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Graffiti in Its Own Words

Graffiti continues to evolve. Left, an acid etching by Snatch, 2006, and below, a truck bombed by Fresh in 2006, both from the book Graffiti NYC, by Hugo Martinez, with photographs by NATO (set to publish October 2006 by Prestel Publishing).  

But Is It Art?

A lot of people became discouraged from writing on the subways because some of these toys started destroying our work. Toys are guys who are just starting out—they’re not respected by other writers. I was wasting my energy and my paint. So I decided to start putting my work on canvas to be able to preserve it.

In a way, the crackdown couldn’t have come at a better time. Things had reached the peak of achievement artistically. The fine-arts world was embracing it. We had front-row seats to a lucrative atmosphere that opened a lot of doors.

Patti Astor, owner of Fun Gallery
I met Fab 5 Freddy at a party downtown. And through him, this whole world got opened up to me. I showed Jean-Michel, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, LEE, Zephyr, Dondi, Fab 5 Freddy, Revolt, A-1, Rammel-zee, Iz Da Wiz, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Crash, Daze, and lots of others. Some people said that by going into the galleries, it would lose its purity. I think it brought it to a much wider appreciation.

I was painting on rooftops. So the first time I got to a gallery where I could control elements like wind and rain, it gave me the opportunity to do more than just my name.

In 1981, you had a show called “Beyond Words” at the Mudd Club with Lee and Fab 5 Freddy. That was really the beginning of cross-pollination between the downtown scene and the uptown scene.

Fab 5 Freddy
The word artist was rarely used at that time, until I began to have shows. Keith Haring would tell you he was not a graffiti artist, but he was based, rooted, and inspired by it. He was very conscious of the racial dynamics of fitting in with the black and Puerto Rican kids. And he did it.

Keith and Jean-Michel were never true subway artists. People had an easier time digesting what they did because they could refer back to art history. Whereas with our work, it was like learning a new language, and most people didn’t want to take the time.

Richard Goldstein
There was this period when major art dealers like Leo Castelli were after all the graffiti artists. I constantly told the artists not to trust the galleries because I thought they would only give them fifteen minutes of attention and then dump them. Which is actually what happened.

Lady Pink
The art-world people are sharks like anyone else, so it kind of prepares us, being underground, to deal with the art world aboveground. At least a guy in the tunnel, you know what his intentions are.

Graffiti is vandalism. If it becomes too legitimate, it loses part of what it’s about in the first place.

I shared a studio with Jean-Michel in 1983, when Michael Stewart died, and it affected him really profoundly. Michael was arrested for writing graffiti on the subway, and he arrived at Bellevue Hospital Center in a coma, handcuffed and legs taped together. The whole political theater was intense. At that point, the majority of the police force was Irish or Italian, but they were white, and they were inflicting very harsh treatment to people of color.

The End of the Line

Dan Ollen, a former NYC prosecutor who handled hundreds of graffiti cases
Graffiti got way out of hand in the eighties and early nineties. Some time in the early nineties, I began to notice a change. Although I am sure the drafters of the Anti-Vandalism Act would like to take credit for this change, I don’t believe the enactment of two misdemeanor crimes had much to do with the abatement of graffiti, since graffiti artists could always be prosecuted for felonies under the criminal-mischief statutes before and after the act was passed. Rather, I believe the public got fed up with young men and women damaging property that did not belong to them. Remember, entire neighborhoods were under siege at this time. That led to increased public pressure on the police. Moreover, precincts began to form anti-graffiti task forces to combat the problem.