In October, the elusive Banksy arrived in New York, bringing with him his stencils and an onslaught of Facebook and Tumblr posts as people scoured the city in search of his work. For a month, the clandestine artist and his graffiti quietly covered the city to great acclaim before he returned home to Britain. Less than a month later, in the midst of New York's renewed fascination with street art, 5Pointz was unceremoniously put to rest, as the graffiti-covered warehouse was whitewashed in the dead of night—an ironic farewell to the mecca of graffiti.
It is in the wake of this triumph and tragedy that the Museum of the City of New York debuts “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art From the Martin Wong Collection.” A tribute to the age of hip-hop and painted subway cars, the exhibit, which opened Feb. 4, sets the stage upon which 5Pointz and Banksy made a name for themselves and illustrates the origins of the contemporary graffiti movement, with New York at the epicenter.
Wong, an artist himself, moved to the Lower East Side from San Francisco in 1978. Recognizing the enormous potential of the young men and women involved in graffiti, he began amassing a collection of their work. Wong was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994 and donated his entire collection to the Museum of the City of New York before returning to California, where he died in 1999.
“This is kind of a capsule collection of a specific period in New York history,” Chris “Daze” Ellis, one of the most prominent graffiti artists of the 1980s said. “What people will be looking at is a specific period in time that doesn't exist anymore.”
The exhibit includes photos of graffiti artwork, as well as originals painted on everything from plywood to cardboard and paper. Scattered throughout the exhibit are larger pieces and artifacts of the creative process, including black books and rough sketches, plus two short films about the era.
While New York graffiti has been around since the 1970s, this form of street art has a much longer history. The word “graffiti” comes from the Italian word for “scratched,” and such unsanctioned contributions can be seen etched into the walls of Pompeii and the Acropolis of Athens. These early versions of the art form were usually nothing more than advertisements or names, a means by which to unofficially make one's mark on history. Viking graffiti served as a signpost for military escapades. In Verdun, France, in the midst of World War II, an American magazine reporter scrawled, “Austin White, Chicago, Ill., 1918 and 1944. This is the last time I want to write my name here.”
Graffiti as we know it today arrived in New York in the early 1970s. In its youth, the movement consisted almost entirely of “tags,” stylized versions of the artists' street names by which their work could be identified.
Eagerly adopted by New York City's youth, graffiti, like rapping, DJing, and break dancing, became a creative outlet in opposition to the gangs and drug culture prevalent on the city's streets.
“Many of these kids were doing it after school, for the adrenaline, to keep busy, keeping out of a more serious form of trouble,” “City as Canvas” curator Sean Corcoran said.
With graffiti, budding artists were encouraged to experiment and develop their own distinct styles, learning from and being influenced by their companions.
“It was very common for writers to be part of crews—groups of teenagers that would go together, draw together and share each other's books, and go to train yards and paint together,” Corcoran said. “There was a natural connection.”
One of the more prominent graffiti artists of the era whose work is featured in the exhibit is Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara, who got her start tagging her deceased boyfriend's name across the city. Like Corcoran, she believes graffiti was a way to stand out while fitting in.
“People are inspired to conform, to do what their friends are doing,” Lady Pink said. “If you get too wild, too abstract and eccentric, you are an outsider, and you can't play with the other reindeer.”
It wasn't until the 1980s that graffiti was “discovered” by mainstream culture, according to Daze. Since this coincided with the advent of hip-hop, the two genres became intimately linked in pop culture. This development of the graffiti movement was punctuated by more elaborate “pieces”—three-dimensional bubble letters, complex murals, and ornately decorated subway cars. That last aspect of the movement, the crowning achievement of any young artist, was made all the more difficult and daring in 1981, when Mayor Ed Koch launched an initiative to clean up the subway cars—including increased policing of train yards and the installation of razor-wire fences.
For many graffiti artists, the imposition was just another part of their chosen field.
“Once you do public work, you kiss it goodbye. If you want to get attached to your work, that's what the fine art world is for,” Lady Pink said.
The exhibit heavily features this “blink-and-you-miss it” style, beginning with a collection of photographs detailing art long lost to New York City's clean movement. A life-sized picture of a subway car covered in graffiti runs the entire length of one wall.
Though the 1980s were a time for larger-than-life expression, the exhibit focuses on the much more human scale of the era. Scattered throughout the exhibit, protected from curious hands, is a collection of black books, the sketchbooks used by graffiti artists to experiment with new designs and plan out their pieces. More than an artistic tool, these books served as diaries for their owners, places where artists could attempt to come to terms with the city they were growing up in and the opposition to graffiti art.
