New York City has always been a crucible capable of forging powerful movements in art. From the gritty work of the ashcan period to Andy Warhol’s experiments in mass-produced art, NYC has proven a fertile breeding ground for artistic creativity. Graffiti might be the art form most tied to New York, because it was invented by native New Yorkers and the movement’s early muse was the subway train. In graffiti, the subject matter of the artwork has been distilled to its most basic: the signature of the artist.
The New York City that birthed graffiti in the 1970’s was a city in the grip of a mounting crime wave spurred by the drug epidemic and urban decay. Graffiti, breakdancing, and rap arose in the crumbling slums and working class neighborhoods of the city, as disenfranchised youth struggled for ways to find their place in the world and express themselves. The city’s parks and all-ages clubs proved to be the perfect locations for breakdancing and rap to thrive, while graffiti took the road less traveled, with graffiti writers “bombing” the most difficult to reach locations they could find, like bridges and the tops of buildings, and staging weekly exhibits on a grand scale for all to see on the city’s subway trains.
The early 1980s is widely considered to be the golden age of graffiti, with iconic writers like DONDI, Futura, Iz the Wiz, LEE, Kase 2, and Seen creating whole-car pieces on transit lines across the city. Graffiti developed its own language, as graffiti artists began adding icons like stars and arrows, and shortened and camouflaged their “tags”, so that only those in the know could decipher them. Graffiti also began to provide social commentary, often satirizing issues like drug addiction, and social inequality. In some ways, the world of New York City graffiti can be viewed as a microcosm of the mainstream art world or the city itself. For every thousand names scrawled on a wall, only a very few stand out as worthy and valid.
By the early 1980’s, New York’s artistic community began to take notice of the bold colors, energy, and movement in graffiti art. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring‘s street art-inspired masterpieces had set the stage for graffiti to break through into the mainstream. Soon, street legends like Futura 2000 and Dondi were showing their work in galleries in New York and around the globe. Graffiti’s ambassadors to the world, without necessarily intending to, succeeded in exporting the spirit of graff to kids everywhere who were searching for a way to make their mark.
Graffiti was and remains a controversial topic, eliciting a range of emotional reactions in New Yorkers, from indifference, to disgust, to adoration. Regardless of opinions concerning the validity of the art form, the worldwide influence of hip-hop culture and graffiti in the fields of marketing, fashion, and the larger art world are unmistakable. In recent years, artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Swoon have gained international renown by channeling the spirit of New York graffiti, and refining it to create new forms of street art.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of graffiti in New York, pick up Subway Art, by graffiti’s foremost documenters, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, or check out the film Style Wars for a glimpse into New York’s underground hip hop and graffiti scene in the early 80s. You won’t find much graffiti on the trains these days, but you can still find graffiti and street art on legal walls all over the city. Here are a few of the best spots to see graffiti in New York today.
Bowery Graffiti Wall, Bowery and Houston Street, Lower East Side
Keith Haring painted this 3 story wall in the lower east side in 1982, and muralists from around the world have been splashing paint on it ever since.
Graffiti Wall of Fame, East 106th Street and Park Avenue
This famed graffiti wall is a constantly shifting canvass showcasing the work of talented local artists, as well as graffiti legends.
Harrison Street and Morgan Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn
This is a good starting point but you can tour the surrounding blocks and see a range of high quality street art. The Bushwick Collective is a group of street artists who are very active in the area and have helped to give the neighborhood its distinct character. The intersection of Johnson Avenue and Bogart Street is a couple of blocks away and usually has a collection of fantastic murals on display.