New Spray Pictures from New York - The heritage of the Graffiti-Boom

- English Summary - by Johannes Stahl

It had been in N.Y. that graffiti jumped onto the subway cars and did not stop in front of the art world. N.Y. spraycan artists were the stars of some weIl known art fairs,and museum shows in Europe then. Canvasses were sold, in the streets danced breakers and in the discos their copists. What became of this movement that is seen quasi as an historical age in the catalogue of a Cologne bookshop and, in its best days, consisted of several thousands of writers?

There still are all sorts of graffiti on the N.Y.subways, tags an the rare-growing whole cars as well. Nowadays subway artists have to face a lot more difficulties when they are out to bomb; moreover there is a lot of unfair concurrency among some of them. In meantime some scholars are working on the item of spraycan movement, but still the "subway art" book by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper is the most informative about the great age of subway art. Chalfants Soho studio is somewhat of a pilgrimage aim for lots of spraycan artists from all over the world: a most interesting place. Chalfant made a film about this movement, too:"Style wars presents a lot of the sometimes rather hermetic world of the subway spraymen.

Lee Quinones puts it as a "social spirit that was in these pieces" and aims back to this most important root of his paintings. There have been some approaches from artists towards the subway artists as weIl, longing back to Sol le Witts and Matta-Clarks foto essays on graffiti as an art. But for most of the "kings" in subway art the experience in art world was already weIl known when Sidney Janis opened his "Post-Graffiti"show. His idea to take the best of the writers from their illegal doing on the subways and to the legality of art created a myth: the producing of huge masses of spraycan canvasses continues. Many of the younger writers dream of seing a new boom of graffiti art. The unlovep term "Graffiti" Janis planned to eliminate by his show lives on, however. As someone deeply involved with this problems, Phase gives an additional text to his paintings: "The label "Graffiti" is an obsolite, inadequate, and irrelevant term conceived and conducted by the media in a feeble attempt to describe an historical an cultural movement originated and created in the ghettos on N.Y.C ." However, such a political concious statement is a rare phenomenon among the writers. Most of the older kings are facing more practical problems: How to continue after the boom? Some of them have come to heavy personal trouble with drug and money problems. For the mayoring rest of them, there are two main ways: murals and gallery art.

Producing murals has a long tradition in U.S longing bqck to the 30ies. Nowadays muralists don't take such a risks the subway writers, but there are parallels in legal situation and technical process.

For Lee Quinones ther is still another thing of importance: murals are part of the public; they should fit in there. This can be seen in his "Allen boys", a mural which tells some facts about the surroundings in Allen street. - Vulcans mural, on the other hand shows a most complex structure of his name, which is completely dissolved in a structure of geometrical ornament. It got a honorable place in the Graffiti hall of fame reserved for "kings and above".

Besides the murals some ofthe artists look for new horizons. Outside art scene, Zephyr produceds jewelery and has now turned to design sketches for tv stations. Others draw designs for clothing or run spraycan art wokshops.

From official art side there has been few movement to let subway art survive. Art train: a project, where writers and other artists painted same cars in legality, crossed U.S. for some months, but will be buffed in the end: in New York people will not forget that being unable to stop thousands of subway writers costed political carriers.

There had been same galleries offering open spaces to writers in the great time of subway art. Now, only Fashion Moda in South Bronx really has sullived with that conception. The collaborative pictures in the recent Giants show are meant in such a communicative way: They may be related to the south Bronx musicians; during the opening musicians thematized the pictures. Since the founding in 1978 this gallery has tried to connect different streams of the rough multiethnic culture of the south Bronx. Now, since even the fornerly notorious East village has become a gallery district, will South Bronx become a new artists refugium? Perhaps even with the writers tradition as one of the fondaments?

Asides murals and other occasions most writers have tried to transfere their painting on the trains to painting on canvas. Blade tries even to transfere elements of his forner trains and uses the same techniques, just spraycan and magic marker: "I want the people in Europe to see what really had happened on the trains and that they come to know the whoIe history of the writers how it developed up to today."

Lee had dropped all letter signs when turning to canvas. In meantime he stopped his social critical figurative paintings to think about his situation in art market:"Perhaps I can have a comeback after the break."

Its just a handful of spraycan artists that can live by their art. One of them is John (Crash') Matsos. In November 1986 his works could be seen in three different galleries: Jus des Pommes in N.Y. and the Yaki Kornblit gallery in Amsterdam (Netherlands) gave him one man shows. His pictures were to be seen in the newly opened Gallery international 52 in 52th St., NYC. Crash has formed out a typical style of painting. Extreme close-ups of comic fragments mix with wildly painted picture parts: descriptions of the way he made it towards painting. Asked for the pop-art tradition his pictures obviously refer to, Crash answers he first didn 't look for it but then was pretty content with it and so were some of the old pop artists.

It is Fred Brathwaite who moved the widest way into the field of painting, sticking to a way he put things when he was still writing on the trains: it had been he who put the famous CampeIl soup cans infiltrated to art context by Warhol to the subway tracks. Brathwaites late pictures, f. e. "Cool idol" show an impressive cross-culturing theme that might reflect his position in art scene: some of his more famous collegues collect, his 'paintings.

The Museum of the city of Helmond (NL) lately installed a retrospective show for Rammellzee which will go on to Groningen and possibly to Milano(Italy). The show gives a view of Rammellzee's development from his early theoretical board drawings to his recent "Bands of steel" series. These last cyclus, which was to be seen at the N.Y. Gabrielle Bryars Gallery, too, is occupied with the manifestation of different physical, biological or spiritual energies of chains. Rammellzee is the only of the spraycan artists who refers to an own theory. His treatises on "Iconoclast panzerism" or "Gothic futurism" may be some reason for his special success in Europe: it enables critics to see his works from an european point of view towards history of art. But this might be false. Rammellzee explains his origins by his own context: "When we were writing on the trains we used all sorts of letters, even arabic or chinese ones, but we did not see that because we were working in the darkness of the subway tunnels."

How will all that develop, that started with the name of subway art?

In meantime there are lots of spraycan works to be found in Europe private or public collections and even in U.S. interest in this original american art grows: some compare this process to the fate of the original pop art that has to be bought back from Europe to the U.S. at pretty high prices today. Or is Europe more a sort of art-colony of New York (as a german artist living in N.Y. told me) and buys every wornout fashion of the metropolis? D. Neumann, one of tbe most important N. Y. collectors of spraycan art) puts it like that: it depends on the further development of the spraycan artists themselves. If they develop, they can be one of the most important art movements in U.S. history. Y. Kornblit,who runs the Amsterdam gallery specialized on this form of art, believes in this development: he will open a second gallery in Milano (Italy) soon.

Quoted from: Neue Spraybilder aus New York - das Ende des Graffiti-Booms. In: Kunstforum 87, Jan.1987, p.346f. (The german title was defaced – sadly to say. Instead of "Ende" (end) it should read "Erbe" (heritage) – which does make quite some difference.