Street Art in the Age of Basquiat: Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quiñones on Post-Graffiti Pop Soup

The following is part of a series of interviews with key figures in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s downtown New York circle in the 1980s. The interviews were conducted in February by Museum of Fine Arts Boston curator Liz Munsell and writer and musician Greg Tate, who together curated the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” on view at the MFA through July 25. ARTnews will publish four interviews from the series each day this week.

 It’s often been nostalgically evoked that graffiti on subway cars, racing through an economically collapsed New York City of the mid-to-late 70s, brought color and life, however provocative, to an otherwise bleak, gray cityscape. But the assumption of white cultural elites was (and in many ways still is) that subway graffiti was unbound from art history and was instead a “folk” or “outsider” art (read—its makers were primarily young, “untrained” artists of color). Fab 5 Freddy’s 1980 Campbell’s Soup train (discussed at length in part two of this interview) proved that these artists understood their rightful place in art history and foreshadowed their transition into museums and galleries across the city. In early 1981, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee, Basquiat, Lady Pink, and others—still in their late teens and early 20s—showed at P.S.1 in the landmark group exhibition “New York/New Wave,” where Lee (and his dad), and the burgeoning movement, met Warhol face to face. That show, along with several others, launched their ascent into the lineage of Pop art, and positioned them as the primary drivers of a return to audaciously colored painting and a loud and liberated approach to art and space-making in the 1980s. —Liz Munsell

LIZ MUNSELL: 1970s graffiti culture has often been framed as a chaotic and intrusive sequestering of public space. It’s seldom articulated as an organized, ambitious, mass artistic movement driven by young people who sought to make their voices heard in the midst of the economic collapse of the greatest city in the world. What was the mission of 1970s and early 80s graffiti culture, and how did you two become partners in that?

FAB 5 FREDDY: When people in the graff game connect with each other, there’s a sharing of information—that’s how you learned to do different things in graff back then and how the culture spreads. Graffiti writers used to share keys with each other as a way to get into the tunnels and suggestions like “oh, this is where you go to hit these trains.” So, along those lines, I reached out. Lee was the master. I wanted to connect with him to start a dialogue and to bounce these ideas I was developing off of him about us moving from the streets into the art world.  He had a lot of early drawings, amazing works, which were like a blueprint for what Lee did on the trains, and on the handball courts, which were incredible. The impact of his work along with, obviously, coming from the graffiti tradition and then elevating it into a whole other sphere, to muralism—it was an energy I compared to the Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, Orozco & Siqueiros.

I’m an art nerd. I had immersed myself in a lot of this shit and I started to see these connections with what graffiti was, at its core: a lot of it was inspired by comic books and other popular culture ideas—like logos—how to make the name bigger and better. And one of the things that we would talk about, and I would show him, was that there were these Pop artists, and that Pop art was a movement that had happened just about 20 or so years before, and these guys were inspired by some of the same imagery that we were. I figured since we came after that, it fit in the progression of art history, even without us coming from a formal tradition. Lee got it all right away. And at the same time, I was learning a lot from Lee: his paint collection, techniques, his colors. He knew the whole fucking shit going backwards and forwards—his whole pure artist thing. So while we were exchanging these ideas, I was getting a masterclass because nobody painted better than Lee, especially on that scale and what he was doing and the way he did it was just so cool.

Martha Cooper, photograph of Lion's Den by Lee Quiñones (LEE), Lower East Side, New York City, 1980, C-print, 16" x 24".

Martha Cooper, photograph of Lion’s Den by Lee Quiñones (LEE), Lower East Side, New York City, 1980, C-print, 16″ x 24″.

LEE QUIÑONES: He’s totally right. We talked about art and then we’d talk about technique, we kind of switched hands and got great camaraderie. I mean, I walked away from those conversations learning about the Italian Futurists and the Dada movement through Fred. I wasn’t aware of those movements. Maybe I might’ve been exposed to Pop. Andy’s Brillo boxes might have been a flash in my eyes or something, but I didn’t remember it as any part of a movement. And later on, I started to realize like, wow, what would graffiti be without the Dadaists and the Futurists because they were part of the rebellion and a result of mainstream culture being turned upside down, for example the Futurists with the industrial revolution.

