By David Gonzalez
Nowadays, any recent arrival to Bushwick with a stencil, paint roller and B.F.A. can call himself a street artist. But there was a time when it was only bands of teenagers who dared roam through train yards at night, whipping out cans of shoplifted spray paint as they covered whole cars with cartoon characters or bold names.
Even from those early days, photography was crucial to the scene. Face it, graffiti was ephemeral, and often the only evidence a piece ever existed was a fuzzy-focused Instamatic image taken from a rooftop perch along the line. Later, photographers like Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper set out to compile deep archives of these rolling canvases and their creators.
So, when we decided to do a graffiti-themed Instameet in the South Bronx on Aug. 8, we chose a historic spot in the annals of graffiti: at the Whitlock stop of the No. 6 IRT, right below the big curve where the train rumbles south off Westchester Avenue. In the 1970s and 1980s, that corner was one of the favorite places to photograph whole cars from a nearby rooftop as they prepared to dip underground on their way to Manhattan.
Jessica Anderson and Kerri MacDonald, who edit the @nytimesInstagram feed, invited about 15 people to join us on the first Instameet — or meetup — hosted by @nytimes. Several of them were Instagrammers known for documenting graffiti, the Bronx, or both. Among them was Martha Cooper, the globe-trotting godmother of anyone who ever went out to take pictures of street art and graffiti. Having her accompany us as we explored Hunts Point was like having Lee Friedlander go out with you to do street photography. (Her image of Dondi painting in silhouette is one of the genre’s most enduring.)
Martha Cooper holding an image she took at the same intersection, on Whitlock and Westchester Avenues, a few decades ago.Credit James Estrin
If that was not enough of a treat, the group was also accompanied by John Matos, a 50-something graffiti artist better known as Crash. Though he started out putting his tag up on trains, he has since gone on to be an artist in demand who works on commissioned walls, canvases and even Eric Clapton’s guitars. He also runs the Wallworks gallery in Port Morris (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I have exhibited photos in two group shows).
The trek started out along Whitlock Avenue, where big pieces adorn the sides of warehouses and garages. They include jazz scenes done in 2010 by a Queens-based crew, and one wall that boasts the Bronx as the home of “The Freshest Kids,” an oblique reference to a hip-hop documentary that came out a few years ago. Indeed, graffiti has been linked to hip-hop ever since Afrika Bambaataa declared it as one of the culture’s four pillars (even if the feeling was not mutual among some of the old-school artists).
When asked what was the difference between graffiti and street art, Crash replied that traditionalists see graffiti as strictly aerosol art that placed an emphasis on letters and color, while street artists might employ different types of paint, stencils or subjects and surfaces. Some have suggested that real graffiti artists should still be outlaws, but some of the most dedicated — and respected — graffiti artists in the Bronx are tired of that unrealistic expectation. Graffiti is not just a way of life for them, it is also how they have been able to make a living doing commissioned pieces or exhibiting and selling at galleries (or defending their copyright when used without permissionby designers and ad agencies).
The walk progressed through Hunts Point — a community that has been unfairly distorted by some who have chosen to focus on drugs and prostitution — taking in walls ranging from a homage to old subway pieces done by Blade and Lee (and based on vintage photos by Martha Cooper), to a Pink Panther holding two cans of Rust-Oleum that adorned a flat fix place.
A blocklong strip of hidden masterpieces awaited the group on Drake Avenue, tucked among auto-parts scrapyards and tractor-trailers. For years, this has been a playground of sorts for some of the top graffiti artists around, from Bio, BG183 and Nicer of Tats Cru, to Daze, CES and Crash. There is even a piece by Mark Bode, done in the style of his father, the late underground comic artist Vaughn Bode, whose Cheech Wizard character, Crash explained, influenced his generation of graffiti artists.
The final stops on the trip included a freshly-painted mural that was a collaboration between the Brazilian street artists Ananda Nahu and Izolag Armeidah and the photographer Ricky Flores, whose image of a 1980s B-boy doing a backspin was rendered in high-contrast black and white spray paint. Adorning other walls were pieces by the German-raised twins How and Nosm (who started out in the Bronx with Tats Cru and have gone on to international fame) to pieces reminding young people they have the right to photograph and videotape the police.
The meetup ended with a nod to the roots of the art: at the headquarters of Tats Cru, where the backyard features a full-scale plywood replica of a whole subway car that was being painted by Priz-One and Stan. It’s not just the canvas that harkened to graffiti’s roots. Every piece that is done there lasts for a week, at most, to be replaced by a new piece done by other writers. Last year, BG183 and Jamie Hef did a memorial wall honoring the salsa singer Cheo Feliciano. It was beautiful.
And it lasted less than 24 hours.
“That’s why graffiti needs photographers,” Martha Cooper said. “I consider it historic preservation.”
Fabian Palencia, Edgar Santana and Rhynna Santos participate in The New York Times' first Instameet.Credit James Estrin
Visit the #NYTBronxWalk hashtag on Instagram to see photos posted during the Instameet.
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