Text in Art 10. – Graffiti Part 4 – From Street to Gallery

The early period of graff creativity did not go unrecognized. Hugo Martinez, a sociology major at City College in New York, took notice of the legitimate artistic potential of this generation. Martinez went on to found United Graffiti Artists. UGA selected top subway artists from all around the city and presented their work in the formal context of an art gallery. UGA provided opportunities once inaccessible to these artists. Martinez realized that there was something more to these graffiti signatures than vandalism and with some success was able to refocus the energies of some of the artists to more legitimate means of expressing themselves. Martinez’ efforts turned media attention towards a subculture that was just beginning to spring from the minds and hearts of the New York City youth.

Lee Quinones

In 1979 writers LEE QUINONES and FAB 5 FREDDIE had an opening in Rome with the art dealer Claudio Bruni. Then in 1980 numerous writers flocked to places like ESSES studio, Stephan Eins’ Fashion Moda and Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery to expand their horizons. These and subsequent galleries would prove to be important factors in expanding writing overseas.

Fab 5 Freddy

Arguably the most famous American street graffiti writer who became a wildly successful gallery artist was Jean-Michel Basquiat (b.1960 – d. 1988). In 1976 Basquiat and friends spray painted buildings in Lower Manhattan using the tag, SAMO. In 1978 the Village Voice published an article about the graffiti, leading in 1979 to Basquiat’s appearance on the live TV show ‘TV Party’ hosted by Glenn O’Brian.O’Brien introduced Basquiat to Andy Warhol and the two became friends and collaborators.

Man from Naples by Basquiat.1982. acrylic & collage on wood.122x244cm.

Continuing his activities as a graffiti artist, Basquiat often incorporated words into his paintings. Before his career as a painter began, he produced punk-inspired postcards for sale on the street, and become known for his political–poetical graffiti. He would often draw on random objects and surfaces and typically covered them with text and codes of all kinds: words, letters, numerals, pictograms, logos, map symbols and diagrams.

Future Science versus Man by Basquiat, 1983

Artforum magazine published an article on Basquiat in 1981, called “The Radiant Child” which brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world and by 1982 Basquiat was showing regularly with Neo-expressionist artists such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle.

When Andy Warhol died on February 22, 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated, and his heroin addiction and depression grew more severe. Basquiat died on August 12, 1988, of a heroin overdose at his art studio in New York.

LNAPRK by Basquiat. 1982. polymer and oil stick on canvas. 73×72″. Whitney Museum

The record price for a Basquiat painting was made on May 15, 2007, when an untitled Basquiat sold at Sotheby’s in New York for US$14.6 million

In 1996, a biographic film, titled ‘Basquiat’ was released, directed by Julian Schnabel, with actor Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat and David Bowie playing Andy Warhol.

The Profit by Basquiat

Despite the legal crackdown on graffiti in the 1980s and since, it has continued to spread through every urban center in North America and abroad and has taken on new dimensions of creativity. Today, graffiti has emerged as an art form in its own right, by showing not only realistic portraits of life in the city, but also complex scenes of fantasy and surrealism. The simple writing of the early years has developed through bubble writing and wild style to a place where text and art intertwine on the galleries of city walls as well as inside commercial gallery spaces.

Night by POSE

Graffiti artists, such as Chicago’s POSE, represent the peak of contemporary American street art. Best known for his progressive letter style and technical precision, POSE is an influential contributor to the contemporary graffiti movement, and his work has appeared in numerous magazines, books and films. POSE grew up a half block from the CTA’s elevated train line, and started sneaking out to practice graffiti there in 1992. Coming of age during the golden era of Chicago graffiti, POSE put in endless work on the streets. His prolific output led him to become a local legend, and the city’s most internationally recognized graffiti artist with work on the streets and in galleries.

A magazine article from this year:

 FINAL PIECE AT THE CHICAGO STREET ART SHOW by Max Herman, Jun 3, 2011 When it comes to street art, graffiti, or any artwork that winds up in public, there’s a certain process involved that can be as interesting as the final piece itself. With The Chicago Street Art Show, the work of Chicago-based artists like Don’t Fret, Chris Silva, Goons, and Mental 312 is hardly framed in a neat display; this show held at the Chicago Urban Art Society exists freely on and off the walls of the gallery, allowing people to really see the work and layers involved in contemporary street art.

Chicago Street Art Show

Street Art or Graffiti?*

Even as the distinctions between street art and graffiti remain debatable, it’s safe to say that just about every participant in this show has put in work on the outside world—under viaducts, on light signal boxes, on industrial doors, etc. But one participant, Mental 312, is notably breaking down barriers between graff and street art in practice. Using a roller and a single color of bucket paint, he creates gigantic, maze-like pieces of lines, which sometimes don’t even spell anything out in particular. Mental says the motive behind these pieces originally was to cover all of the unsightly brown buff** paint plaguing Chicago walls. (**Buff – when any graffiti is painted over or removed from any surface by civic authorities).

Mental 312

Even with Mental’s newer, roller pieces being such a large step away from his older traditional graffiti fill-ins and tags, he still doesn’t necessarily consider himself a street artist:

“As a graffiti artist, I look at street art as something new. Street art is just a new version of graffiti—a new generation.”

*Street Art versus Graffiti – Street art (or post-graffiti) is a term used to distinguish contemporary artwork in public spaces from territorial graffiti, vandalism and corporate art.Street artists challenge high-art by locating their work in non-art contexts. They attempt to have their work communicate with everyday people about socially relevant themes in ways that are informed by esthetic values without being imprisoned by them. Street art has been defined as “all art on the street that’s not graffiti.”

Evaluations, debates and comparisons between “Street Art” and “Graffiti” have long been discussed. Street Art is a movement of outsider art that has risen in prominence over the last decade. It includes mural painting, stencil graffiti, sticker art, wheat pasting / street poster art, and street installations.

Stencil Graffiti
Street Art Installation

The differences between this style and the tribal politics of Graffiti have rendered some level of competition inevitable. From the position of Graffiti artists, there has been a lot of apprehension towards Street Art. It is very important to recognize that these differences are major, and that behind them is a vast difference in ideas, aesthetic approaches, culture and history. Yet there actually is a high amount of cross over between the two forms. Many Street Artists are writers who have turned their efforts from Graffiti to Street Art. Ultimately Graffiti is just one particular art form and culture, and it was never expected to appeal to everyone anyway.

It’s ironic that graffiti or street art works by legendary writers and artists in gallery settings can elicit prices that range from the high hundreds to the high thousands. If the same art works were on city walls instead of on canvas in a gallery, the state would probably spend the same amount of dollars to remove it!

Obey mural by Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the Obama ‘Hope’ poster art.



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