GREG TATE: Well, yeah. I mean, there’s an aspect in which they both took it to the streets as well. One of them said, “Well the ultimate Dadaist act is just to shoot a gun into a crowd.”

FAB 5 FREDDY: I was looking for these ways to kind of help move us into that art world space in a radical fashion because I grew up around a bunch of radical, theoretical stuff. My dad was really into Mao Tse-tung’s writings and all the intellectual stuff that was the kind of backbone of a lot of the counterculture political movements. People were looking at progressives standing up in other places and other cultures that were going against oppressive attitudes and institutions. And I was digging that energy and connecting that to what had happened with graffiti, just a wild thing. And then I had these ideas—conceptual, strategic—which was an extension of my creative process, how to create a better environment to execute these things that we were trying to do and say.

I knew that connecting with Lee and with his skillsets, if we could come together, it would just be an impactful thing. I just wanted to help paint a picture to make a better look for all of us because I hated the fact that any young Black and Latin person was almost always depicted in a negative light. Lee’s Howard the Duck, to me, was like a perfect Pop art painting. Howard the Duck was kind of a badass Donald Duck. And then Lee wrote this little message in the upper left corner of that piece, “If art is a crime, let God forgive all.” And that just said to me that Lee understood that this was art. Everybody doing graffiti clearly wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m an artist” in that sense. It was more like, “I want my name up everywhere. I want you to know that I’m that MF’er killing this shit.” And excuse my French but this is how I talk with the homies, just keeping it real!

As a young person I’d begun to read about pop art and see imagery that was like, “Oh, it’s like stuff out of comic books and Superman, etc.” It was very approachable, and connecting with what Warhol had done—the way he approached popular culture, working in different mediums as well—it just fit what i thought this movement could be and the connections I saw could help bring it into the future. For me, when I looked at art magazines and I’m learning about minimalism and some of the conceptual art ideas current in the ’70s, I was rebellious against it because I felt it was too corny and academic—it was time for some disruption. We all felt like that was lame and boring. I mean, in general terms. We were reacting against that and the current vibe and we wanted more color, literally and figuratively, as people in these spaces.

And I always wanted to see more heads of color get in the game. That was the thing discussed  often talking to Jean [-Michel Basquiat], we just wanted to see more heads that looked like us in the space. That was critical and strategic. I saw cats that I felt were smart and talented enough like, these guys could fit into this vision and they can handle all that comes with it—that was Rammellzee, Futura, Crash, and Daze to name a few. You know what I’m saying?

LEE QUIÑONES: You’re right. I mean, the majority of, if not all, the writers at the time, we were calling ourselves and identifying ourselves as “writers,” not artists. The written word and forming the word and re-smithing the word or whatever you want to call it. We were all happy with that at that time. Yo, what you write? Oh, he writes this. Those are writers, and that’s the writer’s bench where we’d meet. Then comes the confusion at that time of people saying Graffiti Art. Well, what is graffiti? The term means to scrawl and deface … right? Then art and graffiti artists—it just doesn’t compute because you’re calling us vandals on one side and then you’re calling us artists.

Lee Quiñones’s Howard the Duck mural, painted on a handball court in lower Manhattan., ca. 1970s-80s

To put it in the right time slots, the Howard the Duck Wall [a 25-by-35-foot mural on the wall of a handball court] was painted sometime in the spring of 1978. And then shortly after that is when Fred and I met. But in essence, that handball wall was very special for a number of reasons. Through it, I felt I’d arrived as an artist, there was a tranquility of working on this stationary object. You never had the luxury of feeling like an artist when you were always watching your back painting on trains. We’re talking 1978, when I came above ground. By that time, I was well on my way to the 120 whole train cars I did from 1974 to 1984. So, after sneaking into the train yards for years, I was now out painting in the public street level domain, exposing myself in a way that I hadn’t before. Howard, like Fred said, was sort of like the counterculture super sub-hero. Because he wasn’t Daffy Duck or Donald Duck and all proper and cleaned up. He was this radical dude that had fashion statement all over him.

GREG TATE: Rude boy. He was a rude boy.

LEE QUIÑONES: Right, right. Exactly. And he became my mascot. He became the mascot of basically the opposite of what I was, which I was more introverted and more closed like a crab for obvious reasons of being a graffiti outlaw—most wanted.

