Montclair’s Frank Gerard Godlewski Curates NY Graffiti Show

Graffiti art evolves from the American urban multiracial desire for freedom from the ruling class and willingness and need to self manage its own urban identity.
— Frank Gerard Godlewski —

Montclair resident, architect and historian Frank Gerard Godlewski is passionate about art, even — or maybe especially — if its painted on the side of a subway train or building. Godlewski is the curator of a historic Graffiti art exhibition and charity auction, NYC Graffiti Legends Tell All, featuring the work of “the first generation” of NY street artists, Lava I & II, Bama, StayHigh 149, Flint 707 and Mico. Documenting a fusion of New York City history and modern culture, the show focuses on the city’s indigenous art form, born out of rebellion and desperation. The exhibit will be at Gallery 69 TriBeCa, NYC on May 19 -20, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.

For Godlewski, there’s a significant disconnect between the fact that Graffiti art currently sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars in world class auction houses, yet the pioneers of this now-revered art form have been mostly forgotten, and are still persecuted for their work. “We have to make a reconciliation with Graffiti,” he told Baristanet in a phone conversation. “It’s one of our most important forms of art, and yet its still considered an act of vandalism in New York City.”

According to Godlewski, back in the early 1970s, writing on NYC street walls was originally used to mark territory in areas of urban desolation. “These guys were living in the periphery — in housing projects that were falling apart with no heat. They were kids who didn’t have a chance in life, at school or jobs. Their only pleasure or accomplishment was to write on their buildings and the subway cars.”

While gangs prevailed in their community, the group of artists became their own family, supporting each other and writing together. Bama’s father worked for the MTA, and had a big key ring which offered access to gates all over the subway system. When his father was asleep, Bama took the keys and let in all the artists, who painted the trains at night. During the day, the group would watch trains go by and look for their names, sighting their signatures throughout the city. “It was a spectator sport for them,” Godlewski explained.

Each of the artists did multiple jail stints through their years of “writing,” for crimes only related to their Graffiti. Now they are grandfathers and living mainstream lives, though one of the group recently did some prison time. LA II (his disciple, Keith Haring gave him the name Little Angel) was coping with his wife’s terminal illness, and was depressed. He reverted back to his old form of expression to ease his pain and wrote on some walls in NY. The police knew his signature, tracked him down and locked him up. His wife died while he was in prison. Today, the third generation of Grafitti writers inscribe their urban reality in an art form that sells for high prices in cities throughout the world, while back in NY, where he paved the way for these young artists, LA II’s work got him arrested.

“Graffiti is part of our urban landscape. It’s the most important art form in New York City,” said Godlewski. “It’s ours — we’re a part of it. Out here in the suburbs, we’re the commuters who ride the painted trains. We’re all a part of the movement.”

NYC Graffiti Legends Tell All
Gallery 69 TriBeCa, NYC
69 Leonard Street (between Church and Broadway)
May 19th & 20th 2011 6pm-10pm
Auction proceeds go to Housing Works, a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.

To read more on the subject, click here and here.

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  1. What unmitigated apologist gobbledygook.

    I lived some of the most graffitied neighborhoods in New York in the 80’s and I can assure you they didn’t just “write on their buildings”.

    It’s vandalism, it’s ugly, it’s selfish, it’s crime and gang related and degrades the quality of life.

    Want to avoid jail? Buy your own wall and paint it to your heart’s content.

  2. I didn’t even read this. I just skipped to the first comment, and I was relieved and delighted to see RoC do so well as to put B-Net straight.

    Limericks about rape, now this.

    Hey, Baristas! April Fools was six weeks ago!

  3. What I love about graffiti art is that it illustrates so beautifully Plato’s notion that art is by nature subversive to public order.

    It also illustrates why the notion of a municipal arts council is kind of ridiculous, or at least irrelevant.

  4. The telling thing about the affluent admirer’s praise of graffiti “art” is that it’s authentically localized to someone else’s neighborhood.

  5. Yes. I wonder if Mr. Godlewski will let us all know his address and maybe I can create my own mixed media art installation on his lawn.

