City as a Canvas

Ernst Haas, Graffiti, May 1974, (145.1976)

Joseph Rodriquez, Cindy, Spanish Harlem, 1988, (41.2002)

Charles H. Traub, Canarise, Brooklyn, 1988, (452.1991)

New York City has endured a rich history with graffiti as both a symbol of the city’s struggle with crime and poverty as well as a grand statement of self-expression for the artists involved. In the 1970’s, while faced with some of its most turbulent years, graffiti exploded onto almost every inch of New York City. Artists began “bombing” buildings and subway cars with signature tags using marker and spray paint. Becoming “all-city”, tagging their names in all five boroughs, was an ultimate goal among artists who sought to gain credibility. By the mid-seventies artists began creating “masterpieces” or large pieces of cohesive artwork on entire subway cars that required extensive planning and pre-made stencils. As artists developed their style, competition grew and every inch of the city became a canvas.

A long battle commenced in 1972 as Mayor John Lindsay sought to diminish the acts of vandalism throughout the city that continued for decades and across several administrations. Campaigns to control the graffiti problem sought to actively replace or paint over any artwork created, especially those found on subway cars. Increased police presence also strained the artist’s ability to create work without being caught and subsequently arrested for vandalism. By 1989 the last of graffiti bombed trains were replaced which accomanied an overall decrease in active street artists throughout the 1990’s.

The photographs above depict New Yorkers in the midst of the golden age of graffiti as well as its the aftermath in the 1980’s. Each of the photographs includes graffiti as a mere backdrop for the candid representations of their subjects. While graffiti is not at the forefront of these photographs they accurately capture New York City as a canvas for self-expression and defiance against authority.



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