GREG TATE: Fred’s talked about your skillset, man. You clearly acquired a whole lot of skills before you even thought about putting stuff up on a train, but then I’m also curious about what was transferable and then what did you guys have to invent, you know what I mean, to get that work to be so dynamic on the surface of a train at three in the morning or what have you?

LEE QUIÑONES: We had a very limited window of time to create these things—anywhere from 8 to 12 hours, if you was lucky, maybe a whole weekend, if you was even luckier, which is not a whole lot of time on the pressure cooker that you’re under, right? You’re looking over your shoulders. You’re looking down at the third rail. All these things take place before you even start depressing the nozzle. You have to learn those trains were only one shape forever, 52 feet by 7 feet high, and I’m a nerd for trains. So you have to place things in certain ways on that rectangle and adapt to that kind of space wherever you’re at.

At certain points, you have to start exploring where you’re going to put your name and where are you going to put the characters and things of that nature to make the train become more dynamic and have more of a connection to the whole kinetic energy of it moving by you. Whether it’s coming into a station or on the express track, you have to consider the optical experience that the riding public is going to get out of that. When the buff system came into place as well, to clean the windows—if they had the money to do that in the first place— your work became fragmented once they buffed the windows if parts of it was there. So, you had to consider the tactics that were being used for safety reasons, to clean those windows, in order to nail the right composition.

And it was an exercise in many different techniques, aside from the actual composition. Choosing your colors, expanding your palette, since I was smuggling in paint from Europe as early as 1979. They had colors that were not in the American palette. And trimming, or outlining, and eventually eliminating the outlines for characters and letters in favor of three dimensionality. And thinking through all the other ordeals that train cars go through, like some train lines were filthy, and I knew not to hit those lines.

And you had all this research that had to go into finding where to go within a hundred different yards and tunnels, which one was the best for your allotted time for what you was going to create that night. If we needed eight hours, you need to go to Utica Avenue because that layup is quiet for 10 hours. So that’s where you’re going to go. So, it’s all this logistical nightmare that you had to go through and also factor in. Fred could probably attest to this: I was afraid of meeting graffiti writers in the yards because I was like, “Oh my God, they’re going to know where we’re painting and how I’m doing my shit.”

FAB 5 FREDDY: Lee wasn’t the kind of writer that wanted to be in the mix with other writers. There were writers that did that and went to the places where writers gathered to watch painted trains and communicate and kick it with each other. That was a big thing. Lee was totally like, removed … he didn’t want to put himself on blast. That’s why a lot of what we did in [the film] Wild Style (1983) was reflective of how he really got down. We built the character Zorro, which was pretty much how Lee liked to move. Under the radar because he was the most targeted cat. I also heard that was a big inspiration on how Banksy moves now. Like Zorro in Wild Style!

There was an anti-graffiti squad in the MTA then and they had names of the biggest guys. At the top of the heap was Lee. He, of course, knew that. That’s why when I show up to go meet him for the first time, I literally show up at his classroom and he’s like, “Oh no, oh shit”—he thought I was the police on some undercover shit.

LEE QUIÑONES: That whole practice that I had perfected actually helped preserve me from the streets, from a lot of bad decisions. Some of my friends had unfortunately put themselves out there and ended up in the slammer. I was able to find my artistic voice by staying reclusive and that voice was so seared in the way I worked and walked through life, that now, going above ground and then into the art world, now I had to unlearn that thick skin I had, to have open conversations about my work,  it was having to explain myself and maybe even edit myself for a whole different theater. There was some snobbishness and intimation at the time. It was extremely frightening to me. I’ve always been a person that read, I love to read, I liked to look. But I felt very intimidated because I felt I didn’t have the right dialogue or I didn’t have the right vernacular.

I felt I had to reestablish and reinvent myself while striving to keep my paintings and my works and my words meaningful to me. So, it was a very frightening transition, which took, quite honestly, a few years. We were talking about the Black experience, the Latin experience in New York, as Jean [-Michel Basquiat] was, and this was at 19 years old, 20 years old, it took quite some time to feel comfortable in that context and still keep my integrity.

