Wednesday, May 14, 2014

From Vandals to Artists: Time Rouses More Appreciation for Graffiti

A few minutes before sunrise on Monday, a train left the subway yard in Corona, Queens, where most cars on the No. 7 line spend the night in slumber.

“Stop the Bomb,” painted on a train by Lee Quiñones in 1979, is one of the murals being displayed at a Lower East Side gallery. Credit Henry Chalfant

This one appeared to have rolled out of the distant past.

From top to bottom, inside and out, seats, windows and walls, the train was encased in layers of vinyl advertising sheets. What once had been standard-issue subway cars now had been transformed to look like the interior of a diner.

“It is the first ever total train takeover in M.T.A. history,” said Carina Sayles, a spokeswoman for the company that bought the ads.

Good try, but not quite.

As it happened, on the same day 25 years ago, May 12, 1989, a C train scrawled with graffiti — top to bottom, inside and out — lumbered back to the Euclid Avenue yards in Brooklyn, the final train run of the age of subway graffiti. It had started in the early 1970s, when the decaying subways became a canvas for teenagers in a city that seemed to hover on the edge of collapse. People in the transit system had spent the best part of the 1980s and hundreds of millions of dollars scrubbing and cleaning those markings, which ranged from the scribbled chaos of tags to glorious murals that spanned the length of two cars, more than 100 feet, mirages floating above the streets on elevated lines.

Now entire lengths of train are available for redecoration — at a price.

“It cost in the mid-six figures,” said Sheraton Kalouria, chief marketing officer for Sony Pictures Television.

Sony had a No. 7 train made over to look like Monk’s Cafe, the semifictional diner of “Seinfeld.” It has been done to a clever turn. The face of Kramer peers through a window. A three-dimensional effect can make it seem as if a rider is seated next to Elaine and George at a diner table, or perched on a stool. The benches have been covered to look like pleather fabric, though they still feel like the molded plastic familiar to millions of backsides. A clock and a menu board are decals fixed to the wall. You’d be tempted to order the egg white omelet.

Riders in Queens, where the 7 line has been shut down on many weekends, might think it is a move to rebrand it as a train about nothing. But no: All of this is being done to promote a tweak to the schedule for “Seinfeld” reruns in New York, Mr. Kalouria said.

For alumni of the graffiti era, the moment is rich. “You can buy out a line if you have the capital,” said Lee Quiñones, who began painting trains in 1974 and went on to become a master muralist with a Brooklyn crew called the Fabulous Five. “I had maybe 14 cents to my 14 years of age.”

To endorse the graffiti of those early years was risky business: Norman Mailer was widely criticized for arguing in the “Faith of Graffiti” that it was not blight, but pure art.

Mr. Quiñones and other young artists of those years were celebrated in Europe, beginning with a major exhibit of their works in Rome, but were seen as mere vandals back home. The distance of years has brought more appreciation for them, even in the city. “City as Canvas,” an exhibit running until Aug. 24 at the Museum of the City of New York, showcases their sketch work and color plans for many pieces that now survive only as photographs. And the gallery at City Lore on the Lower East Side is presenting “Moving Murals: Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s All-City Graffiti Archive,” through July 10. Interactive elements let visitors scroll through trains and hear interviews.

“At the time, it was said, ‘It was wrong for you to do that,’ ” said Mr. Quiñones, now 54 and a successful artist. “Well, it was wrong for society to forget about a lot of young people. The Bronx was burning, the president had said the city should drop dead. Out of necessity we invented an art form. It came from very young people that didn’t necessarily have any art history to stand on. They were creating art history without a script in their hand.”

By 1989, the memorable work had been cleaned. All that remained was a mad wallpaper of erratic patterns, probably harmless in intent, but which somehow became the flag of a lawless, murderous time, lacking even the charm of a pirate’s skull and crossbones.

“I thought it had run its course,” Mr. Quiñones said.

The “Seinfeld” train ads will be up for a month.

“I had some pieces that ran for years,” Mr. Quiñones said.

Source: The New York Timeslink

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