A Coney Island vendor working near NEMS's FYL store (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc. @tissuekulture

“It’s beautification without gentrification,” says Gorilla Nems. The rapper, known more simply as NEMS, is speaking of the blocks in Coney Island, Brooklyn surrounding his store on 1612 Mermaid Avenue. This spring he launched the flagship location for his clothing brand Fuck Your Lyfe (FYL) in the very neighborhood where he was born and raised. But the virally popular artist has a plan to do more than share his merchandise. He’s aiming to revitalize the entirety of Coney Island, one mural at a time.

Watch NEMS's exclusive tour of FYL and Coney Island's murals:

NEMS: The Mayor Of Coney Island, From MTV To "Bing Bong"

NEMS (born Travis Leon) calls himself the unofficial mayor of Coney Island, and it may well be true. The innovator has spent his whole life showing the world the diamonds in the rough that make up his hometown. Raised in the O’Dwyer Gardens housing projects, NEMS started his music career as a battle rapper in the early 2000s, eventually making a breakthrough with his appearances on MTV’s Fight Klub. He would go on to earn the most battle wins of any emcee in professional history, with a record-breaking 25 Fight Klub victories. Numerous mixtapes, EPs, and albums followed, as did collaborations with notable artists including the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, Fat Joe, Styles P, Statik Selektah, Kool G Rap, and many more.

Gorilla Nems, AKA NEMS (center), with team members at his Coney Island FYL store (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc. @tissuekulture

In 2021, NEMS became a TikTok sensation with his catchphrase “Bing Bong” and his Don’t Ever Disrespect Me video series. Millions of users recreated his quote, with celebrities joining in on the trend, including a memetic meeting between the Jonas Brothers and President Joe Biden. This most recent rush of fame has helped the FYL brand grow into a juggernaut, allowing its creator to focus on giving back to the neighborhood that’s meant so much to him.

NEMS's FYL Coney Island Flagship Store

On a visit to NEMS’s FYL store earlier this year – where the viral antics first began – the entrepreneur granted Team Honeysuckle an exclusive tour of the area, sharing his plans for improving Coney Island.

“This block right here, we’re starting off, but eventually I want every single gate in Coney Island to be graffiti-free,” he explained. Gesturing to the artwork on the exterior of the store and murals on the nearby properties, the rapper pointed out how the aesthetics are elevating the local ambience. “This was all graffitied and ugly before; I want kids in the neighborhood to come out and be able to see something nice. You know we’re in a crime-infested community that they’re trying to build up, but I’m here to show the people that we don’t need gentrification to make this place beautiful. So I came out of my own pocket.”

The Murals Of Coney Island

There are tributes to numerous artists around the FYL store, but the crown jewels of NEMS’s project so far are the large-scale murals honoring the memory of his beloved cousins Ricky and Joseph, AKA Takeover. “I wanted to give them the most beautiful mural in New York City [after they passed away],” NEMS noted. “And I had my girl BKFoxx, she came over, spent about two, three weeks, did that mural of them… And then this one, we wrote both their names over here… Another artist from France, Jaek El Diablo, he came and did caricatures of us on that block.”

Replacing former graffiti with the visages of his cousins has created a powerful liminal space for NEMS. “I’ve never seen a Rest In Peace mural done like this,” he commented. When I get down and I miss them – ‘cause they both died on the same night, they meant the world to me, they were my first cousins – This is like looking at them in their face. This is such a great, accurate portrait of them, that sometimes I come here and I talk to them. Sometimes I see their parents here, just talking to them. [The mural is] the size of the whole building. And we started with this, just these walls at first, we were just putting their names. And then we got permission from [a neighboring building for another one]; I was like, ‘Yo, make the whole [thing] – I want to see them larger than life.’ So whenever I miss them, they’re right there. And it’s like they’re looking right at my store. I love it.”

What's Next For NEMS And Transforming Coney Island?

But this effort goes beyond a memorial for his family. In transforming Coney Island block by block, NEMS hopes to uplift its residents and help them to dream big. “We’re not asking for donations,” he reiterated. “I do it out of my own pocket. I never asked nobody for nothing. I just want this place to be beautiful… This is where I grew up and I take pride in my community. [I] want everything to look good.”

When the artist imagines the future of his community, he wants younger generations to know they’re more than just the statistics of where they were born. He believes that exposure to different art forms can go a long way toward helping that mindset. “A lot of people look at lower-income areas as ghettos and crime-infested,” he remarked. “But I grew up with everybody over here and they’re some of the best, most warmhearted people you’ll ever meet in your life, but they just get a stigma attached to them and it just makes life harder growing up. And that’s not fair. So the least I could do is make these walls, so when kids are growing up they don’t [have to] see low-income shit. They can see beautiful things that are usually [reserved for] higher money areas. Nah. I want the kids to be inspired.”

NEMS’s flagship FYL NYC store is located at 1612 Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn. To learn more about the store and the brand, visit fyl.nyc. For more about NEMS, follow @nems_fyl on Instagram.

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