LIZ MUNSELL: Let’s go back a little bit in time to what solidifies both of your reputations in the graffiti world. At a time when New York neighborhoods were strictly laid out by class and race, the Fabulous 5 crew was a cross-borough, multiracial (Black, Latinx, Swedish, and Irish) group of young artists—Dirty Slug, Slave, Mono, Doc 109, and Lee. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but back then, making your work go “all city” on the trains and breaking down some of those barriers was a transcendent concept. Lee joined the Fabulous 5 graffiti crew in 1975, and by the late 70s, it’s a revered group and Fab 5 Freddy begins to embrace its legacy and think about how to move it forward even more. (Soon enough, he gets his name from the crew, first coined in Blondie’s 1980 song “Rapture”). How how did the Fabulous 5 make a name for itself as one of the most successful crews in the history of the medium?

LEE QUIÑONES: We were a very tight group, a brotherhood, and we painted for just a short, maybe four or five years together with the intention of creating nothing but whole cars. Basically it was like, guys, we’ve got to do whole cars because with everything else that was going on, the only way we’re going to get a lot of attention as this group, as an important part of this movement, we have to come out with whole cars. We also did one whole train—all ten cars on a subway line—in Christmas 1976, the first successful running, in-service full train to ever run. Now, keep in mind that at that time, Fred was also trying to get us to come on board to create paintings as a collective, almost like recreating the tight group of painters to make these statements in the quote unquote, fine arts world.

FAB 5 FREDDY: In the process of us meeting and talking, the other four guys had pretty much stopped working, but I remember I connected with Slug, I think I met Mono once and Doc, and Slave, him I became cool with. I would give them a brief idea of what I was trying to do—essentially, to work with the legacy that they created and take it into another realm because I felt like they were the most impactful group in graff. In a sense, what they did was just monumental.

So, I had the blessings of the other members. Lee, remember when we first met with [artist] Stan Peskett and we painted the sign outside of Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway below 8th street, which was the only store that sold used shit? This was our first paid art job, Lee. They would buy old denim clothes and dye them into bright colors and that was hip and cheap fashion then. Me, you, Slave and Jean-Michel [Basquiat] all painting at Unique. Me and Lee did the sign outside and Slave worked on it too. And then Jean was doing shit inside until he got pissed off at them and quit! Remember when Jean quit? He came out, he was yelling and ranting at someone in the store. And I remember we came off the scaffold, and I remember him saying, “I ain’t painting no more t-shirts and refrigerator doors. Fuck them.”

LIZ MUNSELL: If this was the first job, did this come out of the Village Voice column offering your “graffiti services” in February 1979?

FAB 5 FREDDY: Glenn O’Brien was advising me and it was him that connected me with the guy at the Voice, Howard Smith, to get that first write-up where we were offering our services for $5 a square foot. We’ll come and spray paint, do your wall or whatever, make a few bucks. And this Italian art dealer saw that little article, reaches out to me and then shows up and this was like, “Holy shit,” I mean a big, “Wow!” And that turned into an invitation to do a show at his gallery in Rome. So we kept getting indicators, the ideas were working, things were happening that we didn’t expect, and out of the Village Voice piece we also met Stan Peskett. He was this English artist who invited us to work at his huge loft space and make paintings. Things are definitely starting to happen. Looking back at that episode at Peskett’s studio, it was fruitful but I didn’t like the way he treated us. We met and I got tight with Jean-Michel there and Michael Holman was also a key part of that moment. Stan had a relationship with Unique Clothing and was supposed to have done the painting of the store but got us to do it.

Him and his team left to go to Italy for two weeks and left us to work at the studio along with Jean-Michel as well, who started making his first art postcards he’d then sell on the streets in Soho. Lee and I were painting these giant plastic sheets in the loft and the sheets were like 10 by 30 feet and we’d hang them up and just spray the hell out of them. Stan basically kicked us out when he couldn’t raise money from work of ours he’d brought to Italy.

LEE QUIÑONES: Yeah, I remember just before the Canal Zone Party [in April, 1979 the artists threw a party at Peskett’s Canal Street loft to celebrate the murals Lee and Fab 5 Freddy created there], we had finished I think it might’ve been three of those backdrops. And we made some small paintings for the show that was upcoming in Rome. And I remember Jean came over, he might’ve been late as usual, to the Canal Zone Party at Stan Peskett’s, and he painted on at least one of those drop cloths.

FAB 5 FREDDY: Claudio Bruni, the Italian art dealer who I mentioned had come to meet with us at Stan’s loft, and Bruni was like, “I want you to make a few paintings so I can see how the work looks on canvas.” So we made a couple, then we made a couple more. He’s like, “Okay.” He saw we can paint and he loved the work.

