City as Canvas Graffiti Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York

Two graffiti pieces made by Zephyr and Futura 2000 on display at the Museum of the City of New York

Few art forms polarize people as predictably as graffiti. Where some consider tags, throw-ups, and pieces (the medium's three primary means of expression) as exhilarating examples of urban creativity, others see as vandalism and crime. Either way, there's no denying that graffiti in all of its forms was an huge part of the look and feel of New York City in the 1970's and early 1980's, and that it sparked an international art movement that continues to get stronger (and more lucrative) today.

I'm happy to report that the City as Canvas exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York does a terrific job displaying more than 150 pieces from graffiti's golden age, all part of the legendary Martin Wong collection! So add that to your list of things to do this June

A man stands in front of some graffiti pieces at the Museum of the City of New York

A Rare Collection of Graffiti

Whether on trains, walls, or any and every other piece of the city's infrastructure, graffiti is by its nature ephemeral, so to have so many period pieces in one place is pretty thrilling in and of itself. Wong, an East Village painter who ran with some of the era's most accomplished and influential graffiti artists–including Zephyr, Keith Haring, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Daze, Lee, and Sharp–was one of the few who had the foresight (and the love) to preserve as much he could of his friends' work, all crammed into his tiny downtown apartment. Wong donated everything to the museum in 1994, five years before dying of AIDS, making this a rare trove indeed of artistic/historical pieces.

An image of a graffiti piece by famous artist Lee of a cartoon duck with a trash can top, and says "Graffiti is a art and if art is a crime let god forgive all."

An Intimate Look at the Graffiti Creative Process

The black books (basically notebooks, where artists would sketch out their elaborate pieces before sneaking into the train yards, as well as share ideas and work with one another) are great, providing an intimate look at the creative process. The real bonanza at City as Canvas are the actual, from-the-street works, including a Zephyr and a Futura 2000 long ago pried from a construction site on 14th Street and several subway signs covered in classic tags. And because the artists in the show here at City as Canvas are mostly limited to Wong's personal circle of buddies, the Museum of the City of New York supplements the exhibition with fantastic photographs of era by the likes Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, which hammer home how young these kids were, and how diverse, from all over the city.   

Image of a wall made of soda and beer cans at the Museum of the City of New York

More Information: The City as Canvas Exhibition

The City as Canvas exhibition will be at the Museum of the City of New York through September 1st. There will also be graffiti panels and workshops on select dates throughout. The museum is located on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets, and is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

A bright green graffiti piece with a cartoon dog on it by famous artist Keith Haring

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