  6. I remember back in the 80’s I was at a party and some street tagger wanna be right out of some rich suburb whips out a can and starts painting a frat house wall….Man did they beat his sense of right to entitlement right out of him….

    LA County alone spends over $30M a year cleaning this junk up. It’s a crime and shouldn’t glorified. “Artists” my arse and to try to legitimize it is a disgrace.

    Roc said it all.

  7. YEs, I’m still mesmerized by beautiful artistic expressions that I witnessed during my drive down Rt. 21 to the Pru Center the other day. Nothing captures the essence of urban decay like graffiti. Piffle.

    Walter is onto something here. If Mr. Godlewski would be kind enough to provide his address, I would like to enlist my dog to create an organic sculpture on his lawn. Very free form, and a sensory tour de force.

    BTW, apparently the genre lost one of it’s practitioners as he was defacing the 59th St. station the other night. The vandal’s body was found surrounded by cans of spray paint. Now the engineer will have to live with this incident that was no fault of his.

  8. Traveling subways at the height of the graffiti era was a constant reminder of the disrespect of public places on display. Most of it reminded me of the kids in school who doodled their way through school, often repeating the same design again and again.

  9. I was thinking of using Mr. Godlewski’s lawn as my canvas, the tires of my Hummer as my brushes.

    I can now hear the gasps from the crowd. “A Hummer? How terrible for the environment!”

    Funny how many of the people who appoint themselves stewards of what is good for the environment are the ones most willing to excuse mindless destruction and vandalism if you call it art of the downtrodden?

    Do they think the ozone layer suffers less damage from spray paint cans used on OPP?

  10. I feel compelled to add Frank Gerard Godlewski is a good guy and a regular and usually cogent and reasonable commenter here.

  11. If I recall, Frank Godlewski brought flowers to the home where the elderly man who was killed by a car on Bloomfield Avenue lived…I always thought that was a lovey gesture, so he is indeed a “good guy.”

    I don’t object to this thread since Frank is a regular commenter, but the site has gotten too heavy with feature stories.

  12. This site is getting weirder and weirder this week. First, we had a Bnet editor declaring she was more “authentically local”, the not so funny or clever limerick and now this nonsense. Are the Bnet editors drinking some strange kool-aid?

  13. I think it’s a fair story. even interesting. I think a graffiti “art” show is wacko-burgers, but doubtless some people will like it. And it makes for lively discussion about what art is.

  14. I think that many of the graffiti artists are talented. That being said, they should confine their artistic expression to canvasses or their own property. Millions of dollars are spent to remove graffiti from public places like parks and subways and who do you think foots the bill? It is pure defacement of property and I am sure most of you on here wouldn’t like it if a graffiti artist expressed him or herself on your house or car.

  15. (waltermitty ON FIRE: “I was thinking of using Mr. Godlewski’s lawn as my canvas, the tires of my Hummer as my brushes,” “maybe I can create my own mixed media art installation on his lawn.” Too funny!)

  16. Frank GG is just an all around compassionate person. Always has a kind word…especially when someone is in need. Notice that all the proceeds from this show go a an important charity. That sounds like classic Frank GG to me, though I do not know him personally.

    This particular topic is quite controversial but as Frank says in the piece “Graffiti is part of our urban landscape”… It is also currently being heralded (exploited) in the “art world”. Personally, I think it is vandalism but I understand Franks point of view.

    (Note to the Barista’s…you misspelled “Graffiti” in your headline.)

  17. So many damn prudes on this site, my lord it’s getting to be like Little House on the Prairie.

  18. Bravo, Franco — nil carborundum iligitimi. NYC in the 70’s was not a pretty sight, for sure, but there was a lot more than grafitti bringing it down. The city was broke, landlords were abandoning buildings all over town, and no one was picking the garbage up.

    But some grafitti is considered art today and FGG is an artist, an intellectual, and an original on Baristanet. He is curating a show, not spray painting your frikkin’ Hummers. And, he has more class in his little finger than most of the morons who are railing against him on the blog today will ever see. Your comments are cruel, undeserved, and you owe Frank an apology.
    Show some class yourselves.