“So if somebody asks you why you write, tell them this,” one artist wrote in his black. “If you got a problem and you don't know who to talk to, write it on a wall.”
Youth culture is front and center at the exhibit. One cannot help but be reminded that the artists featured were no older than 18 years of age when Wong purchased their artwork.
“It was like growing up in public, finding myself as an artist, trying to establish my own identity as an artist,” Daze said.
The exhibit reveals this intersection of mature talent and childlike enthusiasm alongside the difficulties of transitioning from youth to adulthood in the 1980s.
Lady Pink's “Manic Depression” is unassuming yet powerful. A young woman assumes a defeated position, crouched on the floor of a jail cell with her face hidden in her hair. A red spray can hangs limply in her hand, the letters “Lady Pink” dripping down the wall. Lady Pink's canvas evokes a stirring insight into the struggles of one artist, as well as an entire generation.
In recent years, New York City has become the mecca for aspiring and established graffiti artists alike, regarded as the birthplace of a movement that has become increasingly international.
“Young people will work all year, save their money, and come spend a week or two in New York City,” Lady Pink said. “People will go home and tell their friends they painted something in New York, hopefully a subway car, because that makes them absolutely king in their home countries.”
“This was a movement done by young people for all people,” graffiti artist Lee Quiñones, whose work is also on display in the exhibit, said.
Unfortunately for these graffiti pilgrims, opportunities for fame back home are becoming few and far between as New York City keeps moving forward. “Wherever you see a building going up in New York now, it's either glass or steel,” Daze said. “Neither one of those materials are conducive to painting on.”
Far from a youthful exploit, the power of Wong's collection lies not in the nostalgia for the origins of an artistic movement but in its longevity. While graffiti has been wiped from the subway trains and buildings, this exhibit represents what Charlie Ahearn, the director of the film “Wild Style”—featuring both Lee Quiñones and Lady Pink—calls the “DNA of the future art movement.” Many of the old crowd, including Lady Pink, Daze, and Quiñones, went on to develop careers in the art world as professional artists, muralists, and lecturers.
“It's all very seminal. It was a way for them to practice their craft and share with others what they were doing ... with other kids, and encouraged them to keep working on art,” Corcoran said. “When you transition from painting on a train to painting on a canvas, it pushed them to become more creative and try new things.”
One of the most iconic pieces in the exhibit, presented in three different stages of evolution is Quiñones' “Howard Duck,” depicting a Donald Duck look-alike hiding behind an old-fashioned metal garbage bin next to Quiñones' own massive tag.
“Graffiti is a art,” Howard says. “And if art is a crime, let God forgive all.”
Perhaps one of the greatest successes of the New York graffiti movement is Keith Haring, whose colorful silhouettes became the icon of the 1980s AIDS movement prior to his death from the disease in 1990. Wong's collection includes a number of Haring's black books, filled to the brim with intertwined figures. Corcoran explains that Haring, a student at the School of Visual Arts, painted blank advertising signs in subway stations, as opposed to trains, standing on the “peripheral part” of the movement. The popular and recognizable figure, a familiar sight in the middle of the exhibit, stands as a testament to the longevity of this movement, 30 years after Koch's campaign to clean up New York City.
In fact, Koch's campaign has in some ways only added to the hype. Graffiti's allure comes from its clandestine nature, and there is something distinctly strange about seeing these pieces behind glass—it feels almost unnatural when they are meant to be on the street. Between glass towers and chrome subway cars, many graffiti artists' work can't be contained on canvas, making graffiti art all the more sacred.
In November of last year, 5Pointz, the Long Island City graffiti space, was unceremoniously covered in white paint in the middle of the night. After a long campaign to “Save 5Pointz”—which even recruited Banksy to its cause—the iconic graffiti space fell victim to a plan to build a high-rise hotel on the location. Were this any other building, there would certainly be opposition to tearing it down, but with 5Pointz's death comes another loss—one of the last remnants of an important, and disappearing, New York City art form.
Graffiti evokes extreme emotion no matter which way you look at it:.The love that former artists and devotees have is infectious, while at the other end of the spectrum, a disdain for street art has wiped a generation of artwork from the streets. Either way, Wong's collection is much more than the labor of love of a graffiti enthusiast. It is a gift for generations to come, a glimpse into another time, another New York—a decidedly more colorful one.
“City as Canvas” runs through Aug. 24 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave. Student tickets are $6.
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