City as Canvas: A Justification of Graffiti as Art

As a child, you were taught that writing on anything other than paper was “vandalism”. Even writing on your hand was considered bad manners. This was quite the confusing concept for a small child growing up in New York City in the nineties. I saw unwanted writing everywhere: bathroom stalls, bus stop advertisements and even on the sidewalk. Once in a while, I would see this very simple bubbly lettering in black ink on the side of a subway car, in a subway station or sometimes in a highway tunnel and would ask, “Mommy what is that?” My mother would automatically give me one of these replies, “That’s graffiti. That’s a very bad thing to do.” “Never do it.”  “That’s illegal.” This response to graffiti was engrained in the minds of the newer generations, creating a reaction of disgust towards these telling pieces of street art. No one had even given us the option to think of it as a genre of art…until now.

Located on Manhattan’s upper east side, The Museum of the City of New York’s latest exhibition City as Canvas, now on display through August 2014, celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Martin Wong’s donation of collected graffiti works, by famous artist such as Lee Quiñones and Keith Haring, from the 1970s and 80s, during the city’s intense phase of bankruptcy. Martin Wong, a painter and collector, was one of the most influential promoters of this art and even “nurtured the creative talents” of many of graffiti’s most famous artists up until his death in 1999. His archive consists of over fifty-five artist’s sketchbooks and more than three hundred works on canvas, wood and other media most of which are displayed in this latest installation. His extensive collection is on the verge of obsession, as he strived to become a “scholar” of graffiti art and learn everything about this “new medium” that had emerged within the hip-hop culture.

During this period, New York City spent over three hundred million dollars cleaning up this “vandalism” from New York City subways, walls and billboards. However this exhibition disputes this classification of graffiti as defacement by celebrating it as an urban, low cost art form. The wide range of works show the transition of graffiti from artists spray painting their names, also known as “tagging” to beautiful illustrations they create that comment on society and rebel against it. The exhibition takes the viewer on a journey through the history of graffiti: its rise in the New York City subway system, the famous debate: destruction of property or art, and finally it’s demise. One of the most famous works in this collection, Lady Pink’s “The Death of Graffiti” illustrates the death of this art form perfectly. A self-portrait, Lady Pink stands naked in her graffiti filled world on her endless mountain of spray paint cans with an outstretched arm, yearning for her artwork that has been lost. It expresses both the past and the future with one graffiti stained wall dividing the two worlds.

One of the most intriguing parts of the exhibition, however, was not one of the artist’s works at all. Instead, it was a small section of an installed wall titled “The Debate” that contained approximately 20 quotes from political figures, artists and activists, in red and white font debating whether this movement should be considered art or destruction of property. This debate had no conclusion for the viewers but instead educated them on the history behind this dead art form and encouraged them to reconsider their previous biases.

The gallery itself is quite small and has been broken up by walls into even smaller sections creating a sense of the “alleyways” of the street. Although I wish this space had more of a grungy, street vibe, each section is covered with artworks so that wherever you turn, you are surrounded by at least five different works, giving the viewers the sense that these artist were so prolific there was no way to stop them. The use of media such as short documentaries featuring Martin Wong and the ability to flip through artist’s sketchbooks with the use of IPads made the exhibition more appealing to younger generations, more interactive and more modern, giving us extensive access to a collection that was previously unavailable. The exhibition also managed to express the artist’s feelings that art should be available to all, not just high society and should be used for self-expression instead of purely as a commodity.

Although I would not necessarily want New York City to be plastered with graffiti today, City as Canvas has removed my bias that graffiti should be associated with vandalism. This art form gave a crumbling city a voice; a sense of community and a meaningful contribution to culture that should never be forgotten. Thanks to Martin Wong, the Keith Haring Foundation and the Museum of the City of New York, graffiti, despite its impermanence, will always be commemorated.

Visit this page for images and more information about the exhibit:

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