Recently in Soho, Manhattan, a wall in a ten-story limestone building that is going to be turned into luxury condominiums was discovered. On this wall is graffiti dating back to the late `70s and early `80s when free-spirits like FUTURA2000, SAMO and Fab 5 Freddy were making their mark on public property.
Over 25 years later, FUTURA2000 is a noteworthy illustrator and graphic artist, SAMO is the tragic, but celebrated painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab 5 Freddy needs no introduction. He’s a former graffiti writer, artist, the first-ever African-American host of Yo! MTV Raps, a film maker and cultural avatar.
When Fab 5 Freddy started writing graffiti, it was perceived to be a reckless, primitive act of vandalism. But now, in 2007, graffiti is a quintessential component of hip-hop culture. Before it became a worldwide phenomenon, Freddy amplified graffiti, introducing it to the contemporary art world. Soon afterwards, this once illegal style of painting was in museums and prestigious private and public collections around the world.
“When you go to paint that wall in the middle of the night or paint that train, that’s graffiti, real graffiti.”
Format: Out of all the endeavors you have completed in your career what is the most crucial to making you the person that you are today?
Fab 5 Freddy: I have done a lot of different things in the arts, and I am still very involved with them. My motivation behind whatever I’ve done is the same: I want to get it done, I got a reason, I’ll find a way to get it done and I do it. Hopefully, I do it well, and if I want to, I’ll keep doing it. It’s simple. So [in essence] there’s not just one thing that’s more important than the other. Then again, when I look back in terms of what I’ve done, I started out as a painter and that foundation began as a graffiti writer. So, I started as a graffiti writer then progressed to making [contemporary] art, then film and television. They all interconnect in my mind as one but my beginnings are my foundation so there lie my most crucial endeavors.
Format: A Format reader made a comment saying illegal graffiti writers did a lot more for graffiti than the “mainstream media darlings,” referring to you and Jean-Michel Basquiat. What is your take on this?
Fab 5 Freddy: People say a lot of things, but basically, I don’t really go around trying to preach or teach. I’ve written about Jean-Michel and our friendship many times. There’s a new coffee table book/catalogue, from Jeffrey Deitch’s Deitch gallery dealing with his work made in 1981 where I outline our friendship and Jean-Michel’s rise in the contemporary art world. But specifically to that comment, I did these things on the streets as a wild teen that wanted to write my name anywhere I wanted to write it, but then at the same time, early on, I developed an understanding about contemporary art.
I became a big fan of certain individuals, so, I set my goals based on what I wanted to do. That meant taking my ideas about art into the media, going into pop culture, and making connections with people that mentored and helped me. That term media darling could be construed as a negative comment, but I helped create that perception, that was a specific intent. Media is a function of pop culture in terms of facilitating what needs to be done. That whole comment is really null and void, because that person really doesn’t know my background in terms of what I did in the streets and how I kind of, carved out a position for myself as a contemporary artist, and as a person who would go on and do the things that I do in terms of different forms of media.
Format: In your opinion, when did graffiti become exploited?
Fab 5 Freddy: I claim some credit for that. Specifically, graffiti, in its raw form is an illegal act. If I walk into my man’s crib where you are right now, and I choose to write on a wall, that’s really graffiti. If I tag the outside of that building, that’s graffiti. Graffiti was just this wild crazy explosion of teenage NYC energy. Then, I decided that I wanted to do some other things with this style of painting. I was always very keen to point out that it’s technically not graffiti when done on canvas in the safety of your studio. I would refer to that as graffiti-based or graffiti style, but because of the whole media hype-factor that developed on its own, it became ‘graffiti art,’ and a lot of people became associated with graffiti art who never actually did illegal graffiti.
So in the early 80′s it quickly became a part of the art, pop culture media machine and developed a life of its own. It then became easy for Journalists to label some one’s work graffiti. “Hey, he’s a graffiti artist, right”? But he may not have had any connection to the streets. Other people also became known as graffiti artists and provoked people to think that ‘Oh these people were not graffiti artists, they exploited it.’ But if you have an understanding [of it], none of the work that Jean-Michel, Keith Haring, myself, or the people that really understand the context that this work is really being made in would [actually] call it graffiti art hence the “exploitation” classification is somewhat misguided.
This is why a lot of the people that developed and use the techniques of spray painting developed by way of “real” graffiti endeavors refer to themselves as aerosol artists, because they don’t want to claim that. Semantics? When you go paint that wall in the middle of the night or paint that train – that’s graffiti, real graffiti. When you put that on the canvas, or the gallery or whatever, technically, that’s graffiti style. That’s how I deal with it. But the media says what ever they want.
“My motivation behind whatever I’ve done is the same: I want to get it done, I got a reason, I’ll find a way to get it done and I do it.”
Format: There is an article by a Yale student on the Internet that mentions the piece by Howard Smith published in the Village Voice in 1979. It mentions that you had claimed that the Fab 5 were well in tune with the contemporary art world even though you really weren’t. And the next thing you know, you’re exhibiting your work in Italy and eventually all over the world.
Fab 5 Freddy: It’s good that you pointed those things out, because I’m working on my memoir, slowly. But a key thing that’s going to be discussed – along with sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop and all that flavor that’s going to be in there – I’m going to really get into a lot of these things, because whenever I write my essays, I talk about my friendship with Jean Michel and how people perceived him and what we were actually doing then. Of course it’s well known that he was a genius, a prodigy, just all these great things. But at that point in time, because we were black, people didn’t know how much was mapped out and blue printed.
