The New York Times reports on the “Subway Art History” project, “a newly formed collective of (mostly) former graffiti writers in their 20s and 30s, who have embarked on an unusual citywide campaign to summon 50 or more of the most famous pieces of old-school graffiti out of the history books and back onto the streets.” So far they’ve reworked classic pieces by SEEN, BLADE, and DONDI, preserving the general style of the pieces, but making strategic changes in them, changes that allude to world and cultural history in general. Thus “Dondi” becomes “Ghandi” and “Blade” becomes “Plato.” The pieces being honored – for the project is an act of homage – were illegally executed on subway cars. These remakes are being done on the sides of buildings and with permission from the building owners.
The project was partly inspired, [one of the writers] said, by one completed last year along a blighted commercial stretch of West Philadelphia by the artist Steve Powers. As part of that city’s Mural Arts Program, Mr. Powers created a series of eye-popping murals visible from the elevated train line, with the cooperation of local property owners.
In New York the idea is to use the pieces to try to teach a two-part history lesson. The first is about the glories (as the collective sees it) of the early days of graffiti and the invention of a vernacular art form that has swept the world. The second lesson is about world history itself, in neighborhoods where education remains low on the list of priorities for many struggling teenagers.
Blade himself is quoted as saying “It’s nice the attention guys my age are finally starting to get for our work.” A writer who is on Flickr as RAPMUSIC is not so enthusiastic. He posted a photo of the SEEN remake – “Joan of Arc” – under the title “FUUUUCK THIS.”
I suspect that this project will get a mixed reaction. Some old school writers, like Blade, will applaud, as will many others. But I rather doubt that Rapmusic is the only who’s got problems with it. It’s just too legit.
As for me, I think it’s interesting is what I think. Back in late 2006 when I first started getting interested in graffiti I went looking for books. New ones were coming out and they were getting display space, not only in book stores, but in other stores as well – I bought one book at an Urban Outfitters in the West Village. Graffiti has become a source of design in the hip hop world and in extreme sports. Graffiti’s making a run on going legit.
Can’t say that I see anything wrong with that. Even as I say that I know full well that the illegal stuff will continue (see my remarks on Graffiti and Transgression). Whatever’s driving that – and I don’t think that’s a simple matter, not at this point in history – isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s a well that’s going to keep on pumping paint onto walls.
And this Subway Art History project, with its recreation of old pieces, pieces that exist only in photographs, that indicates that graffiti now has a classical past, a past that can be recalled, respected, and, yes, recreated. Last year’s reissue of the two ‘bibles’ of graffiti, The Faith of Graffiti and Subway Art, marked the beginning of this classical phase.
What I’m curious about is the future. Will graffiti rest on its laurels and be content to recycle old styles, newly elaborated? Or will it venture into new territory? No way to know.
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