With bright, eye-catching colors and bombastic stylized lettering, graffiti artists turned New York into a living work of art.

Subway trains became moving murals that circulated throughout the city. Brick walls and entire sides of buildings served as a canvas for increasingly complex scenes that combined names, places and symbols of the city.

The style and imagery of graffiti impacted fashion, was central to the emergence of hip-hop and other types of music and altered the course of visual art.

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“It’s hard to imagine were we’d be in popular culture without them,” said Elisabeth Smith, former curatorial assistant for contemporary art for the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

What was once considered urban blight has been re-interpreted as a highly creative art form, and a new exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art galleries at Newfields. “City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the 70s & 80s” features more than 100 examples of drawings, works on canvas and photographs of since-lost street art that helped shape the graffiti movement.

The underlying conversation of the show is the relationship between creative expression and how it relates to the community at large.

“Graffiti isn’t something you think of as art. Yes, it’s very artistic, but the best thing about graffiti is it says so many different things without having to say anything,” said Nicholas Smith, an Indianapolis designer and graffiti artist. “A lot of times in the art world, the artist has to defend their work and speak on their work. Graffitti speaks for itself.”

The exhibition originally is from the Museum of the City of New York and tells the story of the graffiti in the city, from its origins to the public nuisance campaign against it and finally to respected art form.

In the 1970s, New York was a gritty and grim place. The city teetered on bankruptcy, leading to drastic cuts in municipal services such as police officers and firefighters. Unemployment was widespread, and people fled the city to live in the suburbs. Buildings were abandoned and set on fire.

In the midst of this chaos, graffiti artists expressed their angst with creativity, painting on buildings, subway trains and other surfaces around the city. The “City as Canvas” exhibition helps people understand the politics and problems facing New York during the graffiti artists’ heyday, said Smith, who curated the exhibition for the museum.

“These young kids were working in this environment. There was no police presence, since there were so many police layoffs, so there was this burgeoning need for self-expression that manifested itself in the public eye,” Smith said.

In response to the widespread emergence of graffiti, officials ramped up police surveillance, installed razor wire and increased penalties for those caught doing it. Works often were painted over or erased, making it a precarious art form, Smith said.

“At the time, these were really prized artworks that were threatened. Without these images, we’d never know how special these things were and how much skill it takes to make them,” she said.

Artist Martin Wong, who befriended a number of the early graffiti artists while working at an art supply store, collected the sketches, drawings and photographs that make up the exhibition from 1978 to 1994.

Part of the appeal of the artwork is the clandestine effort it took to paint an entire building wall or subway train.

“It’s so crazy to me that they were able to do this in a couple of hours, at night, when the trains were in the layups. It took so much skill, planning and preparation, and physical dexterity to get up and do that,” Smith said.

The “City as Canvas” exhibition tells this story using different materials that survive from that era. Seminal works from pioneering artists such as Keith Haring, Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink and Futura 2000 demonstrate how graffiti evolved.

One of the unique aspects of the exhibition is the exposure of some of the artists’ “blackbooks.” The bound art pads were used to plan designs for future projects.

“Before painting on walls or trains, they’d work out in sketch books, like any other practice to try out different styles and playing with color and form,” Smith said. “The exhibition really tracks this trajectory from early blackbooks, working with Magic Markers and permanent markers to painting on trains, so you see the quick development.”

The exhibition also features a local component, spotlighting Indianapolis’ own graffiti culture. Artists such as FAB Crew, Malcolm Mobutu Smith and Samuel E. Vazquez will have their work featured.

Smith and fellow Indianapolis resident Nathan Storm did a graffiti treatment at the entrance to the exhibition gallery, serving as the title treatment as visitors walk in.

“If you paint a wall at the (museum) that looks like nothing that’s anywhere else, people are going to come to it and ask how it got here,” Smith said.

As a young artist, Smith had been attracted to the style of graffiti. The line work and color usage was exciting and in playing with the form himself on paper, found that it was the ideal medium for his art.

“Cities can be a very gray and cold place. Graffiti was something that had all these bright vibrant colors, and it really appealed to me,” he said.

Special programs and activities have been built around the exhibition to help people better understand and experience graffiti art. Beatboxing pioneer and hip-hop artists Doug E. Fresh will do a concert tonight, while the opening celebration will include dueling DJs, breakdancing and artist demonstrations.

A pop-up park will be set up on the museum grounds where people can create their own graffiti virtually using LED spray cans. A listening wall will bring the sounds of the New York streetscape to life.

A special station will allow people to hear the music that impacted the artists, from disco to punk rock to hip-hop, curated by Vazquez, who was living in New York at the time.

“There’s this misconception that all graffiti artists were listening to early hip-hop, but that wasn’t always the case,” Smith said. “We really wanted it to be interactive and immersive, to put people back in that time.”

At a glance

“City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the 70s & 80s”

Where: The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, 4000 Michigan Ave.

When: Saturday through Jan. 28, 2018

Museum hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $18 for adults, $10 for children 6 to 17, free for kids 5 and under.

Programs and activities

  • Today: 8 p.m., Doug E. Fresh concert; tickets $25 to $35 for members, $30 to $40 for the public, $75 VIP meet-and-greet.
  • Friday: 7 p.m., opening party featuring dueling DJs, beatboxing, breakdancing and artist demonstrations; tickets $15 for members, $20 for public
  • Saturday: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., City as Canvas Family Day: Live, Play, Create featuring live music, unique painting exercises and hip-hop dance demos; included with admission
  • Oct. 16 to 20: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, Fall Break Camp: Calligraffiti, where children ages 8 to 13 can learn about calligraphy, graffiti and more; $216 for members, $257.50 for public, with advance registration required.
  • Oct. 26: 7 p.m., “Wild Style,” a film following the earliest days of hip-hop in New York; $8 for members, $12 for public.

Information: imamuseum.org

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.