How we approached art was the genesis and basis of our friendship and relationship. We knew what was going on; we were making moves to achieve certain goals. Everything was very clear and very specifically executed. So when I drop science on those times and put the words on paper, I’m making sure this comes through. Nobody was manipulating us. Yes, sometimes, in the press there are misconceptions as I explained earlier, but then when a person like me is involved in different aspects of the culture, as a writer, film director and producer, I have to make sure that I get it right and that it comes out the way it’s meant to be, not how somebody else tries to interpret it, ’cause a lot of the times, with the culture that we’re involved in, and culture in general, you are observing somebody else’s interpretation and they just can just get it wrong.
Format: How did the contemporary art world sharpen your business acumen?
Fab 5 Freddy: I read about a lot about contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and other artist that interested me. Jean-Michel and I knew about the abstract expressionists that preceded them [as well]. And we were kind of into the myth, folklore and the work that they made. We knew that these were some cool cats that were doing some crazy shit.
When you read certain books and [research] certain art history, you would see who hung out with this person, that person who was a collector, and they (the artists’) had shows at this gallery, and you got this snap shot of their time in the art world. For us it was like ‘Oh shit! that’s so cool. Let’s do that too! It’s a different time, but I’m just as fly as that motherfucker, but how are we going make this shit happen? I’m trying to get it popping. It’s really like that!’ You [learn] that it’s a maze out there. These are some of things that you would want to do if you really had an understanding to get it poppin’ and, hopefully, you can do some of those things, meet some of the right people, and create some of that energy too. I think we did because things started to pop off. You figure out the moves that you want to make, and you get on the chest board. There’re a lot of different levels of the game.
“Then I decided that I wanted to do some other things with it. I was always very keen to point out that it’s technically not graffiti.”
Format: When some authors talk about Jean-Michel in their essays, they seem to depict him as a person who started to feel somewhat victimized by what happening in the art world during the `80s art boom, you know, being the first black man who really blew up in the contemporary art world. Especially when he was starting to succumb to his drug addiction.
Fab 5 Freddy: Understanding the rules is the greatest defense and offense in a world built on racism. I think it definitely has changed since then however. There’s always going to be people that take advantage, but in terms of the work, and business, and the relationships that have to be established with art dealers, when you understand how the art world works, you’re not, like, some artist that has this great talent, [with] no understanding of the business. [It's not like] managers and handlers have to facilitate the things that need to happen. It doesn’t work like that in the art world in the beginning.
You got to be able to sit down with your dealer and understand what’s going on in terms of the pricing of the work. You have to be like, ‘Do I show now? What am I showing? Is this show important?’ These are very strategic decisions that an artist has to make in terms of the business and the way the art world works. There are certain [major] shows in the art world that happen. Like, if you start to get a lot of excitement and buzz, a lot people want to come at you to be a part of different exhibits and group shows. Then you have to make decisions, like, ‘Do I want to do this one, or do I want to do that one? These are the several that I really would like to do because these are the important shows.’ Like, the Whitney Biennale, at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Documenta show in Germany, or the Venice Biennale [in Italy].
We were very young but we were very smart, and we knew that these were some of the things that you would want to be doing [if you want to make it in the art world]. Jean had a firm and intuitive understanding of much of this at a very young age which was key to his rapid rise. He was far from being victimized. Those who think otherwise have been victimized by bad info and their misconceptions.
Format: But there are artists that want to be represented by art dealers so that they can focus on just making art while the dealers handle the business aspect for them.
Fab 5 Freddy: Once again, that’s one of things that was so cool about Warhol for me and Jean-Michel, and a lot of the artists in our circle. What Andy did had precedence in terms of his popularity as an individual. [When you reflect back to] Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali who also were famous for their work, Andy [also] studied those two individuals very meticulously, they were all on top of their business as well as their gigantic public personas. The business of the work is important, as is how you project the sum total to the public is at the discretion of the artist. Sometimes the artist just wants to keep a certain image about how he does what he does, but you have to be completely aware of these things if you really want to excel and grow.
I think a reflection of the work that Andy made in The Factory – the machine-like process – all of these metaphorical associations, are a reflection of the world we live in terms of the function of the artist [and making their art]. From the beginnings of art in western culture, the function of the artist was entirely different. And then when photography and film developed and then other means that were able to reproduce the image, the function of the artist and the art became significantly different. In the development of that, along with the history of pop culture and the history of the art game, these things take on different definitions and meanings to artists and the audience for the art. Then, as we’ve gone onto a more industrialized, mechanized society that we’re in, Andy’s business acumen and the things that he did is a perfect reflection of that. Many other artists will and have learned from this.
Format: Are you coming back to the art world?
Fab 5 Freddy: Well that’s what I’m saying. The Wild Style Exhibit for the recently discovered graffiti wall in Soho had such a massive turn out and response. The event was humongous. People were online to get into the gallery to see this show. It has served as my re-introduction to the NY art world. I am now in the early stages of creating a major body of work. Not paint on canvass, but something definitely unique, exciting and interesting. Hopefully, some time in `08, I’ll be able to have a show.
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