Thursday, February 13, 2014

City as Canvas - When Graffiti Was King

In yet another snow storm, we trekked way uptown to the Museum of the City of New York's exhibition: City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection.

(Thanks to MCNY's terrific book on the show -- City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection -- edited by Sean Corcoran and Carlo McCormick and published by Skira Rizzoli, for providing us with the historical context, factoids and background information for our post.)

Work by heavy hitters like Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring stands next to that of street artists known only by such tag names as Caine One, A-One, Sharp, Delta 2 and Quik. The 1983 painting (above) called "We Love Ya, Rene" is the result of Kenny Scharf's collaboration with break dancer ON 2. Scharf dubbed his work "Pop Surrealism" and filled it with swirling cartoon figures. Represented by Tony Shafrazi Gallery in the early 1980s, Scharf became an internationally known artist and celebrity and is still painting murals and exhibiting.

Quik, aka Lin Felton, studied at Pratt and Parsons.  He preferred to paint alone, and managed to produce a prodigious number of pieces.  This 1984 acrylic and ink on metal is called Talking Quik.

Living in New York, we both experienced the ubiquitous graffiti writing covering entire subway cars (including windows, so you couldn't see what station you had stopped at), storefronts, newspaper kiosks, apartment building hallways and staircases and outer walls of commercial properties (even refrigerator doors, as above) from the 1970s to the 1990s. Basically, anything that didn't move, or moved slowly, got tagged with Red-Devil or Krylon spray enamel. To this day, you can't buy spray paint off the shelf in the city.  When we wanted to spray paint our coolie hats, we had to just about get finger-printed and photographed to procure a can. New York City waged war on graffiti, which was an illegal but creative outlet for a generation of its youth, spending more than $300 million against the defacement of public and private property. Hip hop music and graffiti writing became joined at the hip, with many of the street artists moving on to become musicians.

Keith Haring is a perpetual favorite of ours. Long-time readers will recall our coverage of the Brooklyn Museum's Haring exhibition. This colorful 1982 untitled piece of acrylic and ink on wood features a glowing Disney figure (sans ears) and Haring's signature 2-dimensional men.

Zephyr, aka Andrew Witten, was one of the seminal subway train artists, running with some of the most infamous crews, like the Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW), The Death Squad (TDS) and Crazy Inside Artists (CIA). His appearances in films about graffiti writers in the early 1980s made his work internationally recognizable. New York City residents will recall seeing his comic figure in numerous elaborate drawings around the city. He became one of the Soul Artists. This detail from one of his 1980 pieces humorously depicts an encounter with law enforcement.

Angel Ortiz, aka LAII (Little Angel), was a friend of and frequent collaborator with Keith Haring, known for his signature swirling squiggles. Although known for mural and canvas work, he also did sculptures like his colorful untitled 1988 acrylic and ink on plaster bust of Jesus. He continues to paint.

Sandra Fabara, one of the few female graffiti writers, and known best as Lady Pink, had to prove herself in a boys' club. She wrote with many of the best known graffiti writers, like The Public Animals (TPA) and The Crazy Five (TC5) crews, collaborated with artists like Jenny Holzer and made the jump to exhibiting in galleries. Her paintings are in such top caliber museum collections as the Whitney, Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums, and she continues to create paintings, mentor students and lecture. Her 1982 acrylic on masonite painting titled The Death of Graffiti features a subway car covered with her writing.

Included in the exhibit were several graffiti-embellished jackets, including the one in the rear, a 1988 acrylic on sleeveless denim number by Delta 2, aka Calvin Gonzales, who collaborated with Rammellzee on the hip-hop album "Missionary Moving" and with Giorgio Armani on a belt to hold spray cans!

Martin Wong, who assembled the collection on display, was a painter on the Lower East Side bitten by the graffiti bug. Before his death of AIDS in 1999, he amassed a wide-ranging collection, archiving his work and that of his contemporaries. He often painted his friends. This detail from one of his paintings shows graffiti artist Sharp in his heyday.

Fast forward to 2014. Here is Sharp, aka Aaron Goodstone, today. Discovered at an early age (he exhibited at Art Basel at the age of 17), he collaborated with Delta 2 and has been working continuously since the early 1980s. In 1997, as resident artist for the Vans Warp Tour, he traveled with musicians to thirty American and twelve European cities, producing a painting for each. He was utterly charming and gladly posed next to his 1991 acrylic and mixed media painting "Dead on Arrival".  Those are huge bullets glued to the base of the canvas, and Sharp's head hides a formidable 3-D gun, also glued on.

Jean chased him down to have him sign her copy of City As Canvas.

Lee Quinones, aka LEE, is one of the most successful graffiti writers of his generation. His paintings, many of which feature Howard the Duck, are in the collections of the Whitney, MOMA and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, and he appeared in MoCA's 2011 Art in the Streets exhibition.  That evening, Lee was decked out in a grafitto'd leather jacket. Even his boots were tagged. Here he is signing Jean's book.  (See her hat behind him?  And Sharp, behind her?)

 LAVA posed in front of a framed display of cards containing the tags of the hot artists of the early 1908s and proudly pointed his out to us.

Lest you think we're telling tales, here is the card in question.

Loved LAVA's Black Spade Brotherhood jacket.

Lots of younger artists like John Paul O'Grodnick thronged the show.  (The Irish prefix was added to his Eastern European name, he explained, when his ancestors were new immigrants living in an Irish neighborhood.)

Photographer Janette Beckman (left) introduced us to Ivory (right) and several of the other artists and attendees, also pointing out Charlie Ahearn, director of the 1983 graffiti film Wild Style.

Charlie, below, literally seemed to want to camouflage himself in the crowd.

Michael de Feo demonstrates his signature work while guarding his anonymity.

KET was sweet enough to stop and sign Jean's book.

Small touches like a bench stuffed with spray paint cans added to the - um - colorful atmosphere of the opening.

And how's THIS for ephemera? What must the other pages of this 'little black book' look like?

In parting, a blow-up of Martha Cooper's photo of the acrobatic Dondi gives you some idea of the spirit of the age.

Alas, all too soon it was over and we had to trudge back through the snow (a work in progress that evening) to the subway and head home.  (We parked ample snow gear at the coat check.)

What we're wearing:

Jean is wearing a Yoshiaki Yuki scarf from gallery gen; an Amy Downs hat; a Lillith skirt; a Topshop jacket; Ariat boots; and vintage bakelite and gold jewelry.

Valerie is wearing a Norma Kamali/Stetson hat, aluminum earrings with safety pins, safety pin brooch, Norma Kamali suit, vintage Issey Miyake jacket, Sigerson Morrison boots.


  1. What a cool show! Thanks for providing the info as well as the photos - my knowlege of graffiti artists was rather minimal other than Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. Love the jackets on the artists at the show, and good on Jean for chasing them down to sign her book. Awesome hat you're wearing Valerie ;)

  2. What a fantastic adventure!! This might be my favorite so far. xxoo