Via NY Times, by Randy Kennedy
Anyone who has been lost in the last few weeks around the southern reaches of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn could be excused for experiencing a powerful Koch administration flashback. On the wall of a brick warehouse there, visible from the parking lot of a furniture store, a huge mural unfurls itself, a loving, seemingly spray-by-spray re-creation of one of the more infamous pieces of graffiti ever to ride the subway: a 1980 work by the artist known as Seen that covered the length of a No. 6 train car with the ominous phrase “Hand of Doom.”
The original work — among those canonized in Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s 1984 landmark photographic history, “Subway Art” — was a token of its troubled urban times, a reference to the Black Sabbath song of the same title with the words flanked by a hooded executioner and a time bomb. The 21st-century version, on closer inspection, turns out to be a bit gentler and a lot more oblique. It reads “Joan of Arc,” and the hatchet man has been replaced by an armored representation of the martyred French saint.
A few miles away, on a streetfront wall in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, a similarly odd example of historical revival has sprung up: a kinetic-looking 1980 piece by the graffiti writer Blade has been recreated, with the five letters of his name changed to read Plato. On a coffee shop wall in Bushwick, a name piece from the same year by the artist known as Dondi has been faithfully resurrected but changed to read Gandhi. And a copy of an early-’80s subway tag by the artist Sin appeared just last week on a row of lockers inside Louis D. Brandeis High School on the Upper West Side, with the addition of a few letters and some philosophical heft; the name is now Spinoza.
The pieces might sound like the result of some kind of graffiti-world version of Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium. But they are actually the works of 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. The project, called “Subway Art History,” is unusual not only because the artists are making the pieces with the permission of businesses, schools and other perhaps nostalgic owners of blank vertical space, but also because of the nature of the pieces themselves. They are expressions of homage in a subculture that has almost always been defined by fierce competition, intense striving for originality and a kill-the-elders attitude toward the past.
“In graffiti it’s like a teenage thing: ‘No way am I going to become my father, no way am I going to make anything that looks like anyone else’s’ — and then, of course, you become your father,” said a 32-year-old former graffiti writer who helped form the collective. He and other group members (there are 2 founders and a floating membership of about 10) asked that their names be withheld, not for the usual reason — the police — but because the collective, which calls itself Slavery, is seeking to get away from the ego jockeying that normally accompanies graffiti work.
The project was partly inspired, he 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.
The 32-year-old artist painted graffiti illegally for many years but is now a teacher, working with often troubled adolescents. Interviewed at a cafe near the Gowanus Canal, he said that the group started with Joan of Arc because the members saw her, dead at 19, as an emblem of both the power and the perils of youth. Besides warriors, philosophers and characters from Western and Eastern mythology (Sisyphus is on the list of coming works), he said that they also plan to include artists, writers and political and religious figures.
“Jesus is a great one,” he said. “I’d love to throw a Jesus in there somewhere, but also an Isis.”
He added: “To me, this is like a real-life Wikipedia project. We hope that the people who see the words help each other figure out what they’re about, and that these things start a conversation that keeps going on the streets.”
A print made of the Joan of Arc piece will be sold beginning next week as part of Edition One Hundred, a new online art gallery that sells limited-edition prints and gives 10 percent of the profits to charity. (The National Breast Cancer Foundation is its beneficiary because a friend of one of the collective’s founders battled the disease.) The eventual plan is to compile photographs of all the pieces, which could take more than a year to complete, into a book.
Mr. Chalfant, the graffiti photographer and historian, said that he had given his blessings to the project partly because such a tribute had few precedents in the world of New York graffiti. “I think it’s a wonderful reverse of what usually happens, which is that these people whose shoulders everyone has stood on don’t get any credit,” he said.
The artist-teacher allowed that, as feel-good as the project is, he decided not to seek permission systematically to recreate the older pieces from their creators or from the families of artists who are no longer living.
“It’s still such a boys’ club,” he said of the graffiti world. “I almost felt that I’d be humbling myself too much to go ask them, ‘Um, do you mind?’ ” he said.
But at least one of the veteran artists, Blade (whose real name is Steven Ogburn and who painted trains for more than a decade, starting in the early 1970s), said he didn’t mind at all.
“It’s nice the attention guys my age are finally starting to get for our work,” he said. “It kind of amazes me actually. People in their teens and 20s come up to me, and they know every detail of my life story. I’m like, ‘Wow, I don’t even remember dating that girl back in ’72, but this kid here knows all about it.’ ”