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How spray paint, ego and activism turned graffiti into an art form

By Raquel Laneri

Article originally published June 21, 2019 on New York Post

Martha Cooper remembers the moment she started seeing graffiti as something more than “a random act of vandalism.” It was in the late ’70s, when a young boy showed Cooper — then a New York Post photographer working on a project about kids and creativity — his “tag.”

“That was the first time I understood that he was writing his name,” says Cooper, whose photos of kids spray-painting the city are featured in a splashy new show, “Beyond the Streets.”

Graffiti, she realized then, was “a very specialized act” of vandalism: art.

Anyone who doubts that should hit “Beyond the Streets.” This ambitious show — spanning two floors and some 100,000 square feet in a still-under-construction office building in Williamsburg — features the work of more than 150 artists, from subway scribblers to studio painters, from “SJK 171” to Basquiat, Shepard Fairey and Takashi Murakami.

Shepard Fairey photo: Stefano Giovannini

It also includes a Beastie Boys installation, large-scale sculptures, a functioning tattoo parlor and a 30-year retrospective of Fairey’s politically engaged street art, “Facing The Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent.”

Curator Roger Gastman says he and his staff came up with four words that defined the art form: “ego, defiance, disruption, activism.”

“I really wanted this not just to be a historical show or timeline,” he tells The Post. “I want people to see that this is honestly the biggest cultural art movement of the last 50-plus years.”

The dizzying variety of styles and artists proves just that. The show opens with some photos of the first cryptic signatures — tags— that popped up in the ’70s in Philadelphia and New York City. Seemingly overnight, these crude initials, scrawled onto buildings, subway trains and parked cars, became more distinctive and showy.

“It isn’t random letters — you have to study style and get it just right,” says Lady Pink (real name Sandra Fabara), who tagged trains as a teenager in Brooklyn from 1979 to 1985. “You see your name rolling by on a train, and there’s nothing more exciting.”

Lady Pink (left in front of her “TC5 Teamwork”), tagged trains as a Brooklyn teen. A collection of vintage spray-paint cans from C.R. Stecyk III is on display.
Lady Pink (left in front of her “TC5 Teamwork”), tagged trains as a Brooklyn teen. photo: Stefano Giovannini

The show gives artists old and new ample room to strut their stuff. There are acrylic canvases by Lady Pink and a quartet of airbrushed, cartoonish collages by DAZE, a k a Chris Ellis. And then there are the newer artists, including Swoon Studio’s Caledonia Curry, whose detailed portraits look like fairy tale illustrations, and Felipe Pantone, whose dense op-art paintings are a mind-bending highlight. (Nearly all graffiti artists work under pseudonyms.)

But there’s more here than dazzling technique. The most powerful work in the show illustrates how street art gives a voice to the voiceless, adds color and life to blighted areas and forces passersby to engage with the world.

Fairey — whose 2008 Barack Obama portrait, “Hope,” distributed first in LA, became iconic — says he realized street art’s power after his stencils of outsize wrestler Andre the Giant went viral 11 years ago, when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I realized that an image in a public space that wasn’t government signage or advertising got people to ask questions,” Fairey tells The Post. “It made me realize how pathetically narrow the things that we’re allowed to consume in public space are.”

A collection of vintage spray-paint cans from C.R. Stecyk III is on display.
A collection of vintage spray-paint cans from C.R. Stecyk III is on display. photo: Stefano Giovannini

For this show, Fairey’s chosen images from his “We the People” series, featuring Native Americans, Muslims, Hispanics and other minorities. “I try to engage the viewer with a protagonist that has a degree of undeniable humanity to draw them in,” the 49-year-old says of his empathetic portraits. “That’s where I think art can go far beyond, let’s say, an editorial,” he says.

Lady Pink, who now lives upstate, says she hopes visitors come away from this show believing that they, too, can control their surroundings.

“You are not forced to live in some ugly little city,” she says. “You can color it, you can change the shape of things . . . With a little bit of permission, a little bit of hustle, you, too, can beautify the world.”

“Beyond the Streets” runs Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., through Aug. 31; Tickets, $25. 25 Kent Ave., Williamsburg.