When Graffiti Was Great

Written by Melissa Stern on . Posted in Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown, Arts West Side Spirit.


Tagging gets its due at MCNY

The exhibition, in a tightly packed installation, showcases the famous “black books,” bound sketchbooks that young street artists used to work out their scripts and drawings before hitting the subway cars with spray paint. Martin Wong bought over 50 of these books from the artists, and the exhibition shows them off in referential glass cases that belie their subversive intentions.

 Street signs, graffiti on canvas, clothing and many wonderful documentary photos from the 1970’s and 80’s round out this show in an attempt to convey some of the gritty roots of this artwork. Pieces by Futura 2000, Ikonoklast and Sanesmith are real standouts. These artists show their terrific sense of design, creating fonts and drawings that give understanding to the ways in which graffiti writing and culture affected mainstream design.
But for me, the biggest delight is how this show acts as a nexus for community engagement. On the bitterly cold Saturday that I visited the museum the galleries were packed. Young street artists showing their portfolios to whomever wanted to look, parents eagerly introducing their children to art works that they perhaps shuddered at seeing thirty years ago on a train car. Two serious old school graffiti artists- Sharp and William Nic-One Green were in residence, chatting up gallery goers about their work and giving impromptu history lessons about life in the city in the 70’s. Rarely have I seen a museum show so abuzz with conversation and life. After a lively conversation with the gents about their views of the dubious “cred” of Keith Haring and Banksy as street artists, I turned to leave the gallery and saw a line of people waiting to get in the stretched down the length of first floor of the museum and around a corner. This is an exhibition that has really struck a chord for New Yorkers. Personally, the show made me a little nostalgic for the “bad old days” of New York, when the brilliant blurs of moving subway cars enlivened what was admittedly a more dangerous and dirty city. But a city where an authentic and totally original art form could be born and thrive, literally in the streets.

“City As Canvas: Grafiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection” through August 24 at Museum of the City of New York. http://www.mcny.org/

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