Street art and politics are closely intertwined, whether that be in terms of inspiration, identity or institution. In its heyday, the New York graffiti scene was subversive; an open call to arms for all those who felt marginalised, unheard and ignored. There was a struggle for power between the city and those who painted on its walls and subway cars; politicians saw vandalism where artists saw creativity. These creative marks were by nature public commentary, in both the space they would occupy and the social concepts upon which they often commented. To some, the works were eyesores, a symptom of a broken metropolis - it is interesting then, that these same works have found their way into some of the most notable galleries around the world. Pieces by seminal street artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton are selling for significant amounts at auction; with an Untitled painting by Basquiat fetching $110.5M in New York two years ago.
How did we arrive here, where the art of the street has become the most sought after in the auction house? The rise in graffiti was most notable through the 70’s and 80’s, becoming the visual language of street culture. The police in New York City were notoriously heavy handed during this period, seeing street art as anti-social; a sentiment that was, in large part, fuelled by racial tension and the economic climate at the time. Street artists were aware that their creativity was, at a fundamental level, illegal - and the city was actively punishing them. They were, according to city data, making thousands of arrests a year by 1973 - and paying $10M annually to keep their walls clean.
However, despite their best efforts, street art showed no signs of slowing down. 1981 saw the opening of “New York / New Wave”, a show that opened at MoMA PS1 - curated by Diego Cortez. It was a landmark moment for the form, with pieces by Futura 2000, an emerging Basquiat and recognisable artists such as Warhol and Mapplethorpe. By the mid 80’s graffiti was becoming a staple in New York’s galleries; partly due to New York’s crack down on street art in public spaces, with the city being declared graffiti free by 1989. Haring and Basquiat were household names amongst art’s elite, the marginalised kids had become painted kings; Al Diaz, Basquiat’s original partner in crime and co-creator of SAMO©, noted that “Some of the shit he [Basquiat] had to do in order to be successful caused a lot of internal conflict.”
Street art was not what it used to be in New York, it had become mainstream, sterile like the city itself - the subversive messages of the politically ignored were now being carefully curated on white walls. Perhaps, city officials had got what they desired; by the late 90’s Manhattan was no longer the street artist’s playground.
The Distassi Art team