Red Bird (1973) by Jon NaarMuseum of the City of New York
Redbird (Stay High 149), Jon Naar, 1973. On view for the first time, the Martin Wong Collection within the City As Canvas exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York explores the cultural phenomenon of New York graffiti art, beginning with historical photographs, and delving into paintings and sketchbooks.
Detail, Redbird (Stay High 149), Jon Naar, 1973. New York’s age of graffiti—both notorious and celebrated—began in the early 1970s.
Graffiti Kids, Jon Naar, 1972. With indelible markers and aerosol spray paints, teenagers across the city were engaging in a new form of graffiti writing: one that emphasized the aesthetics and visibility of their creations in addition to the literal messages they contained.
Wicked Gary's Tag Collection, Various Artists, 1971-1972.
Howard the Duck, LEE, 1988. As graffiti quickly proliferated across the city, a new, consciously artistic movement was born. By the mid-1980s, alongside the emerging hip-hop culture, graffiti writing was being hailed internationally as an important new art form.
The Death of Graffiti, LADY PINK, 1982. This validation took place in spite of ongoing efforts to eradicate graffiti from New York City’s streets and subways.
Untitled_A-One (1984) by A-OneMuseum of the City of New York
Untitled, A-ONE, 1984. Among those who found this new writing compelling was Martin Wong. When he arrived in New York in 1978, commercial art galleries were beginning to exhibit the work of several notable graffiti writers.
Detail, Untitled, A-ONE, 1984. A significant artist in his own right, Wong admired the writers’ efforts to push the written word to the point of abstraction, as well as their inclusion of comic book characters and pop culture figures.
Martin Wong by Peter Bellamy (1985) by Peter BellamyMuseum of the City of New York
Martin Wong, Peter Bellamy, 1985. With Wong and his friends at its epicenter, the graffiti movement transitioned from illicit expressions in public places to painting embraced as gallery-worthy works of art.
Detail, Martin Wong, Peter Bellamy, 1985. Facing a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and hoping to keep his collection intact, Martin Wong approached the Museum of the City of New York in 1994. For the Museum of the City of New York, which is located in East Harlem, graffiti writing was a local phenomenon, with many artists coming from the neighborhood, and the Museum recognized the value of this powerful—albeit illicit—form of urban self-expression.
Sharp Paints a Picture, Martin Wong, 1997-98. Comprised of 55 sketchbooks and more than 300 works on canvas and other media created between 1971 and 1992, the Martin Wong Collection provides a window into the evolution of the graffiti writing movement—a long, contentious, and complicated journey with New York City at its epicenter.
Take a sneak peek at City as Canvas with this exclusive video produced by the Museum of the City of New York.