The Urban Lens: Bushwick’s ‘Bizarre’ world of burlesque, acrobats, and fire spinners

November 18, 2016

6sqft’s ongoing series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, Meryl Meisler captures the artists and performers of Bushwick’s bar and event space Bizarre. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].

When he moved to NYC, French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire squatted in a boarded up Bushwick building until he eventually owned it. Along with friend Gregory Baubeau, he decided to turn the building into a bar, performance space, and gallery inspired by the wild stories of Greenwich Village’s underground, avant-garde Café Bizarre. Their own BIZARRE opened in 2013, and shortly thereafter they exhibited photographer Meryl Meisler’s iconic shots of the neighborhood in the glam/gritty ’70s and ’80s.

Now, Meisler has come together with Sauvaire and Baubeau for a new exhibition that showcases the “assorted madness and the unexpected” of present day BIZARRE. They’ve shared their energetic photos with 6sqft, capturing all those who make the venue special–the acrobats, artists, burlesque, circus, drag kings and queens, fire spinners, magicians, musicians, poets, patrons and more–and Meisler has given us the inside scoop on this unique scene.

How long have you lived in NYC? What neighborhood do you live in now?
I moved to NYC in 1975 and currently live in Chelsea.

How did you get introduced to Bizarre?
During Bushwick Open Studios 2012, my exhibit “Defying Devastation: Bushwick in The ‘80s,” a collaboration with the writer Vanessa Mártir, opened at The Living Gallery. A man who recently bought a building in Bushwick came across my photographs from a 2007 exhibit at The Brooklyn Historical Society and wanted to meet me and see the work in person. The following year, Vanessa and I collaborated on “Defying Devastation: Bushwick Then & Now” at The Living Gallery, which had moved to Broadway. Being in Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) is a marathon-like experience; we took a break to go to a recently opened bar down the street I heard about. As soon as I entered, that same man smiled. It was BIZARRE! Thus, I met Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire and soon after his business partner Gregory Babeau.

Jean showed me a sub basement space he recently painted black where he was exhibiting still photographs from his films. He wanted to turn the space into a “Black Box Gallery” and show photographers’ work he loved, such as mine. I went back to Bizarre in the fall for an exhibit opening. There was a disco ball spinning on the main floor. There was a disco ball in the restroom. It hit me, this would be the perfect place to show my disco and Bushwick photographs together.

I asked Jean if the space was available for BOS 2014; we agreed to do an exhibit on the spot. To my surprise BIZARRE decided to exhibit and publish my books “A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick”(2015) and “Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City” (2016).

What makes this venue unique?
BIZARRE is a warm, welcoming intimate space to enjoy a nice conversation over beverages or food, see a unique live show, movie or book launch, exhibits, and relish the joys of freedom and life. It is frequented by locals and people from all over the New York region and even attracts visitors from abroad. The performances are not just entertaining, they’re often political, uplifting and sometimes a bit “mind blowing.”

How do your photos of the club compare to those you took of the arts scene in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s?
BIZARRE reminds me very much of the arts and club scenes I frequented and photographed over the decades.  That’s why I suggested to Jean and Greg to do an exhibit focused on BIZARRE as the subject. To me, the photographs are a throwback and current, somewhat timeless.

Instagram: merylmeisler

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Via Gregory Baubeau

Via Gregory Baubeau

Folk Circus Umbrella Dance

Madame Vivien V's Fire Circle, Bizarre Bushwick


Via Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Via Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Jack Hammer, Bizarre Bushwick June 2015


Sailor Kiss


BIZARRE: Assorted Madness and the Unexpected is on view at the Black Box Gallery through January 1, 2017 on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 4am and Monday through Friday from 4pm to 4am.


Photos © Meryl Meisler unless otherwise noted

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