Highlights from the City Museum’s Graffiti Collection

When painter Martin Wong moved to New York City from San Francisco in 1978, he marveled at what many others considered a blight – graffiti scrawled on the surfaces of the entire city. Wong was not a graffiti writer but nonetheless recognized graffiti’s artistic value and befriended many writers. He perceived the transience of graffiti and encouraged writers to sell him their sketchbooks and paintings. In 1994 he donated his entire collection of graffiti to the City Museum. Now for the first time visitors to the Museum can see works from the Martin Wong Collection in the City as Canvas exhibition, open through August 24.

The Martin Wong Collection comprises more than 300 paintings and mixed media works, along with over 45 sketchbooks, also called black books. Writers used black books to collect tags from other writers in addition to sketching pieces destined for trains or canvas. Because of their ephemeral nature, few black books survive today. Below are some highlights, a few of which are not part of the City as Canvas exhibition.

Cliff 159 started writing in the Bronx in 1970. He specialized in whole-car pieces and also was one of the first writers to incorporate comic characters like Beetle Bailey into his work.

Clifford (Cliff 159) Brown. Cliff... Page in Chi Chi 133's black book. ca. 1975. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.266.30

Cliff 159. Cliff… [Page in Chi Chi 133’s black book.] ca. 1975. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.266.30

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Beetle Bailey by Cliff. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 95.98.5

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Beetle Bailey by Cliff. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 95.98.5. © Estate of Jack Stewart.

Riff 170 began writing in the Bronx in the early 1970s. Other writers placed a premium on getting their names up and becoming well-known, but Riff favored artistic innovation and wrote under many names such as Worm, Cash, Dove 2, and Conan. Riff’s novel approach inspired creativity in successive generations of writers, many of whom are featured in this blog.

RIFF 170. Cash Page in Wicked Gary's piece book. 1972-1973. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.277.12

RIFF 170. Cash [Page in Wicked Gary’s piece book.] 1972-1973. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.277.12

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Cash, by RIFF I. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.1. © Estate of Jack Stewart.

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Cash, by RIFF I. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.1. © Estate of Jack Stewart.

Like Riff, Billy 167’s career began in the Bronx in the early 1970s. He focused strictly on lettering, for which he would became renowned. The image below comes from a piece book that is believed to have belonged to Peso 131 – also note Jester’s tag.

Billy 167. Billy Page in piece book. ca. 1980. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.278.3

Billy 167. Billy [Page in piece book.] ca. 1980. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.278.3

Ironically, Billy 167 would later work for the MTA as an electrician. He passed away in the 1980s but his imaginative lettering influenced countless other artists like Seen UA.

Photograph by Tracy 168. Billy 167. Used with permission by Tracy 168.

Photograph by Michael (Tracy 168) Tracy. Billy 167. 1982. Used with permission by Michael Tracy.

Daze began writing in the late 1970s. He successfully managed the transition from trains to galleries in the 1980s, and continues to have a prolific career as an artist.

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). DAZE with tags. 1982. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.90

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). [DAZE with tags.] 1982. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.90

From Daze’s black book is a list of subway lines and the writers assigned to them. In addition to Daze’s tag, you can see his aliases below – Bode, Chill, and Wind 2.

List of subway lines and the graffiti writers assigned to them in Daze's black book. 1983. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.58

[List of subway lines and the graffiti writers assigned to them in DAZE’s black book.] 1983. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.58

Years before @149st compiled a list of writing crews this would have been a good reference for any outsider:

List of the full names of graffiti crews and their corresponding acronyms in DAZE's black book. ca. 1981. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.92

[List of the full names of graffiti crews and their corresponding acronyms in DAZE’s black book.] ca. 1981. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.92

And finally, the end result of Daze’s hard work, under the Wind 2 alias:

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). Inside back cover of DAZE's black book. ca. 1981. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.220

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). [Inside back cover of DAZE’s black book.] ca. 1981. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.220

Kool 131, Chain 3, and Mr. Jinx 174 formed the writing crew TDS (The Death Squad) in the late 1970s. TDS favored style over fame, although they became famous anyway. When member Bear 167 passed away in 1984, TDS created a beautiful memorial book:

Maurice (Kool Aid 131) Antonio. Kool Aid 131 Death Squad TDS Pres. Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167. ca. 1985. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.4

Maurice (Kool 131) Antonio. Kool Aid 131 Death Squad TDS Pres. [Page of TDS’s black book in memory of Bear 167.] ca. 1985. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.4

While the book mourns Bear 167’s passing, it also celebrates his life as an artist with vibrant colors.

TDS Vice Pres. Part Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167. ca. 1985. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.6

Part One. TDS Vice Pres. Part [Page of TDS’s black book in memory of Bear 167.] ca. 1985. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.6

Melvin (NOC 167) Samuels. Bear 167 In Memory of Him Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167. ca. 1985. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.56

Melvin (NOC 167) Samuels. Bear 167 In Memory of Him [Page of TDS’s black book in memory of Bear 167.] ca. 1985. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.56

Even if you are unable to visit the Museum, you can still explore the Martin Wong Collection here.

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