Keeping the Faith of Graffiti Art

Posted inEllen Shapiro
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With all its graffiti art, New York City is a canvas in and of itself. Now, a new exhibition, “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection,” at the Museum of the City of New York is celebrating this eccentric design discipline.

023 Redbird_ Jon Naar_ 1973, MCNY.jpg

^ When I arrived in New York City in the 1970s, much of the city looked like this.

The Faith of Graffiti, an oversized collection of extraordinary photographs by Jon Naar, designed by then-Pentagram partner Mervyn Kurlansky, was one of the first books about my new city I bought. Naar’s 1973 photo, above, “Redbird,” perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time and place: a canvas of brick and steel punctuated by screeching subway trains covered in spray-painted letterforms.

At the time, a war was going on. Actually, two wars. The Vietnam War, and a war between the City of New York and the kids who were making their marks on every subway car, building, wall, overpass, and other surface they and their spray cans and markers could reach.

The centerpiece of “The Faith in Graffiti” is a meandering *essay by Norman Mailer. Assuming the identity of “A-1,” Mailer the journalist went into the ghetto to get down with artists like JUNIOR 161, who told him: “You want to get your name in a place where people don’t know how you could do it, how you could get up there.” Mailer the art historian compared CAY 161 and TAKI 183 to Giotto and Michelangelo, to de Kooning and Rauschenberg. He portrayed graffiti artists as part noble savages, part urban gardeners who made rain forests of lettering grow over the monotonous iron-gray brick, concrete and asphalt prisons they were forced to inhabit.

Mailer the celebrity chronicled his visit to otherwise-liberal Mayor John Lindsay (whose job he coveted) and tried to get him to reveal why he allowed so much ugly architecture that deserved to be painted over to proliferate during his tenure and why he called the graffiti writers “insecure cowards.” Before he showed Mailer the door, Lindsay explained how much money and effort the city spent on clean, new, air-conditioned subway cars, only to see them defaced.

A whole industry grew up around fencing train yards and other potential sites, developing graffiti-proof silicon coatings, criminalizing the purchase of spray paint, and arresting the artists and making them scrub off each others’ work. At the same time, the work of artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, was discovered by the media and art magazines, coveted by private collectors, and featured in museum and gallery exhibitions.

Flash-forward 40 years. “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection,” opened at the Museum of the City of New York on February 4, 2014. In the three weeks since then—even with New York’s worst winter weather in recent history making transportation difficult—thousands of of visitors have come to see (and be photographed with) 150 works of 1970s and ’80s graffiti art, including sketchbooks and mixed-media works on canvas, cardboard, paper and plywood.

According to Sean Corcoran, the museum’s curator of prints and photographs, the exhibit is so popular because “people can identity and relate. They feel a bit of ownership. Especially people who grew up with ’80s music, fashion and films like Style Wars.

City as Canvas

^ When I visited the Museum of the City of New York last Saturday, the first floor was like a party of young visitors, many of whom brought their children and babies in strollers. The most popular activities were posing in front of the art and meeting the artists, now mostly in their fifties, and having their picture taken with them.


^ SHARP (Aaron Goodstone) posed for me in front of a wall of his work. An Upper East Side native, he attended Julia Richmond High School and was a fine art major at the School of Visual Arts in the mid-80s. Part of a collective that tagged subway trains, he continues to make paintings.


^ CHAIN 3 (Allen Ramsey) was introduced to me as “The baddest artist who ever picked up a spray can.” He was eager to make a statement: “We were changing the meaning of the letter of the alphabet to our own expressions, making it funkier and in our own flavors.” Photo courtesy Chain 3, Flickr.

The graphic design world has had a love-hate relationship with graffiti art. To those who labor over the perfect kerning of Helvetica or Caslon, who appreciate clean lines, pristine surfaces and white space, that “funkier” expression of nearly illegible bubble lettering can be just so much noise. But how can you not admire the energy, the determination, the guts to get those fat letters up there on the overpass or the third-story wall. How did they do it?

002 Untitled_ Futura 2000_ 1982, MCNY.jpg

^ Other works in Martin Wong collection and featured in the exhibit include Untitled by FUTURA 2000 (Leonard McGurr), 1982. FUTURA, known as a pioneer of abstract street art that doesn’t focus on lettering, became an illustrator of record sleeves for bands including The Clash, and recently has been involved in clothing, toys and sneakers. Photo courtesy Museum of the City of New York (MCNY).

020 Lion's Den _photo by Charlie Ahearn, MCNY.jpg

^ “The Lion’s
Den” by LEE (Lee Quiñones), 1979. Photo by Charlie Ahearn, filmmaker and chronicler of hip-hop culture, courtesy MCNY. The mural, now destroyed, was on the handball court at Corlears Junior High School on the Lower East Side.

009 The Death of Graffiti _ Lady Pink_ 1982, MCNY.jpg

^ “The Death of Graffiti” by LADY PINK (Sandra Fabara). One of the few women in the graffiti subculture, Lady Pink made this self-portrait of herself on a pile of discarded spray paint cans in response to Mayor Ed Koch and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s campaign to paint subway cars with white, anti-graffiti silicon coating. Photo courtesy MCNY.

010 Untitled by Keith Haring, 1982, Keith Haring Foundation.jpg

^ Keith Haring pays homage to Mickey Mouse, 1982. This untitled piece was re-tagged by RICHARD, ITALIANO and FRESH KISS. Photo © Keith Haring Foundation.


^ SNAKE 1 (Eddie Rodriguez) displays his portrait and work in a book in the MCNY gift shop. Rodriguez, who attended Alfred E. Smith High School, told me he’s worked as a printer at United Envelope for the past 34 years.

“City as Canvas,” will run through August 24, 2014. A number of public programs on graffiti will be held at the museum, which is located on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets. They include film screenings, panel discussions, a book launch, and workshops on learning to make bubble lettering and draw your own tag.


And, of course, the city IS still canvas. I shot this detail of a graffiti-covered wall in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, two weeks ago.

* Note: You can read Mailer’s whole essay in the May, 1974, issue of Esquire, with an astonishing Norman-Rockwell-like, Jean Paul Goude cover.


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