The summer I lived in Sunnyside, Queens I rented a 100 square foot corner of a 400 square foot studio in Long Island City, three stops from Manhattan off the 7 train, in a former factory converted to artist studios, completely covered in mastered graffiti and known internationally as 5Pointz.
The room was divided by a cross of curtains, which we left open always. My three studio mates included a remarkable illustrator, who actually earned money as an illustrator, an Astoria native on break from teaching grade school who slept on the studio floor all summer until August, when she had a mental breakdown and moved back home, and the third, a woman with a sewing machine and stack of plastic boxes filled with fabrics and threads, whom I never met. My corner was one wall and window, at the back of the building, level with the elevated subway.
I spent Fridays and weekends there, exercising a freedom, mostly, and pushing the paint around in unplanned, cathartic movements, playing the part as much as writing the script, New York Artist. Across the hall lived Christine, an installation artist from Texas who made sculptures from steel oil drums and wrote music compositions on a keyboard and computer. The studios were not intended to be live-ins. There were public bathrooms but no showers. Christine would stand in a washtub in the middle of her studio and pour cold water from a jug to rinse, even wash her hair that way. Her studio was huge, some 1,000 square feet with a sleeping loft, small fridge and a hot plate. She lived by the mantra "make art everyday." It was Christine who explained the significance of the building to me.
The outer walls of the building are not randomly afflicted with thug expressions of anger and anarchy, but curated pieces, run by a veteran Queens writer named Meres. Experienced graffiti artists are known as writers, beginners are taggers. Writers part of 5Pointz must be proven, their messages positive. At the time I was there, Meres and crew were looking for grant money and working with community organizers to establish an official graffiti museum where they could also conduct art classes for inner city kids, aspiring artists. That MoMa PS1 sits across the street, seemed promising for the mission; modern art and contemporary expression. I had no idea the building was so significant, so well known, when I set up my easel. I'd found that corner of a studio through Craigslist. It was affordable and close by. And as if in a dream, it happened to be in the beautiful, intoxicating building my eyes swam over during each commute. The outward art was impressive and inviting, a red carpet of creativity. The colors jumped from the walls, rich, glowing sunsets on an otherwise browned, polluted horizon. Climbing the fire escape to my studio, enveloped in art and statement, I felt destined to make wonderful things. I felt I was a part of it.
Last week I watched Bomb It! - a documentary on graffiti around the world. From Cornbread, considered the first graffiti artist, to gangs in L.A. to community artists in Cape Town, the film polls a wide array of writers. There are some anti-government, anti-mainstream undertones. The earliest writers, in Philly and NY, came from dilapidated, poverty stricken neighborhoods. No doubt anger and frustration were palpable. And then again, in this world, all art is a bit anti-mainstream. By nature, art works counter to "success" and assimilation.
Graffiti for some writers promises instant fame, as their signature appears on every public painting. At least until a certain age, most writers, artists, musicians desire fame. Expression demands an audience.
Many writers in the documentary talk about the sanity, the peace of mind and the calm they get when they paint, create, express. There are also those, particularly in third world cities like Sao Paolo and Cape Town, where children have zero access to art, not to view, not to make, and these graffiti artists believe they are combating the gatekeepers, breaking down the walls between the haves and have nots. Art is essential to life. Art belongs to everyone.
I've always been fascinated with graffiti. My first trip to Europe involved a week in both London and Paris. The artwork decorating the concrete banks flanking the tracks awed me. The contemporary colored the old, and often more beautiful than the industrial architecture it's painted on, a purpose many writers express in the film. They feel, too, that they are leaving a piece of themselves behind, a small picture of what it's like to be alive right now. Wasn't that the purpose of the artists in Chauvet Cave? Is there a difference between the motivations of graffiti artists today and the artist in the cave 30,000 years ago? Several of the writers in Bomb It! referenced the prehistoric cave paintings in Southern France. The first stencils, an application some graffiti artists employ, were first used in that cave. Iron oxide ground and blown, a red cloud outlining a hand.
I like the bold colors in graffiti. I like the boundaries it pushes, the skills not seen elsewhere. I like the question it poses: what does public mean? For the people, by the people? I like the interdependence of art and words. I like the memories it adorns.
A rough video I made some years ago from the 7 train. 5Pointz on my trips into Manhattan.