Graffiti, as we know it today, started in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and developed as a major cultural phenomenon when it reached the Bronx in New York City in the early 1970s. In those days, buildings and subway cars across the city were covered with all forms of graffiti, from gang tags to sprawling masterpieces (complete murals). In 1972, New York Mayor John Lindsay announced the first war on graffiti, dubbing it as vandalism. In the 1980s, the city escalated its tactics, using guard dogs, razor wire, and fences to curb graffiti artists. In 1983, the MTA painted hundreds of subway cars white, but that only invited fresh new graffiti. As the crackdown intensified, some graffiti artists started using rooftops or canvases instead of subway cars.
Nowadays, street art is a hot commodity in the commercial art world. But photographer and filmmaker Henry Chalfant was there to document the early days of graffiti art in the Bronx before it became big business. Now, the Bronx Museum of the Arts is asking the public to donate to a Kickstarter campaign to help complete Henry Chalfant’s first museum retrospective in the United States.
Titled Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987, the retrospective will showcase hundreds of Chalfant’s photographs, including life-sized prints of graffiti-covered subway train cars. It will also display a video featuring 800 images from well-known and under-recognized subway writers; interviews with select artists; and recreation of Henry’s 1980s SoHo studio. The exhibition will feature the mostly vanished works of graffiti legends like Dondi, Dez, Futura, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Skeme, and Zephyr, as well as works by known Bronx-based subway writers such as Blade, Crash, DAZE, Dust, Kel, Mare, Mitch 77, Noc 167, SEEN, and T-Kid.
Curated by the Spanish street artist SUSO33, the exhibition was originally produced for the Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente in Madrid, Spain. It also includes rare historical ephemera and photographs from Chalfant’s archives that capture the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx.
The survey is slated to open on September 25, but the massive undertaking has left the museum with a $15,000 gap in its production budget. “We want to take visitors back to the center of the 1980s graffiti scene — much of which originated in the Bronx, but we need to hit $8,000 this week!” Deborah Cullen, the museum’s executive director, wrote in a statement. The museum sustains a free admission policy to allow the community access to its exhibitions and activities, Cullen added. So far, the Kickstarter campaign has raised a little less than $3,000 since it was launched yesterday, August 7.
Chalfant, who started his artistic career as a sculptor, has been a leading authority on New York Subway art since the early 1970s. He is known for developing a unique photographic technique that captures an entire train in multiple, overlapping shots on his 35mm camera. One of Chalfant’s prints, “Children of the Grave, Part II” (