  19. I believe it was Andy Warhol who said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

    A useful description, but one that can, and as this post confirms, has been interpreted on different levels, including excusing selfish abuse of public and private property.

  20. I apologize if my comments are unduly harsh. As I said, Frank is a good guy and I appreciate his comments here. However organizing a show which showcases the results of criminal behavior is not a good thing. Even if done for charity. The vandal still receives acclaim. Every act of Graffiti, by its very nature, has victims – property owners, taxpayers, residents faced with an increase in urban blight. Beauty my be in the eye of the beholder, but vandalism is vandalism. Graffiti “artists” should no more be lauded than muggers. Vandals who are made to take the responsibility for their actions are not being “persecuted” they’re being prosecuted. They should not receive money or acclaim for their “art” anymore than a mugger should profit from a how-to book about mugging.

  21. Right of Center, the one who writes as if he/she is an altar boy/girl him/herself, is very pukish. Zero class. Nada class. Wanna fight real “crime” ? Write about the billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money that have been wasted by the last 3 U.S. Administrations in Irak, Afghanistan, and now Libia, to pay off corrupt individuals who hold power in those countries, i.e., Kharzai in Afghanistan, whose brother is the biggest dope dealer in that Country, favors done to those crooks over there, who in turn, will return the favos to the crooks over here such as dick chaney and the others who are no longer in “public life.”

  22. Graffiti can be amazingly beautiful, especially the older work done by Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quinones, and if I remember correctly, Jean-Michel Basquiat got his start as a graffiti artist.

    Tagging, however, to me is just an eyesore and a nuisance. I guess I see it more as an ego boost for the tagger as opposed to art.

  23. Five Freddie told me everybody’s high
    DJ’s spinnin’ are savin’ my mind
    Flash is fast, Flash is cool
    Francois sez fas, Flashe’ no do

  24. Banksy’s work is transcendent. It takes my breath away. If he wanted to use my house for any project of his I’d be thrilled. Of course, I wouldn’t feel the same way about someone tagging my car with a can of Krylon. Technically, “public” art is vandalism, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world without people like Banksy.

  25. Excuse me for not appreciating the nuance between “tagging” and graffiti. I would venture that if, say, Jackson Pollock had used someone’s wall or a public space as his canvas without permission that he would have been arrested for more than lying drunk in the gutter. Art is art and, graffiti is crude vandalism.

  26. I too vote for the integrity of FGG.

    But I remain uncertain as to which is more repulsive — graffiti or Hummers.

    Or, for that matter, skinny Mission Street riffraff tossing their candy wrappers and pizza boxes on the sidewalks while saggin’ – — or huge and flabby North Caldwell suburbanites with Yankee caps, shiny pants, and no shortage of cheap aftershave slathered on their triple chins, and you can smell that CVS purchase a mile away.

    Waltermitty, deadeye, ROC – whaddayathink?

  27. Graffiti “art” sells for six-figure prices? What do they do, cut up old subway cars abd haul their side panels into galleries? (Actually, I thought all those cars so vandalized had been sunk off the Jersey shore in order to create artificial reefs.) Rip down and reassemble brick tenement walls inside museums?

    As for Godlewski curating such a show (and what is curating, exactly?), oh well, there’s always some fool with a degree who will come up with some pretentious rationalization for something most folks will find crap. Some people, for example, like Yoko Ono’s, uh, “singing.”

    And Frank GG, territory is still marked. By street gangs on walls, or via the top and bottom “rockers” on bike club colors. (Come to think of it, now there’s an art show I might actually attend!) I wonder how you’d feel about “reconciliation” for the rest of us straight citiens with such true “outsider” artists.

    By the way, none other than Norman Mailer has already “summed up” graffiti, in a long-ago short book titled (to the best of my recollection) “Watching My Name Go by.” But just because Mailer wrote such a book doesn’t perforce validate this form of display either.

    And you really shouldn’t have bothered with that apology above, ROC. I’m even somewhat disappointed you did that.

  28. And as for your stout defense of Frank GG, Conan, I might ask, can you yourself name any works of art he’s personally created? Any buildings he’s designhed? I sure csn’t. My general impression is that he’s a dedicated local preservationist, however, so I wonder how he’d feel if some of the buildings he seems to love so were tagged tomorrow. Would he just call it “art” and tell the rest of us to live with and try to appreciate it?

