By Jen Benepe
A new exhibit of graffiti artists’ work in New York features some prominent artists among them some cyclists who figured prominently in the city’s racing scene.
One of those whose work is being shown at the Museum of the City of New York is Dondi, aka Donald White. He was a close friend of fellow writer and cyclist Zephyr, aka Andrew Witten.
I remember bombing down Devil’s Kitchen in upstate New York with Dondi back in the day–it was so long ago I could not even tell you when. He was traveling down the vertiginous 12 grade, 4-mile descent at about 65 MPH.
It was only about a year or two later that Dondi died: Perhaps he knew he was dying and relished the idea of cracking his head on the pavement during a daring downhill as an alternative to a slow and painful demise. But I will never know for sure. That’s why this exhibit is bittersweet for me, having lost a friend so early in life: he was 37.
Dondi’s good friend Zephyr, who was more of a bike racer, is also featured in the show. Zephyr is living the life of a father in New Jersey. After Dondi died in 1998, Zephyr published a book about him titled Dondi White, Style Master General: The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White.
The exhibit, “City of Canvas,” includes many other writers of course, some of them more famous, and not cyclists, like Martin Wong, but many of whom started out painting their work on subway cars and on the sides of massive buildings in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
About 150 paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and documentary photographs are assembled into a single gallery the size of a basketball court. Among those represented are Daze (Christopher Ellis), Dondi (Donald White), Futura 2000 (Leonard McGurr) and Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara), one of the few women in the tagger world.
Graffiti as an art form was much more appreciated by European collectors who view the entire period of decorating bland, gray public spaces with bright brushes of color with a sense of romance and sentiment for the spontaneous exuberance of the art.
Many New Yorkers saw the art as an impediment to their view through a subway window, not allowing them to see what stop they were arriving at because it was covered over with paint. And of course the authorities at the Mass Transit Agency were flummoxed trying to keep up with the late night paintings of their trains, as were the building owners who couldn’t keep the canvases of their buildings graffiti-free.
Wrote Ken Johnson in his review of the exhibit in the NY Times, “Graffiti thrived in the 1970s and early ’80s because the nearly bankrupt city government lacked the resources to stop it. With the city’s return to solvency the golden age ended, and it’s probably just as well that it did. It was bound to flag as the original writers aged. I’m probably not the only New Yorker thankful for today’s clean, unmarked subway cars. But I still treasure my recollections of the time when graffiti roiled the town.”
Though Zephyr is living the life of a father and even suburbanite, Dondi died in 1998. Zephyr later published a book about Dondi called Dondi White, Style Master General: The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White.
“In the beginning, there was the Word. On the streets and in the yards, the word was the Name. And the name was everything. It was persona and place, form and content, truth and fiction. The name was an act of self-invention, a pure visual manifestation, through alter ego, alias, and nom de plume, of personal expressions in the public realm. The name was a line and the line begat the Mark. Then, in the great style wars toward the end of the second millennium, medium, meaning, and message were joined in a golden era where the name became the source and signifier of Style. And when the name became wild style, the word was Dondi.”
The show runs through August 24 a the Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Ave. and 105th Street, 212-534-1672. www.mcny.org.