Graffiti: 40 Years of Hacking New York City

“’City as Canvas’ is a reminder that this is, in a very literal sense, criminal artwork”


The title of The Museum of New York City’s latest street art retrospective — City as Canvas — seems little more than a clever name at first glance; a literal description of an art form that takes the very fabric of urban spaces — the brick and concrete of walls, the steel and plastic of subway cars — as its medium of choice. But in fact, the title is loaded with political and aesthetic connotations, and is in itself a bold statement about the legitimacy of an art form that has had a long, fraught, and troubled relationship with the city that spawned it.


City as Canvas publicly presents, for the first time, seminal works from the collection of artist Martin Wong, a stalwart advocate for NYC graffiti art from its earliest days through to his tragic, premature death in 1999. Following his HIV/AIDS diagnosis in 1994, Wong donated his unique collection to East Harlem’s Museum of New York City — and unique it certainly is; not just because it captures a snapshot of a globally influential artistic movement as it first emerged, but also in its physical form and nature. Comprised of fifty five sketchbooks — from luminaries such as Keith Haring — and over 300 more conventional canvas-based works, there’s also a substantial selection of photographs, not just of the works but of the artists themselves, often in the process of creating or posing with their finished pieces in captivatingly candid and dangerously indicting ways, making the exhibit as much a visual history of NYC in one of its most vibrant and turbulent periods as it is an art show.

And if the photographs were not enough to remind you that graffiti’s true home is on the streets, then Wong’s collection brings New York City itself into the museum, with a smattering of tagged subway signs and painted train panels scattered amongst the more conventional pieces. It’s a thrill to see these parts of the city itself ripped from the their surroundings and mounted on the walls of a gallery, not only intensifying the feeling of substantial, tangible history but also giving the show an air of the edgy, illicit authenticity that was such a vital element of early street art; a reminder that this is, in a very literal sense, criminal artwork. As an admirer of this work for decades — but from a transatlantic distance until now — it’s a thrill matched only by standing in the show’s press preview surrounded by some of the artists themselves; mythical, whispered names such as Lee, Daze, Lady Pink, and FUTURA 2000 given physical, human form.


My own interest in graffiti dates back to my first teenage introduction to hip-hop culture in the mid-1980s, when the first images of New York subway art started to make their way over the pond in magazines and, much rarer, snippets of TV alongside those first rare glimpses of block parties, scratch DJs, rappers, and breakdancers. Apart from their raw visceral energy, both hip hop music and graffiti struck me as intensely science-fictional. Both are about the appropriation of technology to create something new — hip-hop taking samplers and turntables to generate new sounds they weren’t designed to make, and graf taking car repair paint and the very architecture of cities to create new visual spaces and canvases. They are, perhaps, the most literal expression of William Gibson’s famous cyberpunk-defining phrase ‘the street finds its own use for things’.


Gibson’s early works, and those of his many lesser imitators, would herald the hacker as the rebellious hero of the future; a trope that would immeasurably shape everything from political activism to venture capitalism in the decades to follow. Perhaps the stereotypical image of the hacker as lone digital warrior, skulking over keyboards in screen-glare lit rooms seems very far removed from the image of the spray can welding, shadow dwelling, trespassing graffiti writer, but the two subcultures share a startlingly similar set of goals, values, and approaches: both look to subvert existing infrastructures and systems, both value one-upmanship and bragging rights, and neither can resist the illegal thrill of breaking-and-entering — whether physical or virtual — even when the risk of being caught may well lead to ruthless, draconian punishment. Both graffiti artists and hackers share an aesthetic obsession with the future — something apparent in the work of artist Leonard McGurr, better known as FUTURA 2000. His career started in 1970 alongside his best friend Marc Edmunds (AKA ALI), but it was cut short when an explosion caused by spray cans coming into contact with a live subway third rail left Edmunds with severe burns. It was enough to make FUTURA abandon art for a few years and do a stint in the navy — however, his return to NYC in 1979 heralded a dramatic comeback, marked by his — then groundbreaking — decision to reject the focus on words and artist names in favour of pure abstraction.