    Somehow I doubt it. Nor is someone who disagrees with your interpretation of art necessarily a moron. I’ve even known intelligent people who collected Sister Hummel figurines.

  29. I love Graffiti especially when it’s on someone else’s property.
    Most of it is very devo and not worth the price of the paint.
    If you really got balls….go tag the White House.
    I watch this huge canvas cry for help roll by on the Amtrak route called the Northeast corridor, the only drawback is I have to pay for the wine & cheese.

  30. Hey yalls! Read a bloggable article on the internet abt “urban” art. Apparently, the most important artist bro of all times, gg franks, tagged the eff out of some building in the mtc. Ppl got “angry” at the gg franks because his gang tags “ruined” walls and stuff. Sort of confused. Always thought the ppl of the mtc were rlly into “art”. When I went away to design school, I knew that I wanted to express myself. It’s kinda hard 2. It’s like the way that people consume and interpret information has totally changed. It keeps changing. So much information. Wish we could come 2gether and ride chillwaves 4eva.

    h8 / <3 the future (via scared)

    Ne ways, just want 2 understand what I'm supposed 2 appreciate in order 2 understand what's happening in the world, carry on relevant conversations with well-informed people about authentic topics, and be able to process this information in an efficient, valuable manner.

    Is gg franks graffiti art buulsh*t?
    Do I have to b more ethnic 2 make relevant art?
    Should I go back 2 school for my MFA to improve my personal brand?
    Does ne 1 know where to score sweet dank?

  31. Today, the teens in the Bronx can get their name out with Facebook or similar social media and since writing on trains and buildings has become HISTORY …they can get together and write on train facsimiles or legal walls at spraying galleries like …. This phenomenon fascinates me! There is also a TuffCity on Essex Street in the Lower East Side.
    Spending time with the artists and listening to their stories of the Bronx of the 70’s totally contrasts with the comfortable and orderly environment that you see in the Bronx today. The writers in this show are the pioneers…the oldest. The second wave, were the Studio 54 glamour graffiti stars that unfortunately perished (the sex drugs and rock and roll of the 80s)The third wave do easel paintings that get six figures at the finest auction houses.

  32. You don’t necessarily have to create works of art to be an artist, Cathar, and having had a classical education, you should know that. You can debate whether grafitti is art until the end of time and there still will be no definitive answer, and there shouldn’t be, either. My objection was to the “shoot the messenger” ignorance displayed by many of the posters on this thread. I don’t think FGG was as upset by it as I was, but I felt the need to call it out. Now, where did I put my long-form birth certificate…

  33. You called some folks who questioned the idea of graffiti as art “morons,” Conan. Not your usual style at all, which is why it jolted so.

    No, you don’t necessarily have to create “works of art” to be an artist. (Hey, you could be a rheumy-eyed ex-con and drug addict who used to do tagging and sure could use some money via revived “fame.”) And you don’t even have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowing, I suppose. But just because you have a degree, even a couple of degrees, doesn’t make your art criticism necessarily any more logical to others, either. (How many late period Jackson Pollocks do you really need to see, so to speak, before you begin to sense all of them are little more than spilled paint after the initial shock of their composition wears off?)

    I think it was A.J. Liebling who said that “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” (Or some such.) Perhaps artistic validation is similarly then the province of those who curate gallery shows.

    Did you ever read Mailer’s monograph on graffiti? An amazing belch from a famously off-base blowhard, but no more validating for all that.

  34. “My objection was to the “shoot the messenger” ignorance displayed by many of the posters on this thread.”

    The messenger? He’s the curator of the show. And the author of the post about the poor “persecuted” whose “only pleasure or accomplishment” in order to “ease [their] pain” was to commit acts of vandalism and destruction.

    One can still respect the man and yet be critical of his points of view expressed in his article about a show he put together.

    The messenger?

