better Than Jam, have both recently seized on Bushwick artists' need for materials, in an area void of a retail supply store. Hoping to become staples in the creative community, the owners said artists have doubling down on supplies.

"Convenience is the biggest thing," Ebert said.

He added that his most popular items were canvases and sketchbooks, items perhaps too cumbersome to haul on the train from Manhattan or from the nearest store on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg.

After two decades of spraying the streets, Ebert — known as "Bishop 203" — said he had inside knowledge of what materials were most important to graffiti artists. The problem, however, has been getting the word out.

"I've done a horrible job of marketing myself," he said. "But it's really moved fast because of word of mouth."

Meanwhile, at Better Than Jam, owner Karin Peran has been selling sewing materials, among other items, for more than a month. A sign at her store asks shoppers for input on how to expand her inventory.

"If you don't see what you need, ask and I can get it! This is a new endeavor and I need your input," the sign reads.

Peran says her botique, which sells clothing and jewelry, started catering to artists once they began asking about where to go to make their products.

"Convenience is important," she said. "If you're in the middle of a project you don't have time to take a day and go get supplies."

But just a few blocks from Better Than Jam, on Gardner Avenue, Johnny Siegel, the owner of SoHo Art Materials, pointed out that an under-the-radar shop has been there for seven years. The giant warehouse, which stores materials for SoHo Art's main store on Wooster Street in Manhattan, has not advertised because it is only open weekdays until 4 p.m.

"A lot of people don't know about us," Siegel said. "It's a nuts and bolts place. We make stretchers and canvases here."

But the 5,000-square-foot warehouse is in the process of a renovation, Siegel noted, and will open for retail within a couple of months.

"It's still going to look like a warehouse," he said, emphasizing that it would still be used for storage in addition to retail. "But we'll have retail hours and a bigger selection."

He said the renovation was motivated by the changing demographic of Bushwick, giving the business a chance to succeed with the influx of local artists.

"The area's changed. It's turned into studios," he said.

Still, Siegel said artists living in the neighborhood did not necessarily guarantee success.

"People from downtown Brooklyn won't come here; they'll still go to Manhattan. And in art stores in the city, they rely on student clientele," he said. "I wouldn't open an art supply store here if I didn't already have the space.

"We'll see if there's a market out here," he added.

But for Bushwick artists like Nyssa Frank, owner of the Living Gallery and the coordinator of Bushwick Fashion Weekend, the neighborhood is still crying out for a shop with sufficient materials.

"I think it's awesome that they're localizing the supply. They're starting to provide the basics, like canvases," Frank said of Low Brow and Better Than Jam. "It's a step in the right direction.

"There's still not...a one-stop shop where you can go in and buy everything you need," she added.