Street Art Promenade: A Brief Look At Graffiti In The City
by Shanizea Husain
A relic of graffiti, the Museum of Street Art (MoSA), located on the corner of Bowery Street and Delancy Street, preserves the art of 20 contributors to the 5 Pointz museum almost 7 years after the site in Long Island City, Queens was demolished.
The MoSA sits a short distance away from the SoHo, Lower East Side, and Nolita areas, effectively locating it in the heart of the street art displays. Therefore, despite being temporarily closed due to COVID, those visiting the MoSA area can entertain themselves by taking a quick stroll around and observing the walls. Walking around, one may observe murals, tagged names or pseudonyms, and stickers/posters adorning the walls.
A short way uptown of the MoSA, on Houston Street, is the Bowery Wall. Initially exhibiting the art of Keith Haring in the 1970s, the wall is repainted every year with a new mural. This year, the painting was done by Raul Ayala in September. The vibrant mural is chock full of imagery, including African masks, creatures holding scepters, divers, and flora and fauna.
The wall across the street from the mural also has various artworks spray-painted on: the 45th President in a black cloak with a scythe beneath the caption, “DON’T BE AFRAID OF COVID,” and a separate piece depicting George Floyd beside it, captioned, “RIP George Floyd BLACK LIVES MATTER NYC”.
The opposite sides of Houston Street effectively display the two main types of street art in the Lower East Side: commercial street art and communal street art. While Ayala’s mural was commissioned by a company (Goldman Properties) on a private piece of land, the pieces opposite were done by people using pseudonyms or anonymously on abandoned property for the purpose of communicating a message.
Communal street art finds its roots in the original development of street art. While gangs in the 1920s and 1930s largely contributed to graffiti in train cars and walls, it was not until the late 1960s that street art as we know it came to be.
One of the first modern-day street artists was a high school student in Philadelphia during the 1960s who tagged “Cornbread” around the city to get the attention of a girl. Thus, the tagging phenomenon became popularized in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
Youth developed particular symbols and images that would identify themselves like gang signs and neighborhood signs, while others stood for a particular individual. The marking of territories was a way for powerless young people to regain ownership of their neighborhoods, especially as the sociopolitical impact of the counterculture empowered impoverished/minority youth during the time period.
One tag that is frequently recognizable throughout the city is the trademark “The Bright Idea” lightbulb symbol, created by one of the contributors to 5 Pointz: Meres One.
By the 1970s, street artists like Zephyr were combining murals and typography by experimenting with lettering on subway walls. The height of the street art movement saw subway cars completely covered in unique bubble-text tags and symbols, one after the other.
As the decade went on, graffiti groups such as the Brooklyn-based Fabulous 5 and SAMO came to be. Jean-Michel Basquiat, half of the latter group, was found by Keith Haring after Haring followed SAMO tags throughout the Lower East Side. While initially, public art was perceived to be lower-class because of how accessible it was, this attitude was changing.
By the end of the seventies, Freddy and Lee Quiñones of the Fab 5 were given the opportunity to exhibit work in Rome. The connection between street art and fine art slowly solidified by the time the early-1980s came about, with galleries displaying Basquiat, Richard Hambleton, and Keith Haring, all of whom had made street art by that point.
After a certain point, advertisers and business owners realized that pubic art is an effective way to attract people to a location, where they may incidentally decide to shop. This phenomenon is visible in the streets of the Bowery– boutique after boutique displays beautiful commissioned murals outside their businesses, giving an idea of the atmosphere of the store/restaurant to window shopping customers.
Today, companies such as Colossal Media, based in Brooklyn, are contracted to brands like Gucci and Chanel to commission hand-painted advertisements for their boutiques in Lower Manhattan. Businesses may combine commercial and conscious art by hiring artists to make work for them that they morally or politically subscribe to in order to attract like-minded individuals, as was the case a handful of times in Nolita.
The street art movement was about much more than appreciating public art. It began with a young black teen who did what he could to be visible to his love– an apt metaphor for street art itself, which thrived due to those who were tired of not being seen. Street art was looked down upon because it was accessible and not exclusive, because it reclaimed often impoverished urban neighborhoods for its residents, and because it amplified the voices of those we work to silence.
Murals in Lower Manhattan may be curated, but they are protected by businesses, while original graffiti sites like 5 Pointz in Queens, which acted as one of the bedrocks of the street art movement itself, are free to be demolished and remodeled despite its significance to the local community.
At the end of the day, street art deserves to be appreciated, whether it was created for commercial purposes with aesthetics in mind or for communal purposes with raising consciousness in mind. Street art is often ephemeral, as both public and private walls are painted and repainted every day, etches are refilled, surfaces are replaced.
Like relics, street art generally epitomizes a very specific time period. Museums like the Museum of Street Art (reopening soon!) that preserve the historically significant graffiti in the city are cultural institutions that can effectively distill pockets of history, and it is important to support them.
The next time you take a walk in the city, or even around your neighborhood, keep your eyes peeled for tags or iconography– yes, a lot of it indicates gang activity– but it is still surprisingly fun to see what kinds of artworks you can find, no matter where you go.