  35. In 1973 Twyla Tharpe included Bama and Stayhigh along with Coco in the dance performance – Deuce Coupe – at City Center 131 West 55th Street for the Joffrey Ballet (here is a link from youtube but we now have located the an old film of the actual writing segment) . They spray painted while the dancer’s performed. Ms. Tharpe’s vision brilliantly documents the true action art of New York City street life back in the early 1970s. The curatorial efforts of this show are mainly to bring to light and document extremely interesting NYC street life material and stories that had since been forgotten in time.

  36. Ok, I’m guilty on the “shoot the messenger’ count, but I react viscerally to graffiti. On the other hand, a graffitied Hummer could represent a true work of art, from the perspective of it’s decorative value and pure assault on the senses. Ideally it would be auctioned for charity.

  37. We would GLADLY accept the donation of a Hummer for the Charity Auction and hope that you’ll check out the event!


    Gallery 69 TriBeCa, NYC
    69 Leonard St between Church and Broadway
    May 19th & 20th 2011 6pm-10pm

    Historic Graffiti Art Exhibition and Charity Auction

    Curatorial Statement by Frank Gerard Godlewski
    May 2011

    Graffiti art evolves from the American urban multiracial desire for freedom from the ruling class and willingness and need to self manage its own urban identity. Gallery 69 presents NYC’s most historic Graffiti writers: Lava I & II, Bama, StayHigh 149, Flint 707 and Mico, documenting a fusion of New York City history and modern culture

    Today while Graffiti art sales reach hyperbolic prices in world class auction houses, we tend to forget that our most indigenous NYC art form was born from the streets as an act of visual rebellion against the ruling class ownership of the city, and its public spaces. Undeniably the NYC Street environment plays a key role in the “writers” artistic evolution and style, and there is something about drawing on a concrete streetscape or on the walls of a building that is the soul of these Graffiti artists’ paintings. Graffiti art currently sold as valuable easel paintings seems to be evolving away from its’ origins of rebellion and visual vandalism, and turning its back to its own history. But whether it be due to catastrophic world events or dramatic climate changes, we begin to look around us to identify ourselves with our past and try to give due respect and value to our history.

    In a video interview, “Graffiti and Rubble”, Italian art critic, Achille Bonito Oliva reflects upon post 9/11 Manhattan as a modern day Pompeii, a city that was buried by the ashes in an 79AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He views the ash that permeated Lower Manhattan as the introduction of a patina of history, giving our modern day technological city an identity or dimension of the past. He writes that, “graffiti attempts to take back the urban space and its codes, to self‐manage them”. Self‐management proceeds by completely overturning the standards” to regain “individual character” and “personal ownership”, in essence, freedom. He also asserts that the “context of graffiti” is “urban”; they “are the Bronxes, the American periphery”, a phenomena that communicates “the American urban” and “multiracial” reality.

    Originally writing on NYC street walls was used to mark territory, later the race was on to get one’s name up in as many places as possible, tagging the graffiti writers’ streetscapes and subway cars in the part of the Bronx that they rode through. Today NYC’s most historic Graffiti writers: Lava I & II, Bama, StayHigh 149, Flint 707 and Mico, modern day pioneers who paved the way for the generations of Graffiti artists that follow, inscribe their urban reality in an art form that reverberates in cities throughout the world.

    Live Benefit Art Auction for NY HOUSING WORKS at Gallery 69 Directed by Foundation Auctions Services Donated by Auctioneer Michael Powers of The Manhattan Auction House #1314012

  38. That’s certainly one view Roo. Unfortunately, the image that it always brings to mind is of a giant penis sculpture someone installed on our main quad in college…1% art 99% shock value. Hard to give a blanket endorsement to that viewpoint since it has also famously given us the crucifix-in-urinal, etc…

  39. There once was a line on a wall,
    It’s inclination a wonder to all.
    It’s critics were chargin’
    that it was too loose with margins,
    But O how that scrawl did enthrall!

  40. That youtube link by frankgg is actually “DEAUCE COUPE 2”, a revival of the original ballet. Here, Twyla used writers from the Old School, instead of the Original School of NYC Writin’.

    The film that I have seen of the original performance is actually B & W.

  41. Packing Away His Spray Paint

    After Prison, Graffiti Writer Plans New Approach

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