Graffiti history written on your sneakers

In New York, there is no shortage of hustlers on Broadway who will tag a hat or shirt for a fee; they are young guys, generally, and they do it badly but for tourists it is like a piece of New York graffiti culture they can take home.  Still, those guys have no history; a new store on Lafayette St called Hip Hop USA — a temporary pop up, maybe, if things don’t work out — is taking a different approach, bringing back graffiti artists from New York in the 1970s and ’80s and having them do custom sneakers and other gear for anybody who comes in.  Started by Terry Nelson, they sell white canvas Converse Chucks-type shoes and a poster on the wall tells you who their old school artists are (such as PASER, Sen One, Slave, or AZ-1), which crews they were in (Fab 5ive, say, or Rock Steady), and which subway lines they bombed decades ago, with vintage photos to show you the heritage.  You pick one whose style you like and they’ll tag it with whatever you want: the original guys doing unique pieces for a fairly modest price.

What’s genius about this is that it perfectly taps into the improbable thing that has happened to graffiti in the last decade or two, which is that, in concert with the move from the street into galleries, it has self-consciously developed a history.  When graffiti artists were working the New York subway lines in the 1970s they had no past to draw on; forty years later they do, and non-practitioners (such as curators) have developed a taxonomy of who was doing what when and how the work developed that gives structure to the spontaneity of that time.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Né Dans la Rue exhibit about 1970s New York graffiti that I saw at the Fondation Cartier in Paris a couple years ago: as you can see in the video below it suffered, as all such shows do, from the awkwardness of trying to display in an institutional setting work that was created in a wildly different context, but what was clear was that the history of the form was being codified.  It’s amazing that for maybe a hundred bucks you can walk around in that history yourself.

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Click here to watch an extraordinary video by the Italian graffiti artist Blu.  Or here for posts on the work of French artist JR or LA-based graffiti artist Retna.  Click here to see my photos of street art.

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