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Writing on the wall

Don't urge your kids to try it at home, but our town's vibrant street art is worth a look.

On exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum:Kwame Monroe a.k.a. Bear, Buxom
Melvin Samuels Jr., a.k.a. NOC, The Green Thangs Sparkle
Chris Ellis a.k.a. Daze, Japanese Subways
Michael Tracy, a.k.a. Tracy 168, Subway Door
This graffiti art can be seen on Bedford Street at North Third in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Mention the word "graffiti" and most people are likely to conjure up images of urban decay: subway windows covered in etching acid, defaced handball courts or illegally scrawled-on buildings in rough  neighborhoods.

 Yet others recognize graffiti as a modern art form that began in New York's outer boroughs and reached great heights in the early '80s with the work of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other vigilante artists who became darlings of the art world, attracting the attention of major dealers and collectors.  Though Haring had been inspired by the work of earlier graffiti writers (as they prefer to be called), and began creating his bold Pop Art drawings in subway stations, Basquiat recoiled at the association; he once hung up the phone on a reporter who kept referring to his involvement in the graffiti movement.  But he, too, started his career by spray-painting cryptic messages on subway trains and downtown buildings.

By the time Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988, and Haring died of AIDS two years later, both had achieved commercial success and paved the way for graffiti's mainstream appeal, and its influence on music (especially hip-hop) and fashion.

Yet graffiti remains a divisive cultural issue: Witness the recent antigraffiti law sponsored by city council speaker Peter Vallone calling for a ban against anyone under 21 from possessing broad-tipped markers or spray-paint. A group of artists sued in response,  alleging that Vallone and Mayor Bloomberg have "waged a personal war against graffiti art and graffiti artists, fueled by their personal, subjective distaste for the art form."

In any case, the Brooklyn Museum is willing to embrace controversy once again, hosting "Graffiti," an exhibition of 22 works by New York graffiti writers, including Crash, Daze and Lady Pink, represented by her piece, "The Black Dude," painted in 1983 when she was 19. Her devotion to graffiti is still evident: She holds mural workshops for kids, and has enlisted them, along with other artists, to create public art in neglected communities. "I get an overwhelming response from my students that painting a mural is the most exciting project they've ever done," she says. "The pride and confidence that public art can bring to a young person really inspires me."

Curator Charlotta Kotik hopes the current exhibition will cause both parents and children to rethink their assumptions about graffiti—and perhaps; have a new found respect for this ephemeral art. "Many writers often worked very hard in very difficult conditions, and for no money, and knew that their pieces would disappear in a day," she says. "They must have had a great belief in the importance of their work. They were from poor neighborhoods and had very little chance to be heard, so they knew they would get attention by upsetting the established order."

Indeed, since graffiti is rarely valuable, and often vanishes quickly, many outsiders might wonder, Why bother?

Stern Rockwell, a former graffiti writer from Brooklyn, sees creating this art as uniquely empowering: "You don't need the okay to write on a wall," he explains. "You just go do it." Graffiti caught Rockwell's eye for the first time when he was about eight years old. Riding the subway with his mother, he spotted an entire subway car covered in black calligraphic writing—and the illicit spectacle, with its angry scrawl, captivated him. "This was what turned me on; it sucked me in, and I've been obsessed with it ever since," he says.

Today Rockwell runs a website devoted to graffiti writing (graffmuseum.com), and remains deeply involved in the community. Now a dad himself, Rockwell understands that some parents might have trouble explaining to children how graffiti could be a positive artistic endeavor. "I don't appreciate vandalism," he says, such as gang "tags" on buildings and subway cars. "I appreciate art, and kids get it when they see it. The writers are working with color, developing a unique style. Either you like it or you don't, but it's art."

Terrance Lindall, an artist and executive director of the Williamsburg Art and Historic Center, goes further: "Graffiti is revolutionary, in my opinion," he says, "and any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are oppressed or suppressed need
“You don't need the okay to write on a wall. You just do it.”
an outlet, so they write on walls—it’s free." Lindall proudly considers Williamsburg one of the few neighborhoods to respect the art as legitimate.

The Bronx arts community has also long supported graffiti writing, and nurtured writers such as the internationally-renowned Tats Cru, self-proclaimed "mural kings" who have gone from spraying subway trains to receiving commissions from city schools, hospitals and a variety of other major institutions. Now they give workshops, offering a historical perspective on graffiti to tourists. "[The Tats Cru] are our friends; they're like family," says Kelly Terry-Sepulveda of The Point, a nonprofit center devoted to revitalizing Hunts Point. The center sponsors a popular Mambo to Hip-Hop walking tour, and the stunning work of Tats Cru is a prominent stop.

Although the Point's tour sometimes draws out-of-staters, the Brooklyn Museum exhibit is guaranteed to attract visitors from all over the world. Last year's Basquiat retrospective was met with an enthusiastic public and critical response, which gave Kotik a bright idea.The museum owned several graffiti works, but they'd been sitting idly in the basement since the late '90s. Kotik realized they could be put to use: "We had a summer slot available," she says," and these pieces were very colorful and big, and just seemed spiritually connected to Basquiat."

Lady Pink is honored by the lineage. "Being part of the exhibit means that after so many years of hard work, we are recognized and accepted as artists, not just vandals," she says. "I hope museumgoers will learn that not all art comes from trained artists—but from anyone who has a passion to create."


Pass by these spots for some eye-catching graffiti art

The Bronx

  • 940 Garrison Ave between Manida and Barretto Sts (718-542-4139, thepoint.org)


  • The Graffiti Hall of Fame, in the schoolyard of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex (J.H.S. 13), 106th St at Park Ave, East Harlem
  • Spring St between Elizabeth St and Bowery

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

  • Berry St at South 4th St
  • Berry St at North 10th St
  • Bedford Ave between North 3rd and 4th Sts

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