“I was like ‘you know what? Forget the name.’” he explains, “It was about understanding that [there was more than] hitting a wall and the gratification of seeing my name, that was all it was about, the initial thrill of like ‘oh shit, look at my name!’… I didn’t know what I was talking about, but in a sense my career is somewhat prophetic in that I’m Futura, along with that I gotta be a certain way, my work has to look a certain way, it’s gotta be futuristic, it’s gotta be new, it can’t be some bullshit or something… My big breakthrough was 1980, when I painted a train… a whole car with no lettering, just colors. And that was really how I, you know, sort of understood who I was going to be in this game. I gotta do different shit. And to this day I think I’m still kind of that guy.”


Even before cyberpunk, the city has long been one of the defining settings of science fiction for those who dare to look beyond the standard tropes of spaceships and alien worlds. Science fiction frequently views the city as a machine, with those of us who live within it variably as components, parasites, or even unwilling prisoners. Graffiti becomes one of the most visceral, immediate statements of rebellion for us urban inmates; a bold, organic riot of colour against our drab, sterile prison. It also, as Jeremiah McNichols argues, blurs the artificial lines between street and gallery, between the public and the establishment:


“Graffiti art gets its rare power not only from its confrontational stance towards virtually any viewer who respects the “fourth wall” of the public stage that graffiti writers willfully disassemble, but from its occupancy of a peripheral position with respect to the society it criticizes. This space is open to any visual artist who chooses to present their work in public, without permission, in a way that engages the work with its surroundings, and the two groups are beginning to borrow heavily from each other. Graffiti artists are exploring the fertile ground of targeted messages with immediate and iconic impact, and visual artists are taking to the streets to communicate with the public beyond the sanctioned space of the gallery walls. This social frame of protest allows artists to produce works that express strong aesthetic values without fearing that their works’ aesthetics will be divorced from their underlying message. Their presence in our common, cluttered world rather than the blank slate of an art gallery repudiates our inclination to segregate aesthetics from the world it distills.”


It is perhaps this refusal of graffiti to be restricted to traditional settings that is partly responsible for so much of the early negativity it faces; its positioning as nothing more than mindless vandalism from the city authorities, the New York Police Department, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority is understandable, but as a selection of quotes displayed at the entrance of City as Canvas illustrate, the movement faced considerable hostility from New York’s somewhat elitist art establishment.


The people who graffiti ought to be shot at dawn — Kathleen Westin, Junior Council Co-chair, Museum of Modern Art, 1980

Trains are saturated with garbage. If this is art, then to hell with art! — MTA official, 1981

I like graffiti — Andy Warhol, 1980

That Andy Warhol, that stylish philistine, has said “I love graffiti” is almost enough to hate it — Paul Theroux, New York Magazine, 1982


Despite the nod from Warhol, who often gleefully celebrated his own outsider status, the knee-jerk reaction from NYC’s hip, chattering classes seems especially surprising in the face of how graffiti — or ‘street art’, as it has been commonly renamed — has been accepted and exalted by the contemporary art world. Much of this is, of course, in response to the work of UK stencil prankster-turned-global brand Banksy, whose playful agitprop wall work became so instantly recognisable and digestible that anonymous-mystique celebrity status and million dollar art sales inevitably followed. Unquestionably, Banksy’s political work jacked in to the network zeitgeist somewhere along the line, offering scathing Occupy and Anonymous style sneers devoid of ideology or demands; armchair protests where everyone can go home to their middle class parents or snitch on their hacker comrades when the FBI comes knocking at the door — an urban rebellion that rejected the risk-taking criminality and unashamed blue collar bravado of NYC’s early writers in favour of irony, detached commentary, and aloof subtlety. It’s a gentrification of graffiti into street art in many ways — perhaps best illustrated in Banksy’s hometown of Bristol, where after three decades of pursuing graf writers, the city’s authorities have recognised the art form’s potential as a tourist attraction, and actively support three annual street art festivals while the city’s artists decorate shop and museum interiors, create corporate murals, and contribute to community art schemes.


In some ways the hacker metaphor is useful again here — just as some gifted young digital vandals graduate into lucrative careers as legitimate security consultants and coders, many artists who cut their teeth writing on walls move into graphic design, corporate pieces, and gallery shows; City as Canvas exhibitor Daze was commissioned to do a mural for the Star Ferry terminal in Hong Kong; FUTURA 2000 designed clothes for Nike, Supreme, and Levi’s; and Sandra Fabara — best known as Lady Pink, one of the few women participating in the subway train scene in the 1980s — lectures on art in NYC area colleges. “I like Banksy,” she tells me. “I like what he’s done, what he stands for and… where he’s brought us. The legitimacy. There’s towns and villages and places where they’re like, “alright! cool!” and that is priceless, what he has done. I know other people have problems with Banksy and all of that, but I think it’s all good… and the amount of money that he’s commanding? It rubs off on us all. We sell our paintings in the five and six figures.”


