In Brooklyn, A Massive Exhibition Celebrates 50 Years Of Graffiti And Street Art
Article originally published June 29, 2019 on Forbes
When the graffiti historian Roger Gastman first began envisioning an exhibition of art from the streets, in the 2000s, none of the museums and galleries he approached were interested. The second they heard the word "graffiti," they'd say no way, he recalled on a recent walk through 25 Kent, a vast, multi-use space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "So we figured, f*** it, let's go do our own show," he said. "We'd have to follow their rules anyway, let's go make our own rules."
Beyond the Streets is the realization of Gastman's dream, an astonishingly large celebration of street art dating to its origins in the late 1960s, and featuring more than a hundred of the form's most influential figures — both underground and mainstream. Filling 100,000 square feet over two floors, Beyond the Streetsmanages to exist in a kind of limbo between the urban world from which the aesthetic emerged and precisely the kind of institutions that rejected Gastman's idea years back.
It encourages visitors to linger over, read about and, in a few cases, interact with pieces that seem far too alive, too rebellious and too unrestrained for anything resembling a museum. Fortunately, 25 Kent doesn't. With wide-open floor plans, poured concrete floors and sweeping views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts, the spaces housing Beyond the Streetsseem to float above the city while simultaneously feeling very much a part of it. It's the perfect setting for works that were, to a large extent, made expressly for the exhibition, by artists who never expected to show their work anywhere but the street.
The exhibition begins with a nod to street art's roots, in a room dedicated to the earliest tags of the late 1960s and early '70s. Gastman said it's his favorite room. You could spend hours in that one space, examining the seeds of what would sprout one of the 20th Century's most enduring forms of creative expression and protest, a folk art tradition that began in Philadelphia, migrated north to New York, and quickly spread to cities and towns across the United States and across the globe, each region developing its own aesthetic vernacular.
There are other rooms dedicated to subway murals of the 1970s and '80s, street artists who created a bridge to the art establishment like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and contemporary artists whose work draws on the methods and politics of their earliest street art forebears. Lee Quiñones, Jenny Holzer, and Takashi Murakami are all represented, to name just a few. The exhibition also includes a retrospective of Shepard Fairey's work dating back 30 years, to when the South Carolina-born artist first introduced his now-ubiquitous OBEY campaign as a teenager.
There is also plenty of whimsy: a room of nothing but Beastie Boys paraphernalia and ephemera, a record store modeled after one from Gastman's childhood in the Washington D.C. area, where he grew up in the 1980s and early '90s, and even a pop-up tattoo parlor that looks exactly like a porch in Canarsi, Brooklyn.
Prior to its Brooklyn iteration, which Gastman deliberately focused on New York-based artists, Beyond the Streets debuted in Los Angeles, where Gastman has lived since 2004. He says the LA show, which ran for nearly four months last summer, at a warehouse on the edge of that city's Chinatown, drew a total of 240,000 visitors. He didn't have the numbers for the New York show, which runs through August 25th, but they're bound to be close.
The demographics, too, have been similar at each installment. Gastman said it's been incredible to see people ranging from their 60s and 70s, who remember and may have been part of the early days of graffiti writing, on down to 20-somethings and teenagers who grew up with the legacy of street art. There are even some rooms at the show designed specifically for children, who are encouraged to draw their own pictures, listen to old tracks by Outkast and Nas, and, hopefully, be inspired by the sheer joy and creative abandon on display.
"Education is what we're all about," said Gastman, noting the shift in visitors' behavior as they move through the exhibition. They start out taking selfies in front of the works, and before long they're drawn into their didactic texts, engrossed by their backstories and artistic lineages. For something as ubiquitous as the work Gastman champions, there's still a lot most of us don't know about it. Beyond the Streets helps to change that.
It also helps us reflect on the not-so-distant past, when graffiti and street art were vilified and denounced as a harbinger of delinquency and crime. At the same time, it reminds us that if they hadn't been, they might not have been nearly so vital, or so vibrant.