Graffiti Aboveground Gallery was located in the Triangle Building on the corner of 14th Street and 9th Avenue. GPI opened in 1981. Back then the Meatpacking District was the location for fresh meat, whether it was from the butchers or to be found in the clubs. It was in this location that Joyce Towbin (Chasan) and her partner Mel Neulander created a space for the artists to make and exhibit their art, including John “CRASH” Matos, Chris “DAZE” Ellis, Sandra “LADY PINK” Fabara, TRACY 168, Chris “FREEDOM” Pape, Melvin “NOC 167” Samuels, and “CEY ONE” Adams, among many more. It was a radical change from Joyce’s earlier days on Long Island.
As she recalls, “I lived in a really sedate community, and brought the “boys” out there. They painted the back of my garage. I wanted to give them a space to paint, canvas and stretchers, so they could learn to stretch the canvases themselves, to make the transition. We gave them paint, spraypaint. It was very exciting. Everyone was so young, nineteen or twenty years old.
“The thing you need to be an artist is that you can’t not do it.” I could provide it. I enjoyed people and found my way into the galleries, until I decided to start my own. I knew the way, how to talk about the art and why it was significant. The subways took the pieces to places the galleries could not. It’s a democratic art.”
Traveling from the streets to the galleries, Graffiti Aboveground helped bring the art to the collectors’ market. As Chasan observes, “Graffiti has roots in pop art and pop culture. That was part of its appeal. The artists needed a surface to paint on, and we could provide this in the studio. I remember after John Lennon was shot, they came to the gallery, to work on their art and support each other. Very often they were socially motivated to create work. Every artist has their own style, their own way of working. We worked with them to create opportunities.”
One such project includes a collaboration with Twyla Tharp in 1981. The production staged was designed to feature backdrops by Chris “DAZE” Ellis, John “CRASH” Matos, and Jean-Michel Basquiat as SAMO. Chasan also brought a group of artists including REVOLT and WASP to Woodstock for an outdoor exhibition.
No matter what the venue or location, Graffiti Aboveground helped artists seamlessly fit into new milieus, reminding us that 1981 was a fertile time for creative growth and exploration. Graffiti still ran on the trains, but it was finding it’s way into the world, bringing its innovative spirit to the people, and sparking new ideas.