Basquiat and the Rise of NYC's Graffiti Culture

Currently up on NYXT’s reading list is Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, a fantasy tale of a teenage Afrolatina in New York City who learns she has the power to bring murals to life. We started thinking about the history and impact of street art in NYC; graffiti is ubiquitous, and even though the culture as we know it is only a couple of decades old, New York wouldn’t be New York without it. Through the rise and fall of street art culture, from its criminalization to its erasure through gentrification to its legitimization as “high art,” the tales of graffiti have woven an indelible visual quilt throughout the city, as love letters, as memorials, as protest. How did NYC influence graffiti artists and how did the artists influence the city in return? 

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Older’s novel is more than just a story of a young woman realizing her supernatural abilities; it’s a very real coming-of-age story about how communities and neighborhoods are whitewashed, how history becomes opaque, how our elders are slowly forgotten. It’s a work of fiction with elements of myth, but its themes hit close to reality. The relics of old New York are vanishing to accommodate a population that didn’t build its culture.

While we think of modern graffiti as inherently NYC, it’s believed the modern technique actually originated in Philadelphia in the late 1960’s by an artist known as Cornbread. But public expressions of creativity are much older than that. We all know about the cave paintings of Lascaux, a snapshot of the past from our ancient ancestors, and it is estimated that the Sulawesi paintings of Indonesia are even older “proto-graffiti.” But fast-forwarding a few thousand years, eventually the artform trickled from Philly to NYC, where the culture gave way for new and different interpretations and explorations. Much of its NYC origins were incubated in our subway system, the subterranean tunnels a metaphor for the underground culture and expression of many artists who were marginalized above ground.

As prolific as graffiti has been, it wasn’t common for artists to be recognized for the work, or for their work to even be considered art. One of the most famous representatives of the graffiti movement was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who got his start painting the city’s walls and gates under the pseudonym SAMO. Basquiat famously walked the line between what was considered high art and what others considered mere vandalism to be painted over, and struggled as an art world outsider. Much of this stemmed from reaching such great heights, while many of his peers remained unknown, and were criminalized for the same thing for which he received worldwide acclaim. The rise of street art caused significant tension between artists and law enforcement, including some who were the victims of police brutality. Basquiat battled inner demons stemming from a tumultuous childhood, and  insecurity of the legitimacy of his art.

Artist Lee Quiñones is one of Basquiat’s contemporaries, and is living the dream Basquiat did not survive to see: street art as legitimate. Quiñones reminds us that the graffiti movement wasn’t just an uprising of the marginalized, but the voice of NYC’s youth, as young people have always yearned for self-expression where their opinions are diminished. Not only has Lee received credibility from elite art circles, but he recalls the most validating moment of his life as an artist is seeing Jean-Michel and Keith Haring admiring his work, the pioneers passing the torch of colors to the next generation.

Because there is an endless amount of graffiti art to be catalogued, and much that has been lost to history and white paint, it took art historians, archivists and believers in the craft to bring street art from the literal underground to the upper echelons of an exclusive art society. Artist Martin Wong fought to preserve what he considered “the last great art movement of the 20th century,” acquiring the works of several well-respected artists of the graffiti world—Lady Pink, Futuro 2000, Rammellzee, Haring and more—and donating them to the Museum of the City of New York, which aims to protect and conserve our urban legacies. It took the work of many to rally behind the idea that this work, these artists, had value, that their creations were not criminal, and represented a latchkey generation that needed someone to listen to them.

In spite of the wave of gentrification that is rushing through the city, there are street artists still fighting for a voice, using pens and paintbrushes as amplifiers to deliver messages from those outside the mainstream. Meet teacher and artist Alice Mizrachi of Harlem Arts Festival, who creates murals as a means of activism. Not only does her work serve as city beautification, but she creates interactive art that she hopes will inspire empathy and engagement. Art can be a tool that can turn whispers into genuine dialogue, and Mizrachi’s work aims to inspire a sense of community togetherness. With her role as teacher, she has the power to galvanize the city’s descendents to inject humanity back into our art and ways of life.

In one of his murals, Lee Quiñones writes, “graffitti is a art (sp) and if art is a crime, let God forgive all.” Decades later, graffiti art never stopped being against the law, its criminality part of the Broken Windows practice of law enforcement that has specifically targeted people of color. So much about the aforementioned quote encapsulates New York life; how we’re simultaneously united and divided, and characterized by the defiant spirit of those turning darkness into light. The olden graffitos were outsiders who rebelled against a system that wasn’t built for them to win. Just like NYC has been a beacon for immigrants who have settled here, thrived and have weaved the fabric of our culture, we also live in a time where we call human beings “illegal,” when we criminalize people for no other reason for existing. Art should unify us all; let us all prevail on equal ground to create and appreciate it.

Interested in more books about NYC’s street art scene? We loved Widow Basquiat, a firsthand account of Jean-Michel’s days of Warhol and nights in the underground scene.

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