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I view the show as a kind of time capsule," Brooklyn-born artist Daze told GO Brooklyn about the Brooklyn Museum’s "Graffiti" exhibition, which opens on Friday.

Daze - aka Chris Ellis - is one of 13 artists whose large-scale paintings, all dating from the early 1980s, will represent the controversial genre in this groundbreaking exhibition that continues through Sept. 3.

The paintings were created at a transitional moment in the history of the graffiti art genre. The years from 1979-1986 marked the first flush of international notoriety for New York’s "writers": a time when major European museums began showing established writers like Daze, Crash and Tracy 168, and graffiti artists turned their spray cans from painting subway walls to canvases.

The exhibition, chosen from among nearly 50 works gifted to the museum from the estate of gallery impresario Sidney Janis, is notable in that it is the first by a major New York museum to be devoted wholly to works by modern graffiti artists.

"Graffiti" boasts an honor roll of the genre’s greats: NOC 167, Kel 1, Tracy 168, Crash, Bear 167 and Fab 5 Freddy all make an appearance. Nearly all are spray-painted works; some canvases, such as "Constellation of Events" by Stash and Sharp, or Phase 2’s stunning untitled painting have an abstract sensibility.

Daze’s "Flesh and Intrigue" (1984), displays some classic graffiti touches although it never rode the rails of the BMT. A 6-by-8-foot canvas, the painting depicts the man-high face of a film noir diva, green as emeralds and menaced (or is it caressed?) by a sinuous pink snake. The diva’s earring is highlighted by an airbrush-thin star, while blue circles trail about her collar with a characteristic spray-can flourish.

According to Daze, he never imagined that one day he’d make it big as an artist.

"As a young kid...I wanted to get my name around, be respected by other artists," said Daze. "No one had any idea that people would be interested in the work outside of the immediate community. But when things did start to happen, it was important to have a good work ethic."

When the spotlight of media attention turned a handful of "writers" like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat into stars overnight, the graffiti scene exploded.

"I’ve continued to sell paintings for the past 20 years" - since "Flesh and Intrigue" made its debut, he said. The Crown Heights native still summons up the mystique of graffiti’s netherworld origins in his work. But the vision of the city’s street life Daze portrays has matured since his first strokes were sprayed on canvas: these days, glamorous stars have given way to gritty, urban landscapes.

"The work has evolved," said Daze. "My work has always been about New York, but even more so now. [It’s] about New York as a city itself."


She’s ’da bomb

Among graffiti’s success stories, one of the most recognizable is Lady Pink, the first - and for many years only - prominent female graffiti writer. Born in Ecuador, Lady Pink began "bombing" - painting illegal murals and subway art - at the age of 15.

"I was attracted to the adventure, the rebelliousness of it," says Lady Pink, aka Sandra Fabara. "The more guys said ’you can’t do it,’ the more I wanted to do it...It was the risk of it, but also having fun, to be cool and popular."

For Pink, the glamorous allure of graffiti paid off quickly. In 1982, she starred in "Wild Style," Charlie Ahearn’s classic film about the artform and the birth of hip-hop. Soon her paintings were commanding high prices on the international art scene.

The example of her art in the Brooklyn Museum show is not typical of her current work: "The Black Dude" (1983) recalls Lichtenstein, with a huge angry head in the foreground, dramatically rendered with graphic, comic-book-like shapes in black, red and blue. Her more recent work uses softer shading and complex intertwining forms, often addressing political subjects.

It’s no surprise that Pink, who has collaborated over the years with Jenny Holzer and the Guerrilla Girls, has frequently championed women’s involvement in the arts.

"Times have changed, and now there’s a lot of females [making graffiti]," Pink says. "They wouldn’t say ’you can’t do that because you’re a girl’ anymore. Now they’d say, ’Okay, you better keep up!’ "

In her mind, there’s no question that being a graffiti artist was the pathway to her success.

"It has opened a lot of doors because of the controversy. It’s titillating for anybody above-ground to rub shoulders with an outlaw and see that we’re tame," says Pink.


Legal battles

Although most top "writers" choose to shun illegal tactics following the onset of fame, the controversy surrounding their art continues to cut both ways. Last August, in a move reminiscent of brouhahas of the past, city officials moved to stop Marc Ecko, a graffiti-artist-turned designer, from holding a Manhattan block party because several writers, including Pink, had been invited to paint graffiti on fake ’70s subway cars as a nostalgia piece.

Mayor Bloomberg put the kibosh on the plan, arguing that it was an encouragement to youth to commit vandalism, but a court ruling citing the First Amendment restored Ecko’s permit. Ecko has since brought a federal suit against Bloomberg, the city, and Queens Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr.

In 2005, Vallone penned an anti-graffiti law that made it illegal to sell spray-paint, certain markers or etching acid to anyone under age 21, or for minors to possess these items. Ecko and seven artists ages, 18 to 20, have challenged the constitutionality of the law.

For Pink, the "Graffiti" show at the Brooklyn Museum is a long overdue legitimization by the local art establishment of an art genre that was recognized as important by European museums 25 years ago. She still paints mural commissions, but she hasn’t done any "bombing" in years.

"You make choices in your life. You get too old to outrun the cops - you have to face it," said Pink with a chuckle. "If you can keep working at what you love, that’s the best thing of all."


"Graffiti" will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights), from June 30 to Sept. 3. Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for seniors and students with ID, and free for children younger than 12. For more information, call (718) 638-5000 or visit www.brooklynmuseum.org.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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