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)
Auction proceeds go to Housing Works, a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.