I recently visited Write of Passage, which is a six-week educational program and exhibition curated by Sacha Jenkins that explores the impact of American graffiti art on global culture. During my tour I met graffiti legend Chris “Daze” Ellis, who allowed me to interview him about another graffiti legend, Martin Wong.
While Wong is well-known in the art world as an artist, he was not a graffiti writer, preferring instead to play the role of collector and archivist of a movement that would transform urbanscapes around the world. Wong’s collection, which was donated at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) after he died (no other museum wanted it at the time), is currently featured in a new publication by the institution, City as Canvas: New York Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection.
Made up of 300 objects, including some 50 artists’ black books, roughly 100 canvases, and over 150 works on paper, the MCNY’s Wong collection is an important and curious window into a period where people still debated graffiti’s lasting impact on American and world culture.
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Hrag Vartanian: What did Martin Wong see in graffiti at the time that he decided to collect so many works?
DAZE: [Martin] grew up in San Francisco and he came up in the Haight Asbury in the mid- to late 60s when the whole hippie thing was going on and the counter culture movement was really big, and he identified with graffiti artists and what they were doing because it signified a kind of rebellion to him.
I think he also just appreciated it from an aesthetic point of view. And he was really interested in it. I think he looked at himself, as an individual as a little bit of an outsider being Chinese and being gay, he kind of thought of himself as an outsider a bit and we certainly were considered outsiders at that point, and we still sometimes are.”
HV: Was he collecting a particular aesthetic of graffiti? Do you see any commonalities in what he collected?
DAZE: I think some pieces didn’t really have an aesthetic attraction to him but yet they had historical significance, and that’s one of the elements he looked at, like look at [Wicked] Gary’s signature collection, which is an important historic piece because it covers so many of the early pioneers of the movement. There are other things he latched onto in terms of an aesthetic point of view.
HV: And what did you think about his own artwork?
DAZE: I thought his work was amazing. When I first saw it I was blown away. Martin was modest by nature, so he really didn’t discuss his work so much with people but he would say ‘yeah, yeah, I paint’ or ‘yeah, I’m an artist, as well’ but I had to inquire about his work, and ask ‘what did it look like.’ I had to go up to his apartment, which was also his studio, and I was able to see his work was amazing. I was blown away by his dedication and the amount of effort he put into his own paintings. He was always painting.
HV: How unique is Wong’s collection?
DAZE: I don’t think there is anything quite like it because it really captures a certain moment in the whole history of it. The collection ends in the mid- to late-eighties. He has work from the seventies to the mid-eighties, and some of the standouts in my mind are the pieces by Rammellzee, pieces by Lee Quinones, there’s an incredible Pink painting in there, there’s an amazing A-One painting, there’s a lot of Delta II and LA II pieces that are great. Those are the standouts that come to mind. Some great Futura paintings too.
HV: How did he acquire the works? Did he buy from galleries?
DAZE: He seldom ever bought things from galleries. He bought things directly from the artist, and I think that the competition for that was really rough in the early 80s but by the mid-80s there wasn’t a lot of interest in what we were doing and there weren’t a lot of exhibitions in New York, so he could easily approach the artists or the artists would approach him and say ‘I got this work you may be interested in.’ It was very informal.
In the mid-eighties the New York art world’s love affair with this culture fell off basically, so it created a vacuum in New York. In Europe, the interest continued so we continued to have museum exhibitions and be included in different things, but in New York, the New York art world decided that they weren’t really interested in it and it was too much for them, and that created a great opportunity for Martin to collect.
I remember one incident specifically in mind. It was the mid-80s and Martin had just got paid for a public commission he had done and there was a Basquiat painting coming up for auction and the estimate was $20,000 for the painting, which for today’s standards was cheap for a Basquiat but at that point it was expensive. He was really considering buying it because he felt like he needed a major Basquiat painting in the collection but ultimately for $20,000 he could buy a whole hell of a lot of graffiti and that killed it.
HV: And what did graffiti writers think about Martin Wong?
DAZE: There was an inner circle of people who were his real friends, people who he spoke to on a regular basis, and that circle included myself, Sharp, Lee Quinones, Pink, Stash — a bit, LA II, then there were others he saw from time to time.
I think some people kind of didn’t know what to make of him, and I could certainly identify with that, because in the beginning I didn’t know what to make of him either. He was a little goofy but at the same time shy, but at the same time kind of a fan, so it was like, ok what are you today? But ultimately I had a lot of respect for him as an artist and he was one of my best friends.
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Works by DAZE are on display at Write of Passage (218 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until November 23, and copies of City as Canvas: New York Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection are available on Amazon and other online booksellers.