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Don’t Forget Fashion 时装 Moda МОДА

Exterior of Fashion/Moda with mural by Crash, 1982. Photo by Lisa Kahane (via 98bowery.com)

Almost completely left out of the Jeffrey Deitch-organized Art in The Streets at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art and minimally referenced in its exhibition catalogue and other recently published surveys of the history of graffiti and street art, the historical importance of Fashion Moda (aka Fashion 时装 Moda МОДА) has been lost to a generation of artists and graffiti-lovers. It’s time for that to change.

Much like Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery and Charlie Ahearn’s film Wild Style, both of which have their own sections in Art in The Streets, Fashion Moda is an essential link between outer borough graffiti culture and the downtown Manhattan art scene, which would most noticeably come together in the city’s clubs and galleries during the 1980s.

An artist-founded and run not-for-profit art and performance space, Fashion Moda was opened in 1978 and continued operations until 1993 in the then very un-arty neighborhood of the South Bronx. Due to its lack of a published history or perhaps the utter complexity of an art space that was described by its founders as “a museum of science, art, technology, invention and fantasy,” the institution’s importance is often overlooked.

Fashion Moda in 1981 with art work by John Fekner on right (via reference.findtarget.com)

Fashion Moda’s name originates from the word “fashion” in the world’s four most spoken languages (English, Chinese, Spanish and Russian), though the two words in non-Latin alphabets often get dropped when referring to the space. It was established by Austrian artist Stefan Eins along with his co-directors Joe Lewis, an artist, poet and performer, and William Scott, a then 15-year old neighborhood boy.

Opened in an abandoned Salvation Army storefront that was ransacked in the great 1977 blackout, Fashion Moda became “one of the capitals of graffiti” after an influential exhibition in the 1980s curated by 19-year-old graffiti writer CRASH, titled Graffiti Art Success for America. Featuring artists ranging from LADY PINK to John Fekner, Graffiti Art Success for America opened up new possibilities for graffiti in a gallery setting. While it was not the first art space to exhibit graffiti — the United Graffiti Artists collective held a show at the Razor Gallery in 1973 — Fashion Moda was one of the first to allow the writers to paint directly on the walls and facade of the gallery.

Before Wild Style and the Fun Gallery, Fashion Moda presented some of the first collaborations between graffiti writers and downtown artists, who would travel to the South Bronx. Rather than bringing the graffiti artists downtown as many of the commercial East Village galleries would do in the years that followed, Fashion Moda brought the often white Colab-affiliated artists uptown to work with artists normally outside the art world.

"City Maze" at Fashion Moda, produced by Jane Dickson and built in collaboration with Crash and Noc 167 in 1980. Photo by Lisa Kahane (via 98bowery.com)

A good example of what Fashion Moda achieved can be seen in Jane Dickson‘s City Maze from 1980, which was a hugely popular exhibition and an important part of the city’s graffiti art history. City Maze consisted of discarded refrigerator boxes that Dickson and Stefan Eins picked up around the South Bronx neighborhood, with which Dickson then constructed a labyrinth-like maze decorated with a painted city skyline. Graffiti writers CRASH and NOC 167, who Dickson met through her husband Charlie Ahearn, spray-painted the maze with stars, swirls and other abstract graffiti designs, transforming the boxes into an approximation of the city.

Documenting the enthusiasm around City Maze, Dickson’s film shows the neighborhood children and teenagers bursting through the gallery doors and running through the maze. Unlike many of the East Village galleries that hosted graffiti, Fashion Moda permitted the South Bronx community almost free reign, allowing the neighborhood kids to write on the City Maze boxes and walls. Uniting uptown, downtown and all graffiti writers in between, the City Maze film reveals a scene of a palpable excitement, a new communication between artistic styles and an accessibility of art that has been nearly forgotten. It is also worth mention that it is also curiously reminiscent of a 2008 show at Factory Fresh titled A Maze.

Hopefully if LA’s MOCA eventually finds a New York home for Art in The Streets or perhaps a more ambitious curator wants to tell a more complete history of the evolution of street art or graffiti, Fashion Moda will reclaim its rightful role as a forerunner in the contemporary dialogue being generated by a burgeoning interest in art in the streets.

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