But if New York’s art establishment was slow to accept graffiti as a legitimate form of expression, the city’s police department is still stubborn in its refusal to do so. Its Citywide Vandals Task Force — known just as the ‘Vandal Squad’ to graf writers — was a notoriously hard hitting unit that struck fear into the hearts of artists in the 1980s. Still operating today, with just as much ferocity and with a long memory that still holds grudges from thirty years ago, Fabara tells me that despite not having broken the law “in a couple of decades’, her house was raided and her property seized just last May. “The Vandal Squad actually came into my house, the SWAT team truck outside, my neighbors coming out to look, I’m like “oh ho ho”. So I’m not under arrest, I’ve not been charged, but they still took all my stuff, my computers, my published books out of my book case, a hundred books, as well as all my photos, my everything, so all my life’s work walked out the door. My computers, which meant my jobs, my contacts, my contracts, sales, opportunities, travel, everything walked out the door. I couldn’t reach anyone, I couldn’t… they basically fucked me.”

“This is what the police do. They oppress artists. So yes, we’re accepted here [at the gallery], but nevertheless, if any of us idiots have the nerve to organize an event, do a public function, or in any way show that you are prospering and profiting from that, then they’ll get the police — they’ll raid your house and they’ll get your stuff and do fishing — try to find some kind of crimes or something something. I don’t doubt the vandal squad will be here tomorrow night. I mean it’s the public opening… they’ve picked people up at their own gallery openings. They’ll pick people up. They’ll say, ‘oh we have a photo of some wall… that we’re not so sure if it was legal. And you come with us.’ They’re at gallery openings! So yes, they’re going to be out here like vultures. Circling, circling.”


Again, this draconian approach to busting perceived offenders in their homes and at public gatherings is familiar to anyone who has been aware of how law enforcement agencies across the globe crack down on teenage hackers, as is their rhetoric. “The officers assigned to the Vandals Task Force possess a passion for their work that is matched only by the commitment of the Department to ensure that we are relentless in our efforts to battle graffiti” proclaims the Vandal Squad’s website, before going on to explain how they’re embracing new technology in their fight against underground art, in the form of a tag logging database; “the data bank allows officers from across the City to contribute to the effort. Offenders arrested for graffiti are brought to the attention of the Task Force and their arrest information is entered along with a mug shot and a photo of the damage caused. But an arrest is not required for the data bank to be utilized. A complaint made regarding graffiti is forwarded to the Citywide Vandals Task Force; that information is entered as well. This vigilance allows officers to match a number of identical “tags” to compile stronger cases against the offenders, to hold them responsible when they are eventually arrested.” This is the language and rhetoric of the smart city, the idea of rationalising and controlling urban environments through surveillance, digital monitoring, big data, and centralised management — and in many ways it opens another avenue for the graffiti artist as hacker; a new urban system to rebel against, to combat, to subvert and outwit.

While graffiti transforms from public art in municipal spaces to street art in private collections, our cities are increasingly becoming privatised, gentrified, and corporate controlled spaces, designed to rationalise citizen behaviour, to track our movement, and monetise our expression. Perhaps it is time to return to the original canvas, and to remind us just how rebellious writing on walls can really be. Graffiti might be moving to the walls of galleries and museums, but the battle for the streets of New York is far from over.


City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection runs at the Museum of the City of New Work through August 24, 2014.

You can read Paintwork, Tim Maughan’s short story on the future of graffiti as protest, over at tor.com

Image credits:

Detail from Untitled by Futura 2000, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 27x20.” Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. Growing media attention paid to “street art” led to interest from commercial galleries and collectors. As a result, by 1980, several gallery impresarios convinced young artists like FUTURA 2000 to produce works on canvas.

Howard the Duck by Lee Quiñones, 1988, oil on canvas, 58x88.” Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. A vivid oil painting of the artist’s massive handball court mural, created 10 years earlier and since destroyed, at Corlears Junior High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Graffiti Kids, photograph by Jon Naar, 1973. © Jon Naar — Photographer Jon Naar documented New York’s graffiti art movement in 1970s and ’80s including artists, such as the pictured kids, posing with their work.

Special thanks to The Museum of The City of New York and all artists involved.