New York City’s Graffiti Headquarters

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Take the 7 to 5 Pointz

Note: 5 Pointz is no more. It will soon be gone. This post is left here for posterity. Read more about the end of 5 Pointz here.

Repeat: 5 Pointz NO LONGER EXISTS.

The 7 train stops at the Hunter’s Point Station in Queens about 4 minutes after leaving Grand Central Terminal. It then emerges from its tunnel and climbs uphill. Sun rays flicker off its metal hide as it contorts around a sharp, left turn.

The exotic 5 Pointz building appears after negotiating this curve. The train, resembling a hungry, mechanical caterpillar winding its way to a summer garden, heaves and wobbles toward its colorful facade.

Those unfamiliar with 5 Pointz may think they’ve stumbled upon the Twilight Zone’s crayon factory. Graffiti artists near and far know better: it’s their world headquarters.

And the locals on the train? The love drunk couple gazing at one another, the cartoonist sketching her characters into existence, the laborer, too tired to look at anything but his muddy boots, the loud teenagers getting louder, the ancient, stoic woman whose face says she has see all she is going to see? Well, it’ just wallpaper on the passing New York scene to them.

Image shows a wide-angle view of the 5 Pointz graffiti complex in Queens, New York

This 5 Pointz complex’s nickname is the “Institute of Higher Burnin’. It is one part art exhibit, on part practice space and 100% world headquarters for graffiti artists. Don’t expect it to look like this when you visit. The walls at 5 Pointz change constantly.

 

Image shows a tourist visiting and photographing the 5 Pointz graffiti complex in Queens, New York. He is wearing a small Metropolitan Museum of Art bag.

5 Pointz does not only appeal to graffiti artists. On most weekends, you’ll find all types of people: from the very young to the very mature, graffiti artists and non-artists, the hip and unhip. This gentleman absorbed a wide spectrum of art during his holiday in New York. Do you recognize the logo on his bag?

Image shows a close-up of a bag worn by a man visiting the 5 Pointz graffiti complex in Queens, New York. The bag has the Metropolitan Museum of Art's logo printed on its side.

Look closer. The first word is cut off, but it reads: “Metropolitan Museum of Art.” According to the Los Angeles Times’s digital edition (09/04/11), a graffiti art exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, during the summer of 2011, was that museum’s all-time most visited display .

Rappin’, writin’ and breakin’

Writer: Practitioner of the art of writing Source: @149st’s graffiti dictionary

Graffiti is not new. People have always written, etched, scratched and painted on public spaces to protect turf, declare war, declare love and everything in between.

Visit the Temple of Dendur, in the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian wing, and you’ll see European graffiti from the 1800s and early 1900s carved in its walls. It’s mostly of the “Hey, look, I was in Egypt” variety.

What is new, and separates today’s graffiti from all past graffiti, is its commercialization. Over the last few decades, graffiti has flowed into the mainstream.

Whatever sails down the Main Stream, of course, inevitably reaches the Sea of Commerce, whose deep, choppy waters carry all vessels far from their origins.

During the 1970s and 80s, rap music (rappin’), graffiti (writin’), and breakdancing (breakin’) were the acoustic, visual and physical expressions of New York street culture. Wherever you saw one, you saw the other two.

Each member of this sovereign trinity flowed into the Main Stream in varying degrees. Graffiti’s outlaw status required, literally and figuratively, that it remain underground longer than its two sisters.

The Aerosol Arts Meet The 501(c)3

Almost imperceptibly, the word graffiti morphed from verb to adjective. Back in the 1970s and 80s, guys graffitied for adventure, to rebel, to create, to have fun and to show off for girls and each other. Today, graffiti describes a drawing/painting aesthetic more than an illicit action performed during more permissive and less vigilant times.

Graffiti’s top old-school artists (known as writers) have lectured, taught and exhibited work in Manhattan, Tokyo, Europe and many other places scattered over the seven seas. Sneaking into train yards late at night and writing till dawn, however, is not only very difficult, but very 1970s.  Even if the knees are still strong enough to run from authorities, the will is not.

Illegal writing and tagging still exist, and probably always will, but it is greasy kids’ stuff compared to the licensing fees and corporate, government and local commissions that established writers now command.

Some writers exhibit and sell their work in art galleries. The movies, television shows, commercials and professional photo shoots that use 5 Pointz as a backdrop also pay their pound of flesh for the privilege.

Image shows a father watching his son practice graffiti at the 5 Pointz graffiti complex in Queens, New York.

No, this father is not helping his son break the law. Aspiring “writers” are often granted practice space after seeking permission from the 5 Pointz staff. Dad secures the ladder and watches his son “write.”

The founder of 5 Pointz, Jonathan Cohen (a.k.a. meresone), has big plans for his idea. You can tell by its legal name: “5 Pointz Aerosol Arts Center, Incorporated.” It is a 501(c)3. Although 501(c)3 would make a good graffiti alias, in legal lingo it means that it is a non-profit corporation.

The future of 5 Pointz, however, is tenuous. The old, massive building’s owner, Jerry Wolkoff, wants to tear it down and replace it with two very much for-profit apartment towers. The indoor gallery/museum and school for aerosol arts (graffiti’s grown-up name) that its founder imagined may not happen– at least at its current location.

Whether 5 Pointz changes locations or disappears altogether, one thing is certain: we won’t see a graffiti exhibition on this scale again. It is a colorful piece of, if not Americana, New Yorkana. Take the 7 and have a look.

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Check out the graffiti dictionary.

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