The first graffiti studio wasn’t actually a studio, it was an apartment that belonged to Hugo Martinez. In 1972, Martinez had formed United Graffiti Artists as a way of getting writers off of the street and into a more nurturing environment; he accomplished this with weekly group meetings and by giving them access to large sized canvases. In 1973 as things began to flourish, Martinez negotiated a deal with the city for the group to use an abandoned factory in Washington Heights as their workshop—as part of the agreement, the group had to perform sweat equity which meant they had to take out tons of garbage from the site. The studio was vast and was able toaccommodate space for a large group of painters. Sadly, as the works got better and more mature, the art world turned its back on graffiti; by 1976 U.G.A. was pretty much done.
THE GHOST OF LEE, 1979, SPRAY PAINT ON LINEN. PRIVATE COLLECTION. ROME, ITALY; Photo Courtesy of LEE
By 1976 a young writer named LEE came into prominence as a whole-car specialist. The pieces he painted dealt with social issues and political themes which garnered him a wide audience of viewers, one being Fred Brathwaite,who is better known as Fab 5 Freddy. Fred was able to track down LEE down and get him a gallery show with Claudio Bruni in Rome. The only things needed to be done now were the actual paintings.
“We were pretty lucky. In 1978 we were given permission to use the loft of an English painter on Canal Street, we didn’t pay anything for it. It was me,Fred, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. We walled off a section for ourselves and even did pieces on the wall for an upcoming party. Fred and I knocked out the canvases and had a sold-out show in Rome, then we did it again in 1979. In 1980, the artist needed the space back and Fred and I started painting in an abandoned warehouse in my neighborhood, the place was a mess, no electricity, bricks on the floor, junkies roaming through it, but I liked it and continued to paint that way until I settled in to Henry Chalfant’s studio. Back in the ’80s you could do shit like that.”
While LEE and Fred painted on the Lower East Side other writers were figuring out ways to spray paint on canvas. In 1980, due to the media coverage of the Fashion MODA show Graffiti As Success, CRASH, DAZE, LADY PINK, and others found that there was a demand for their works. All three artists showed a strong work ethic and an uncanny knowledge of the art world. LADY PINK set up her first studio in her parents’ basement; it featured racks of spray paint, markers, and acrylic paints. There were some nights when CAINE 1 would drop by to work on his own projects; this was a treat for PINK who loved the history of the movement and CAINE’s place in it. She took him up to a new gallery called Graffiti Above Ground and they began selling his work immediately. Sadly it didn’t last long, CAINE was shot to death in 1982.
Cos207 & DAZE in the studio in 1982; Photo courtesy of Chris DAZE Ellis
CRASH and DAZE worked where they could. DAZE had a slight advantage in that he painted with acrylic and could do canvases at home, while CRASH worked exclusively with spray paint. “We knew we needed a studio, I was doing all of my paintings on the roof of the Betances Projects getting hassled by security,” recalled CRASH about the period. “The paintings were passionate but choppy, with the wind the way it was, there was just no way around it. In 1983 DAZE and I got a place in my neighborhood and our works tightened up immediately, it was a huge difference. Other writers would come by and we’d let them do a painting if they needed to, but then people started to hang out a lot so we got pretty strict about things. We were both working day jobs to pay for the studio and we only had a limited time each day so it was important to get work done.”
That may have been the constant thread through the work of the emerging artists; when you got that chance to paint indoors—both as a luxury and anecessity—know what you’re going to do. It was the same lessons writers had learned by going to the train yards.