Thirty years ago, sitting in a subway car on our treasured No. 1 train was a completely different experience. Riders would be surrounded by the tags of graffiti artists who used the subway lines as their canvas, spreading their names throughout the city in the quickest method possible. Starting in 1984, though, New York initiated a crackdown on graffiti, and the New York City Transit Authority began erasing graffiti from subway cars—but it was too late. The street art movement, with its roots in New York City, had already branched out into galleries and art shows around the world, forming part of a new era of pop culture, fashion, and music. Today, 30 years later, the “City as Canvas” exhibit in the Museum of the City of New York is a testament to the groundbreaking influence of street art. From the early pioneers to the internationally renowned, here is a list of five of the most notable players in New York’s early street art scene.
Entering the street art scene in the early ’70s, Futura 2000 became one of the earliest street artists to develop a distinct style. While most of his contemporaries were spray-painting their names throughout the city, Futura 2000 experimented with abstract designs as well as (you guessed it) futuristic themes. He eventually began working with other media, like video and graphic design, and is still active as a gallery artist. You can also check him out in John Mayer’s 2006 music video “Waiting on the World to Change.”
Drawing from important elements of his upbringing, including his Nuyorican community, postwar science fiction films, and the Vietnam War, Lee Quiñones was one of the first street artists to incorporate political and pop culture references in his works. The transition from subway cars to murals gave him increased exposure in the art world, and he eventually began showing in galleries and art shows around the world. In 1983, director Charlie Ahearn even based one of his movies, “Wild Style,” on Quiñones’ life, with Quiñones starring as the main character.
Arguably the most important female graffiti artist of all time, Lady Pink entered the street art scene at a time when the scene was almost entirely male and quickly became one of its leading figures. By 16, she was already participating in renowned art shows in New York while still attending Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design. As she is one of the emblematic figures of the street art movement, Lady Pink’s works can be found in the permanent street art collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Keith Haring first began appropriating empty advertising spaces throughout New York subway stations with his designs, which conveyed messages about politics, sex, birth, and death. Haring’s symbolic language, his belief that “art is for everybody,” and his collaborations with famous artists like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat cemented his international fame as an artist and social activist of the time. Before dying of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31, Haring created the Keith Haring Foundation to increase awareness of AIDS and raise funds for research.