538 Johnson – Brooklyn, New York - Atlas Obscura

Brooklyn, New York

538 Johnson

This 100-year-old former factory is now a DIY punk venue and hub for outsider art. 

“Big graffiti-covered building” describes a lot of places in Brooklyn, but 538 Johnson stands out for its intimidating stairwell art, 360-degree rooftop views, and eclectic hallway scene, set inside the crumbling and richly over-tagged structure.

On the second floor of this former Goldberger Doll/Englander Mattress factory, there are skateboard ramps, recording studios, and performance stages, and yes, people living there. On the fourth floor, there is an exhibit within the hallway that displays research of the forgotten past, encompassing a century of information about the neighborhood and building. There are two roofs to visit, both covered in a frosting-like coating of the work of artists and vandals combined over the last 20 years.

Shows at 538 Johnson are frequent, and there are often fund-raising events for all types of activism. People from various communities—LGBTQ, nerds, skaters, musicians, antifa, and more—get along here. 

The history of the building includes mentions during anti-union senate hearings, tax scandals, inventions of dolls that “act like people,” ghosts, murders, and recently a visit from Homeland Security investigating a residents’ social media jokes. The LIRR used to stop right outside the building, near the long-demolished Varick freight yard.

When the artists moved in around 2000, they found doll parts and equipment for making the parts strewn about the building: hundreds of blinking eyes on racks, torsos, heads of ventriloquist dummies and baby dolls. The structure was also the poster-child of the Loft Law battle for the IBZ.

Know Before You Go

This is a residential building, so do not attempt to enter.