As a resident of New York for just over five years, I frequently take for granted the “relative” cleanliness of my city. Sure, I could do without the many, pungent trash bag piles during summertime, but you quickly get accustomed to a certain level of grit and grime when you live in one of the world’s largest metropolises.
In fact, my version of New York circa-2008 is a utopia of clean compared to New York in the 1970’s and 80’s, when the town was literally coming apart at the seams. As the city suffered a massive financial crisis, crime ran rampant and public services like the subway system fell into decline. As tragic as this period was for residents, it also provided the background for some of the era’s most important cultural movements, including the rise of punk at clubs like CBGB, emerging artists like Basquiat and in particular, the first stirrings of the nascent culture of Hip-Hop and graffiti in the Bronx.
Graffiti is perhaps one of the most controversial artistic movements of the end of the 20th Century. As much as its detractors view the form as symptomatic of urban blight, its supporters just as forcefully embrace it as the stirrings of a wholely legitimate new art form. Though vandals have been defacing public buildings with their “art” since the ancient Greeks and Romans, the modern incarnation of graffiti took shape in New York City in the borough of the Bronx in the 1970’s. In that regard the current prominence of famous graffiti artists like Banksy owe their rise to the pioneers of the form here in New York several decades ago.
So if you’re visiting New York City in 2008, where do you go to see and learn more about graffiti firsthand? Click on through to find out more and learn where to go to find the art form still alive and kicking in the 5 boroughs.The rise of NYC graffiti was as much a result of civic neglect as it was a nascent cultural movement. With city police preoccupied with a huge crime wave, the city’s walls and subway cars became prime canvases for vandals, who began leaving their mark wherever they saw fit.
At first it was all about gaining notoriety. Early practitioners of the form like TAKI 183 would roam the city, leaving their ‘tag’ as a way to earn bragging rights throughout the huge city. Soon the movement gained steam, with other ‘taggers’ competing to see who could create the most ambitious pieces, evolving into elaborate, colorful works painted directly on the city’s subway cars. Due to the covert nature of their projects, many graffiti taggers began to describe their hit and run visits to the city’s subway rail depots as “bombing.” The style is perhaps best encapsulated by the 1983 documentary Style Wars, which documents New York’s thriving Hip-Hop, breakdancing and graffiti cultural scenes.
While graffiti on the New York City subway is a thing of the past, the spirit of the movement carries on today. A walk around downtown neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, East Village, Soho and parts of Brooklyn will reveal the art form is still alive and well. While there’s no one specific spot to check out, an afternoon stroll down the area’s many side streets will reveal a wealth of projects if you’re curious. Check out Wooster Collective and Streetsy, two of the best online street art websites, to get an idea of what’s out there. In the East Village, also make sure to check out the cheeky works of De La Vega at his shop on St. Mark’s Place.
But for the best place to go to learn more about this uniquely New York art form, your first stop should be Five Pointz, a large-scale artist project in Queens. This huge industrial building, located in Long Island City, is completely covered from floor to ceiling in a living, breathing mural of graffiti artwork. Artists both local and from around the world drop by on a regular basis to put up new pieces, resulting a building that has become a dynamic illustration of the art form’s continuing legacy and influence. While some works are more abstract, there’s plenty of great pieces that feature New York themes like Hip-Hop and many of the city’s famous landmarks. The building also has plenty of examples of wildstyle, an intricate form of lettering made famous by the original New York ‘taggers.’
If you want to check out Five Pointz, it’s easy enough to make a full day out of your trip to Queens. Just a short walk across the street is the art museum PS1, a contemporary art gallery which is an offshoot of the famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Just take the E or V trains to the 23rd Street/Ely Avenue stop or the 7 train 45th Road/Courthouse Square. The Five Pointz building is hard to miss – you’ll be able to the see the brightly-colored murals from up close as your train rumbles right past the building’s many murals.