City As Canvas: The Martin Wong Collection of New York Graffiti

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Thumbnail for City As Canvas: The Martin Wong Collection of New York Graffiti
Courtesy of Skira Rizzoli

All images courtesy of Skira Rizzoli

On February 5, 2014, the Museum of the City of New York will launch City As Canvas, an exhibit dedicated to the Martin Wong Collection. Wong, a painter in his own right, first started befriending graffiti writers in the early 1980s when he worked at Pearl Paints, recognizing and valuing the undeniable vibrancy of the work produced by those dubbed as both vandals and visionaries. But you don’t have to wait until next year to admire and get lost in this astounding collection, as Skira Rizzoli and the museum have just released the show’s catalogue.

Carlo McCormick, the book’s co-editor, describes Wong as “an unashamed urbanist at a time when cities were held in exceptionally low esteem; his rhapsodic celebration of the city’s dilapidated tenements, shuttered businesses, junkie poets, and the teeming underclass of the postwar multicultural polyglot echoed his appreciation for graffiti art by championing the underdog, finding transcendence in transgression, and forging a Genet-like identification with criminality as an expression outside of societal bounds.”

Lee Quiñones, Howard the Duck ,1988

Lee Quiñones, “Howard the Duck,” 1988

By the mid-‘80s, when Wong began seriously amassing his collection—55 black books and over 300 works on canvas and other media—graffiti had already become a cultural scapegoat for urban blight, but had crossed over into downtown and European galleries. Wong collected with a historian’s approach, however, aiming to document the art form’s development while also championing some of its most prolific and boundary-pushing figures.

Ezo, Secret Mission, 1984

Ezo, “Secret Mission,” 1984

The paintings featured in City as Canvas are the creations of a Who’s Who of New York City graffiti, like Crash, Lee Quiñones, Rammelzee, Zephyr, Futura 2000—the list goes on. Unlike tags, which possess a timeless quality no different from ancient cave paintings, many of these works are compellingly dated. Washed-out aerosol colors bleed across teenage fantasies of sci-fi vengeance. Keith Haring inked a Smurf; Ezo disrobed a buxom Statue of Liberty as a rooftop Rasta fires off a gun. But every single one of these pieces reflects the era, one that defined these artists. As opportunities arose to make some money off an obsession that was more likely to result in an arrest record than an income, graffiti writers went for it. They pulled inspiration from the only world they knew at the time: New York City. Wong was one of these opportunities but what becomes clear from the essays about the collection and the artists’ recollections of the man is that he most certainly was not an opportunist. Daze recognized in Wong “a fellow partner in crime. He was someone who knew the trials and tribulations of trying to be an artist in New York City in the early 1980s.”

from Zephyr black book, 1980

from Zephyr black book, 1980

The real treasures of this collection are the black books. Sacha Jenkins calls them “a true representation of how writing and writers existed in the wild.” In these journals, an artist’s development is made visible page by page as ideas are practiced and fleshed out. More to the point, the earliest sketches and doodles featured in this collection date back to 1970, documenting graffiti’s earliest days. Before our eyes, monochromatic pen lettering transforms into colorfully complex tags and burners that more closely resemble contemporary graffiti. These pages are also printed on a different uncoated paper stock, making readers feel as if they are paging through the actual objects that comprise the Wong Collection.

The cover of City As Canvas is composed from a detail of Lady Pink’s “The Death of Graffiti,” from 1982. A naked woman stands atop a mountain of discarded spray paint cans, pointing to a passing elevated train; one car is adorned with graffiti and the other is clean. The scene is a clear reference to how the MTA’s Vandal Squad had been working to keep writers from painting trains. While graffiti was thrown up throughout the five boroughs, you had to be out and about to see who was getting up. But with the trains, you could just sit and wait to see what passed before your eyes. It’s easy to understand why in the ‘80s the war on graffiti was perceived as the end of graffiti, and the Lady Pink painting captures this mindset.

Lee Quiñones, "Breakfast at Baychester," ca. 1980

Lee Quiñones, “Breakfast at Baychester,” ca. 1980

But, of course, graffiti has not died. It has changed, yes, but today it thrives, both as an illegal pursuit and a commercial endeavor that earns a slim number of artists large amounts of money. Wong had a great eye for these artists. Many of them featured in this book are still active today, using their heydays as kids running roughshod across New York as the foundation for careers as artists, teachers, designers, and community organizers.

Graffiti remains a controversial subject: Is it art or is it vandalism? Why can’t it be both? Should it be either/or? These questions will never be answered definitively. But it doesn’t matter because graffiti has made its indelible impact on international visual culture. City As Canvas reveals Martin Wong’s belief in a bunch of outsiders making art that mattered to them, and how their sincerity and skill inevitably would be of interest to, and inspire, others.


Put down that can of spray paint and see what other graffiti artists/messengers are creating on buildings, fences, sidewalks, walls, roads and landscapes all over the world. Based on the Website of the same name, Written on the City is packed with over 200 color images from cover to cover. Like all inspired art, this stunning collection has its thumb on the pulse of international cities where the meanings of the messages are every bit as thoughtful as the artistry that creates them.