Ten Pioneering Pieces Of Hip-Hop Street Art
Street art has enjoyed a steady resurgence in rap over the last few years, with Kanye West and the Clipse jostling to let KAWS design their album and magazine covers, 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes appearing in music videos featuring the work of Brooklyn's Destroy & Rebuild, and Pharrell Williams starting the online community ARTST. But as a mode of expression, its style and swagger was forged by a wave of pioneering artists who took to New York City's streets and subway lines in the early '70s. That moment is profiled in the current Down By Law: New York's Underground Art Explosion, 1970s-1980s exhibition at the Eric Firestone Gallery, which documents how the subculture successfully moved from the train yards to the corporate world, ingratiating itself with hip-hop music along the way.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Triple Self Portrait. All images courtesy the Eric Firestone Gallery.
Blade and Coco 144 are two of the first-generation graffiti icons profiled in the exhibition. After coming to prominence in the '70s by painting his name on over 5,000 subway trains, Blade is certified graffiti royalty. Along with Andy Warhol, Blade is also the only living artist to have his work appear on the cover of the Sotheby's catalog. Fellow trailblazer Coco 144 made the train yard at Broadway and 137th Street his playground during the same era while also creating the world's first stencil movement--an invention that helped him swiftly spread his name throughout the city. With both artists on hand to offer expert commentary, here are ten pioneering examples of the development of New York City street art.
Dubbed "the Marcel Duchamp of graffiti" in Jack Stewart's Graffiti Kings tome, Coco 144 has been painting since the earliest years of the 1970s and founded the United Graffiti Artists association with Hugo Martinez in 1972. Says his pal Blade: "In 1971 he was a Broadway writer, which meant if you rode a number 1 or 3 train between 1971 and 1973 then you'd see Coco's work." His on-canvas piece in the exhibition hails from 1974.
"Blade was the king--he's still the king," exclaims Coco 144, referring to the 5,000-plus subway trains that Blade has painted. At large since the early '70s, Blade fondly recalls graffiti's nascent years: "By 1973 we had 10,000 teenagers running about the city, all being respectful to each other, all expressing themselves. Every day for us was like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn--you were just having this incredible adventure around the whole of underground New York City." Blade's two pieces in the Down By Law exhibition are remnants from his first one-man graffiti gallery show in 1984: "All my paintings there sold, except two, which I've held in my personal collection until now."
"Dondi was the beginning of the hip-hop movement towards the end of the '70s," says Blade. With the MTA taking ever more draconian steps to prevent graffiti on the subway system, the East New York-raised White embraced the over-ground, successfully transitioning to canvas while retaining his vivid style. As Coco 144 testifies, "He did his damage on the trains as much as on canvas. He was ahead of his time." Known for incorporating comic book artist Vaughn Bode's cartoon figures into his later work, as well as appearing in the video for Malcolm McClaren's influential electro single "Buffalo Girls," White passed away in 1998, leaving behind an influence still detectable to this day.
Hammers In Hell
Coco 144 remembers Keith Haring's early forays into the NYC graffiti scene fondly: "I got to see a number of pieces he did in chalk. They'd put blank black paper on the unsold advertisement boards, like black 'em out, and he did his chalk pieces there." Keeping with the underground theme, this early example of Haring's art uses another aspect of the subway system for a canvas, with three of his signature broad-outlined figures taking their place on a tagged-up light fixture.
Subway Light Cover