If you've walked around DUMBO, you've undoubtedly stumbled upon some work done by Craig Anthony Miller (aka CAM), a local muralist and painter. Most recently, CAM has left his mark on York Street for DUMBO Walls. Born and raised in Brooklyn, CAM has always been inspired by graffiti and street art and now marks the streets himself with murals on walls, major highways, the sides of buildings, and even inside local spots in the neighborhood.
We sat down to pick CAM's brain on questions about art, DUMBO, and many things in between.
How did you get started in DUMBO?
When I came to this neighborhood there were a ton of amazing artists. I got my start by getting out into the neighborhood and asking people if I could hang paintings or create murals for their walls. I exhibited two large paintings a few paintings for reBar and the owner Jason Stevens asked me to paint the “Low-Rider” room. Then I approached Pedro’s because a mural they had for years was destroyed due to a winter storm. After Pedro’s things really took off for me.
I put my work anywhere it was accepted. In some respect I became the “visual fabric” of DUMBO. I don’t know if I would say I was “the artist of DUMBO,” but my work was the most visible. One wall in particular on Water Street became the most sought after wall, maybe not in Brooklyn because there many amazing walls, but in DUMBO for sure. With the help of what was known as “The 303 Collective,” Coby Kennedy, John Breiner and TRON Warren, the wall became a destination spot for many. It attracted wedding, fashion, commercial, and music video shoots. I was really curious about a particular couple who took the first wedding photos and I tried to reach out to them. The search went so far as The Daily News trying to help me out, but sad to say, I never found them. The wall was major for me because it only had the possibility of lasting a month at the time it was installed. Then it stayed for six months. Then four years.
You have had quite the career in painting in DUMBO. What was your approach to DUMBO Walls?
My work is always about a message. I like to give back and inspire. In regard to the mural on York Street in particular— I have always painted birds. I have a saying that goes, “Always be mindful of your ability to fly.” You can always be better. You can always do more. The owls were the bird of choice for this mural because of a few reasons. Owls represented a species that would be more likely active within the trees at night. Currently there are no lights on the wall, so even though you know the owls are there, you just can't see them. The mural is meant to be a seasonal interactive piece that will reveal more of itself this winter. It will be really exciting to see how the mural changes over time as the leaves on the trees change colors and eventually fall. Another reason for the owl is that owls are symbolic. People think owls symbolize death, but they don’t. They are rather a see-er of souls— they guide your souls through the afterlife, an association of something good. They also represent wisdom, mystery, transition, messages, intelligence, mysticism, protection and secrets. There is a follow up series to the owls, seven paintings that will be featured at reBar and NOS Boutique for the DUMBO Arts Festival this year. The interesting thing about DUMBO Walls is that this is the first time in DUMBO that the BQE has ever been painted. Since this event is unprecedented there are some unprecedented effects that may shape and change the murals over time. Heading toward the winter months our walls (DALeast, MOMO, Eltono, etc.) will be exposed to years of salt from the BQE. We’re not sure how the salt will affect the paint; it will be interesting to find out.
Aside from aesthetic enjoyment and adding some vibrancy to the neighborhood, do you hope to accomplish anything with these murals?
Oh absolutely. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the city has allowed artist to paint the walls of a major highway. I hope it opens a door to more places being done or more projects like this. The DOT has always supported public art but the BQE is a whole other level. So far there is a contract for a year but I hope they renew the contract where new artists come in every year or extend the art that is there now. I have noticed so much great feedback from the neighborhood. Kids really enjoy the process. They wave to me and come up and say hi and take photos. Their parent encourages them that street art is a good deed for the community. That’s really cool! Why wouldn’t we want art in the neighborhood? Everybody loves art.
Where would you like to do a mural next, DUMBO or otherwise?
There are a few places in DUMBO I would like to paint, the food truck lot at the corner of Jay Street and Water Street being one of them. However there are a lot of other places in Brooklyn— Buswhick and Bed-Stuy especially. Bushwick is the place to do murals. Bushwick is still raw in many ways and is covered with amazing art. Bedford-Stuyvesant is just a cool historic neighborhood. It has a vibe to it like no other place in Brooklyn.
After spending many years working in the area, how has DUMBO shaped/inspired your work?
As I have done a lot of work here already, I am always pushing myself to do better things. It has not always been easy to survive in DUMBO with all the changes. I think not having a studio here any longer has pushed me. It's exactly what my work speaks about: always finding a way.
The great thing about DUMBO— the thing I realized over the years— most business that has been here or just started has reached back to the artists. No one wants to see the artists disappear. Artists live here, artists create here; they are important to the community. This has always been an artist (creative) community. Sadly not everything can be good. There are times where my work and others has been used for financial benefits without credit or compensation to us, usually from outside of the community. But overall, DUMBO supports the artist— there are a lot of establishments that clearly prove this.
Dumbo Arts Festival is based on that. The fest started as just open studios— now it’s gallery spaces, installations, projections, parties, corporate sponsors, etc. People like Lisa Kim (Two Trees, Cultural Affairs Director) are very instrumental in helping art remain center stage in DUMBO. She found the artists, sat down with them, and talked. Lisa's first task was to seek out artist and asked them how to make things better, what they thought of the festival. The DUMBO Arts Festival has grown a lot and it is still good to see that there are still community-based artist taking active roles with festival.
What inspires you as an artist?
What inspires me is for my work to inspire others. I have worked and spent time with a lot of homeless people before and I credit a lot of that with giving my art its meaning. Meeting incredible people that were on the streets due to hardship and bad luck, people that kept fighting for personal change, I felt inspired.
Other artists inspires me also. There has never been a time where I have disliked someone’s art. Finding art I don’t understand strikes my attention. It makes me want to look closer and think about it and try to understand. It makes me curious; it makes me think. The evolution and growth of an artist is also something of interest.
What is great about art is that it is everywhere. You look somewhere and you see art looking back at you. Someone has designed the trains you sit on daily. Someone has designed the cup that you drink out of. You walk into a store to buy toothpaste and a lot of people pick out a product that looks the most appealing in design or graphics. You think to yourself, look at those toothbrushes! So many times art dictates functionality and sophistication as well as simplicity. It is all a matter of personal appeal. You don’t just walk into a store and pick something out; you really look at it and take your time. We live our life with and through art; there is no way around it. Everything is art. Art is life.
What gives DUMBO a creative energy?
It’s the artists, hands down. It’s a small community but a densely creative one. Graphic designers, furniture makers, studio painters to fashion designers and music producers. This is an art-based neighborhood, one hundred percent.
Do you have advice for any young or aspiring artists?
Don’t worry too much about other people or what they think of your work. Believe in what you want to do. Don’t overthink it; art is what you want it to be. Don’t be afraid of people judging you. Make art as if no one can see it. If you want to do something, create it. Whatever your art is, embrace it!