Graffiti: An ever-changing NYC art movement that has been the voice of the streets since the early 70s – told through the sides of train cars, Tenement buildings and hidden alleyways. Today “the battle for meaning” has transformed graffiti into street art with stencils, prints and murals, to large-scale paintings and projects of artistic collaboration, and street installations. Simply step outside and explore the streets of the Lower East Side or if you’re sitting in the Sky lobby of Hotel Indigo Lower East Side – just look up.
Lee Quinones is considered the single most influential artist to emerge from the New York City subway art movement of the early 70s. Inspired by the leading figures of subway lore, Lee painted his first subway piece in 74’ at the tender age of 14 against the perilous backdrop of a fractured city. Soon after he began tagging 40-foot subway cars and over the next decade he painted an estimated 115 subway cars throughout the MTA system. Quickly becoming a shadowy legend, Lee broke away from the underground movement and began using his L.E.S. neighborhood as his new canvas.
Through his midnight graffiti ventures on the L.E.S. he would paint with other artists, all of who were spearheading different art movements in New York. When Lee was asked to create a master tribute to his beloved neighborhood he set out to honor the history, culture and arts of the community with the L.E.S. Masterpiece, “Voices carrying” a 40 x 16 foot ceiling mural. Giving the history of the “Lower Deck” a birds eye view through Lee’s eyes, the way he saw it, heard it and witnessed it.
The mural’s central polaroid influenced by a Harvey Wang photo features the legendary L.E.S. homesteader resident, radical individualist and environmental activist David Wilke, a.k.a. Adam Purple, who took it upon himself to create a community garden out of the 5 abandoned plots of land, later dubbed Purple’s Garden of Eden. Holding true to the name and the L.E.S. culture, Patti Astor’s FUN gallery was one of the first fine art galleries that opened in the neighborhood that became an institution for housing thriving young talent. Next comes Lee’s homage to the humble beginnings of hip-hop with a piece named after Ice and Spanky, two L.E.S. dj’s who carried penny records in milk crates and borrowed turntables to make street parties jump and pop.
Lee was instrumental in moving art above ground when he stealthily painted “The Duck” mega mural on the handball court outside of his Corlears Junior High School #56 in 78’ officially tagging the piece “LEE.” This was the first masterpiece of its kind on the streets and if you look closely, you can see him in the corner of the image working away. In another polaroid, children’s drawings can been seen scrawled on the black tarmac. Here Lee captures his own fond memories of playing on the streets throughout his beloved neighborhood.
In, “Crossing the Delancey”, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, is seen experimenting with music. Before he became a celebrated painter he along with Michael Holman and Nicholas Taylor formed an Industrial-sound band, Gray that would go on to perform in many famous underground NY venues. Through the doors of CBGB, an iconic music venue where many bands got their start, Lee tips his hat by loosely using a Gus Stewart photo for influence of the alternative music venues of yesterday like CB’s itself, Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club.
The Lower East Side has always been the starting point and stepping stone for every aspiring artist, writer, musician and actor — the polaroid image featuring the Poets Café is an homage to the sanctuary of the written word practiced at various literary and spoken word venues. Lee celebrates the playwright, actor, poet and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, the late Miguel Piñero, who’s best known work is “Short Eyes” writing a letter to his good friend, the late painter Martin Wong while sitting on what Lee calls, “the stairwell to heaven.”
Martha Cooper is a living legend that has been documenting the New York City graffiti scene ever since a young long time resident of the L.E.S. who flew pet pigeons on rooftops, gave her a first look into graffiti subculture. Lee recreates her famous photograph from the “Street Play” series as an homage to her and that inner city past time, flying Pigeons .
The last polaroid shows famed graffiti artist, the late Keith Haring, as seen through the lens of his long time friend the late Tseng Kwong Chi while he used the city landscape as his canvas. Keith created chalk drawings and graffiti-inspired radiant people flanked by atoms and three-eyed smiling faces across the city. His art was everywhere in the 80’s and early 90’s and his legend lives on today through his work.
Each artist, poet, playwright and landmark featured in Lee’s L.E.S. Masterpiece, is a true icon of the neighborhood – each having left an imprint in the Lower East Side’s history. As we take a step back through time, through Lee’s eyes through this work, we can also take a step forward by following Mr. Purple’s painted purple footprints wending their way back to where the garden used to be.
Ready for my close up