This Was The Age of Innocence: 70’s Inner City New York
Have you seen the works of Keith Haring? What about Kenny Scharf?? I would dare say that probably more of you have heard of them than DONDI, Duro, Hurst or Mickey 729. And without good reason for that should certainly not be the case. We should have heard a lot more about those graf ‘writers’ from the crews, such as The Odd Partners, that were actively bombing during the 70’s. The art historians and museum curators, or at least those interested in justice, should have been spitting out tomes and exhibits on these artisans instead of simply propping up the facsimiles thereof that came behind them and benefited from their genius. For it was these cats in those crews hailing from East New York, Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, Hollis, Harlem and the South Bronx – inner city New York – who were the icons that established the precedents from which Haring, Scharf and several others literally sprung out and went on to make some serious seven figures off of.
So what happened to these pioneers and why did they not receive the lion’s portion of the economic pie and their just due? Certainly they being predominantly Blacks and Hispanics during the 70’s encountered significant cultural, racial and socio-economic discrimination and boundaries that excluded them from the cash machine of the downtown Manhattan art scene. The ‘periphery’ and outskirts of New York City had become a later version of New Orleans, LA which had facilitated in the back alleys of the Treme, the union of an African base with Latin highlights in a unique New World context from which emerged urbane Jazz music (given contradictions of American history, no irony that that music’s mother, the Blues, would spawn every relevant form of today’s popular music but would similarly not receive all the recognition and rewards of doing so). The City as NOLA North in the 70’s was the Northern melting pot for the two cultures into a novel polyglot that would birth an urban culture of which Graffiti Art was a single brilliant reflection.
But then, existing outside the spires of mainstream Manhattan, there was also this whole notion of being an art rebel true to a higher calling. In their youth, these cats saw themselves as revolting against the prevailing authorities to make a strong social statement rather than hitting at the art from a profitable angle. Lacking money avarice, they were truly public intellectuals more interested in making a name for themselves as legends within their own communities and repping their local fame on a city-wide stage as an viable alternative to and a critique of the establishment’s by then stale, elitist and exclusionary Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Fighting the powers that be meant that there was little need for validation by outsiders ignorant of their best intents. Young and rash, they were in many business ways naive of, unconcerned with and unconnected to the capitalistic demands that were the drivers of Manhattan’s downtown art scene. Instead of being cherished and embraced for their truly American outlaw sensibility, they were deemed to be dangerous mavericks and were detested as delinquent subversives by those who did not share their free art morality and saw no utilitarian value to their work. They were really independent minded and saw artistic things in the purest of terms…
Yet these gents have indeed endured in the Faulknerian sense. James TOP (JEE2 back in the day) of The Odd Partners has worked tirelessly to right the past wrongs and, most important, to create venues so that the originals can get their well deserved recognition and make some serious coin as inventors of a modern American art form. One could argue that Graffiti Art – as manifested in New York City during the 70’s through 80’s – by defying conventional practice and wisdom propelled Pop Art into the next dimension, breathing new life into a genre that had been hijacked by the constraints of commercial art dealing and was thus beginning to ossify under that costly weight.
The real grafs were focused on the creation of a vocabulary that transcended the crass wheeling and dealing for which no invitation had luckily – for the spiritual sake and beauty of the art – been extended. Mr. TOP blissfully recalls hanging with his homeboys and strategizing how to become the baddest crew in the City through domination of all three subway lines with his team mates in The Odd Partners. He remembers the infamous summer of ’77 as the most innocent and last time he and his crew of young renegades spent together tagging throw-up masterpieces for free on subway cars. Not chained down by the dollar sign and likewise denominated contracts, they were free to create an art for everyone uncorrupted by what could have been an overwhelming influence. Many now say those very ignoble forces have damaged beyond repair the current MCing aspects of Hip Hop culture. Back then during those golden days they were at liberty to believe that art really belonged to themselves and the people!
Mr. TOP recently curated Graffiti 2010 AD* as a retrospective of the past four decades, tracing the evolution of the art from slick tagging bravado on subway cars to potent social commentary on community murals. While still maintaining a revolutionary stance against compromising his esthetic soul, refusing to sell out, he has a acquired a seasoned, veteran perspective on the intellectual property he and his contemporaries contributed to art history. Carefully balancing the need to get paid in full in respect first and cash too with a standing as the ‘People’s Artist’, he is now a rebel with a cause, championing the rights of grafs and protesting the displacing gentrification of once neglected neighborhoods (remember the People’s Wall on 147th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglas Boulevards). He creates community murals to document and to glorify the presence of the original settlers in these rapidly changing neighborhoods. Can the pot of artistic treasure at the end of the rainbow, resulting from years of personal sacrifice and community service, now be harvested and converted into resources for the larger collective good?!
In the upcoming Subway Art exhibit at the Azucarera Gallery in Harlem (from January 6 to 31), the fruits of the struggle will be evident. Teaming up with a culturally attuned Hip Hop USA, he is employing the old school and the new to collaborate on the design of a limited edition sneaker. Grafs from then and now are decking out unadorned white canvas high-top kicks with spectacular tags in keeping with the competitive battle spirit of yesteryear but with an eye towards benefiting directly from their labors as never before. Mr. TOP and his allies see an opportunity for the artists to stay true to their convictions while earning a living and innovating the art (shift from the large scale depiction to micro application).
The culmination of his now mature dreams can be witnessed after work at 7 PM, Thursday, January 6 at Azucarera where he will convene a gathering of the greatest old school grafs plus the up-and-coming young turks (think Ale, Az, Jester, Josh 5, King Bee, Meres, Metro, Sen, Shadow, Slave, Soe, Stay High 149, Ton, Vase, etc. along with documentary photographers Henry Chalfant, Joe Conzo and Jamel Shabazz). On showcase will be some first rate Graffiti pieces and sneakers designed by these legends as well as the best-of-the-best sneaker designs from several recent competitions around the City. This will be a night to remember those innocent times bygone and blaze a trail paved with gold into the future.
Be there or be square.
Subway Art Exhibit Opening Night
Graffiti Legends /
Best-of-the-Best Sneaker Designs
7 PM, Thursday, January 6, 2011
414 West 145th Street
(Between Convent and Amsterdam Avenues on basement level)
Check http://www.azucareranyc.com for details
Take A, B, C, D or 1 train to 145th Street
(*AD stands for After DONDI, a posthumous tribute to Donald ‘DONDI’ Joseph White, a TOP protégé and ground breaking member of The Odd Partners and CIA who has ascended into Graffiti heaven. RIP!)
– Words by Mr. Simon DoGood