Aero-Soul Scientist: Subway Art Pioneer COCO 144 Opens New Show In NY

Original stencil work by street artist COCO 144

Over a decade before Henry Chalfant’s seminal 1982 documentary Style Wars introduced New York City’s subway art explosion to the rest of the world, a tiny group of young writers, including a 14-year-old who called himself COCO 144, started the entire movement by hitting the IRT’s Broadway line. This first school of aerosol artists, who focused on tagging their names on the iron horse so that it could travel to other neighborhoods, laid the blueprint for all facets of the culture, from Futura and Haring to Bansky. Sadly, some of the most dedicated hip-hop historians don’t even know their names. Thankfully, the legends of aerosol culture do.

On Wednesday of this week, COCO 144 celebrates 40 years in the game with the unveiling of a new exhibit at Bard College. He will be at the reception this Wednesday to answer questions about his work, and if you are at all interested in the early days of subway art and the origins of graffiti, this exhibit is a must. Hit the jump to read about this influential artist and for full details regarding the upcoming show…

Words by Bobbito Garcia
New works by COCO 144, on show starting Wednesday, February 24th at Bard College

Lee Quiñones, who wrote LEE and was number one on the MTA’s most wanted list in the late ‘70s, remembers. “Cats like COCO 144, STAY HIGH 149, and P.H.A.S.E.2 were always on our lips,” he recalled. “Those are the godfathers of our culture.”

COCO 144, who started tagging Harlem’s streets in 1969, lived down the block from the Broadway line in 1970. “There was a layup between the 137th and 145th Street stops,” he explained. “We were destroying those trains inside and out.” These early hits were simply a single line signature, but soon his ingenuity would allow him to leave a mark for decades to follow: “I was the first to use a stencil. I was able to get my name up faster that way.”

In 1972, COCO 144, along with contemporaries P.H.A.S.E.2, STAY HIGH 149, SNAKE I, STITCH I, LEE 163, and others, was part of another first for aerosol art. They founded a collective known as United Graffiti Artists (UGA). Using canvas instead of iron, the groundbreaking group began exhibiting paintings in art galleries. “COCO 144 was one of those super significant bricks that was essential in getting the building started,” P.H.A.S.E.2 (the earliest King of letter style) shared. “What separates COCO from the pack is that he overstands the culture and continues to grow artistically beyond those beginnings.”

Indeed, COCO 144’s growth as an artist in the last 40 years has taken him to prestigious museums and galleries throughout the US, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Holland, Switzerland, and most notably France, where he recently was featured in the Cartier Foundation’s Born In The Streets 2009 Exhibit. His work is permanently displayed at Rockefeller University (NY), and his upcoming solo show Scientifically Correct: Molecular Structures, Arrows, and Pathways will open at Bard College’s Reem-Kayden Gallery on February 24, 2010 from 7pm-9pm. “COCO 144 reps the early inception of the movement, and he never sold out his vision,” co-curator Fernando Ruíz Lorenzo remarked. “He’s always maintained his name and tag, which is the key to his paintings. ‘Writing is a science’ is his mantra.”

Check COCO 144’s website to learn more, and be sure to make it to Bard College for the show.


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