Graffiti Is All Grown up in Street Art Exhibition

September 3, 2019 Editorial Staff
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By Charlie Innis

GREENPOINT — When he was 14 years old, David “Chino” Villorente spray-painted his name on the A and C train in his neighborhood of Clinton Hill.

He said he was doing what all the other kids were doing in Brooklyn in the early ‘80s. They scrawled their names on train cars, tunnels and buildings, committing minor crimes to show the world they had a voice.

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The world listened. Now, the street and graffiti art movement, which flourished in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, has a decades-spanning exhibition at 25 Kent Ave. in Williamsburg.

“Beyond the Streets” is a two-story, 100,000-square-foot museum showcase of the movement’s most prominent artists, whose work embodies four core themes: defiance, disruption, activism and ego.

It has extended its run to Sept. 29. 

Curated and directed by graffiti historian Roger Gastman, the showcase leads you down corridors with walls covered in eye-popping artwork. Some sections are interactive, like street art dioramas, and sunlight floods through the building’s massive windows. 

The space nearly begs to be on your Instagram, but the point is not to just entertain whoever walks in through the entrance.

“The point of the exhibition is to continue to educate people on the culture,” said Roger Gastman. “To show how far it’s gone, and what the scrawl, the sticker and the stencil on the wall can spawn.”

A sculpture of rusted paint cans in front of a wall of art by C.R. Stecyk III.

About 80 percent of what’s on view is studio work made specifically for the show, some encompassing whole rooms. Cases of photographs, fliers and other historical ephemera fill the space and give context to the surrounding work.

“This is about some of the best artists to come off of the street who have gone on to have very illustrious, detailed, incredible studio careers,” said Gastman.

Several of the 150 featured artists are household names, like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Shepard Fairey, whose work hangs in a 30-year retrospective. A new, collaborative work from Takashi Murakami, whose fine arts output draws heavily from graffiti, pops up at the tail-end of the exhibition with his signature, kaleidoscopic colors.

The rest of the artists on view are major forces in the movement who may be unfamiliar to some by name. This includes LADY PINK, AIKO, Jenny Holzer, SWOON, Kenny Scharf and TAKI 183, one of the earliest-known graffiti artists of the 70s.

“This is a legitimate art form,” said Villorente, a co-curator and ‘80s-era graffiti artist. “It’s just about time that it was acknowledged in a showcasing with the level of professionalism that ‘Beyond the Streets’ has given.”

Villorente sees similarities between graffiti and another art form born of American cities, jazz. Both movements saw a rise in the public sphere from a symbol of urban blight to a hip, creative expression, worthy of fame and prestige.

He compares the Brooklyn train tunnels he traversed in the night to the crowded, smoke-filled jazz clubs of the early 20th century. 

“None of these were ideal spaces for artists,” he said. “But you know, art thrives in those conditions. And now, it’s just amazing to see where both respective interests have ended up.”

“Beyond the Streets” also commemorates artists who, even if they never coated the walls in color, were important to the culture’s history.

This includes Brooklyn’s beloved Beastie Boys. Their section shows original lyric sheets, notepads and other miscellanea from the group’s heyday.

A wall of Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s famous shots of New York subway graffiti shows how those who documented the movement helped carry it to its mythological status. 

Beastie Boys ephemera sits in a glass case.

“They published a book called ‘Subway Art’ in the early ‘80s,” said Gastman. “And that book is probably the most stolen book in the world.”

One of the show’s tributes to mythological subway art is a recreation of one of Lee Quiñones’ “Soul Trains,” MTA cars he would engulf in bright spray-paint and bubbly letters in the mid-‘70s.

Other recreations sprinkled throughout the exhibit include a walk-in replica of an ‘80s-era record shop and a reproduction of a tattoo parlor on a porch in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

As someone who grew up in graffiti and lived according to the exhibit’s four themes — defiance, disruption, activism and ego — Villorente admits his younger self would have been irked by a public showcase like “Beyond the Streets.”

“If this happened 35 years ago, I’d be absolutely pissed, because this was for us,” said Villorente. “Nobody was supposed to know about this.”

But street art is not a secret anymore, and he said he’s happy to play a hand in bringing it out in the open for the public to appreciate. 

He also thinks the graffiti renaissance of the ‘80s could never happen again.

“The culture is all grown up. We don’t have access to subways. Graffiti went from being a misdemeanor or infraction to, potentially, a felony charge for young kids,” said Villorente. 

“And you know, post-9/11, going into a train tunnel with a bag in your hand and a hood over your head means something very different than it did when I was 15 years old.”

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