Lee Quiñones: FAB 5, 1979.

LIZ MUNSELL: So, does this include the painting that’s in KAWS’s collection, Fab 5, 1979 by Lee, that’s ultimately on the exhibition catalogue cover for your show in Rome?

LEE QUIÑONES: Yeah, yeah, exactly, those were all a part of the first series of works. The show in Rome, Italy, was in December of 1979 so there was a lot going on within those very pivotal, six to eight months before making these paintings, making these connections.

LIZ MUNSELL: I was going to ask about Warhol, who was in the mix in the early 80s, and why he became such an important figure for you guys. But I guess I want to reverse that question too and say that you guys brought him back into fashion, your generation was important to him.

Mural by Lee Quiñones and Fab Five Freddy in Washington, D.C., 1982, featuring a quote by Warhol.

LEE QUIÑONES: Andy Warhol came to our first big show, the New York/New Wave show, curated by Diego Cortez in early 81. I met him there and he met my father. I was presenting a portrait of Debbie Harry, which is in [the current MFA exhibition], sort of inspired by Warhol’s portraits, and Debbie’s beauty. It was a way of paying back to her, to Chris Stein and the band, for representing the culture, particularly in the music video for “Rapture.”

FAB 5 FREDDY: I guess that was the genius of what Andy was able to do. He was on top of wherever the energy was and he was plugging into it in some way. He had his eye on everything going on. He knew we were bubbling and making crazy noise, he knew what the routine was. But really it was his connection to and then collaborating with Jean-Michel that got him to put the brush on canvas again, which he had stopped doing. A monumental moment in the scheme of where we’d all come from. We knew this was all very exciting for Andy as he was reverberating to what we were doing, and with the connection that he more specifically had with Keith [Haring] and Jean, it was pivotal and very special. Andy would show up to different events we did then plugging into the energy we were creating and he reciprocated. I mean, the acknowledgement from him meant a lot to so many of us at that time,.

LIZ MUNSELL: But there was a time when his work just was not in fashion, that minimalist period that we’ve been talking about. And then he kind of makes a comeback on the scene. And I guess I want to credit you guys in your generation with that, and not only with that, but also with bringing back this bold painterly aesthetic after painting had been declared dead. It comes back in all of the boldness of graffiti and pop, all of these brilliant colors. No holding back. Greg poses the question in 1989, then I pose an answer in my [MFA] exhibition catalog essay that graffiti in the landscape, and then the post-graffiti movement, was responsible for making the art world reshape its aesthetic into this very loud, bold expressionists “return to painting,” because you all had taken over the city’s gray landscape in the 70s so audaciously.

FAB 5 FREDDY: That’s a very good point and I would say yes … Two artists that I like a lot, there is very little mention that they clearly were influenced by what was going on in the streets around them. Frank Stella and John Chamberlain for me, personally, their works reverberate with that New York graffiti energy. Many artists that were feeling and picking up on the energy from the streets were just not readily giving up the props or acknowledging this, maybe for ignorance reasons, for race reasons, for whatever the dumb reasons were that they wouldn’t embrace where all these energies come from. I would meet people on the art scene and they would know that I’m coming from this culture, they were like, oh man, I love his stuff, the energy and excitement is pumping real hard. So that was on the real tip, real people could not deny that at that time. I’m sure Lee has his own opinion.

LEE QUIÑONES: I mean, there was sort of an intermission period, in the art world, where it seemed they were trying to grasp at something new or try to make something—regurgitate something (us)—with a new flash. You got to remember that there’s still a lot of paintings, 1980 is a huge flashpoint in the trains, as well as it was beginning in the gallery above ground. There’s only a few cats of the graffiti tradition now starting to restructure their concepts and their painting style, their approach, for the art galleries—like us, Dondi and Rammellzee and people like A-One … In 80 Futura brings out the Break car, I bring out the Silent Thunder car, and both cars don’t have our names on it. And then you have Fred’s Campbell’s Soup car.

An interview with key figures from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s downtown New York circle in the 1980s.Read MoreARTnews, News, Andy Warhol, Greg Tate, Jean-Michel Basquiat, KAWS, Lee QuinonesARTnews.comRead More

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