Writing the Future Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation
AT MFA BOSTON
*Text in red is from MFA's website
*Curated by Liz Munsell and Greg Tate.
A-One (Anthony Clark)
Born 1964 in Manhattan, died 2001 in Paris
A-One grew up in the Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, surrounded by a thriving community of graffiti writers. He joined Rammellzee’s Tag Master Killers (TMK) crew around the age of fifteen, along with his neighbors Kool Koor and Toxic. A-One developed a style he called “aerosol expressionism,” which he used to execute elaborate, florid armored letters in blazing color combinations. Figurative elements in his work—typically enigmatic depictions of Black male figures and symbols of ancient African civilizations—reflect an interest in identity and lineage that he shared with Basquiat, his friend and mentor.
Born 1960 in Brooklyn, died 1988 in Manhattan
From his artistic beginning spraying words on buildings in downtown Manhattan to his signature cacophonous mixed-media paintings, Basquiat harnessed the rawness, vibrancy, energy, and insurgency of urban tagging into a style that captured the zeitgeist of 1980s New York City. One of the world’s most exhibited and influential artists, Basquiat reached a rare level of international renown at a young age. His career was cut short by his death at the age of twenty-seven.
ERO (Dominique Philbert)
Born 1967 in New York, died 2011 in Manhattan
ERO, whose moniker is an acronym of the phrase “Ever Rocking On,” developed a style oriented to the picture frame, with maze-like wildstyle letters stretching across his canvases. He started spray-painting in the East Village at the age of eleven and was still a young teenager when he followed the lead of his esteemed older artists and friends, including Basquiat and Futura, and began working primarily on large-format canvases as well as fabric designs. After a brief but prolific career, ERO retreated from the commercial art world around 1986, preferring to live a less public life and work in his family’s bike repair shop.
Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite)
Born 1959 in Brooklyn
The creative provocateur of what is now called the street art movement and a genius advocate for his peers, Fab 5 Freddy is regarded as an impactful artist in his own right. He was a key figure in elevating graffiti and hip-hop culture onto an international stage in the 1980s and is also a pioneer in the realms of music, television, and film. He lives in Manhattan, where he continues to make visual art.
Futura (Lenny McGurr), aka Futura 2000
Born 1955 in Manhattan
Futura has earned a reputation as a master of spray paint manipulation. His artistic practice, which has included an onstage collaboration with British punk band the Clash, embodies the seamless merging of visual art, music, and performance characteristic of the post-graffiti moment. Futura’s signature style overlays expansive fields of color with spare, abstracted elements that conjure a fantastical interstellar world. He is based primarily in Brooklyn and works on projects around the world, including recent collaborations with high fashion, street wear, and luxury brands.
Kool Koor (Charles William Hargrove Jr.)
Born 1963 in the Bronx
Kool Koor fashioned his graffiti moniker by reversing the letters in “rook.” The chess game piece aptly personifies an artist for whom the play of line, the possibilities of architecture, and the allure of imagined worlds have been hallmarks since his earliest years. Koor grew up in the South Bronx Mitchel Houses along with A-One and Toxic, and he attended Manhattan’s selective High School of Art and Design, where his classmates included fellow graffiti writer Lady Pink. In addition to honing his personal style through formal study and visits to local museums, he joined a number of graffiti crews, including the Tag Master Killers alongside his mentor Rammellzee.
LA2 (Angel Ortiz), aka LAII, Little Angel, and L.A. Rock
Born 1966 in Manhattan
By the late 1970s, LA2 covered seemingly every available surface on the Lower East Side with his distinctive looping tag. Mentored by older graffiti writers who met daily at the Boys Club of New York, he experimented until he found his own visual style, which incorporates the tags “L.A. Rock,” “LAII,” and “LA2” amid arrows, squiggles, curves, circles, stars, and radiating dashes. His assured, synthesizing style attracted the attention of Keith Haring, and the two enjoyed a prolific, mutually influential artistic collaboration for six years. LA2 continues to work and live on the Lower East Side.
Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara)
Born 1964 in Ambato, Ecuador
Lady Pink has gained recognition as one of the most original graffiti writers of her generation, despite the discrimination faced by women in the field. She developed a style that drew heavily from comic book aesthetics, with voluptuous, powerful women dominating scenes of urban decay overrun with fantastical creatures and plant life. Collaboration and social impact are core aspects of Pink’s practice. Now based in upstate New York, she returns regularly to Queens, where she grew up, to teach high school art students and guide their production of public murals.
Lee Quiñones, aka Lee
Born 1960 in Ponce, Puerto Rico
Lee came to be called the “King of New York” by fellow graffiti artists for his evocative, moralizing murals and whole-car protest pieces. His early spray-paint works portray the struggles of marginalized communities and lambast the systemic forces perpetuating their plight. In the late 1970s, Lee shifted his practice from “bombing” trains to painting on canvas and metal, though he maintained his political and religious themes and his excoriating narrative style. Influenced by comics and classic sci-fi and horror film posters, he became known for his figures’ dramatic foreshortening and exaggerated forms. Based in Brooklyn, Lee continues to paint and exhibit in Europe, Asia, and North America.
Born 1960 in Queens, died 2010 in Queens
Rammellzee developed an elaborate tagging style he called “Ikonoklast Panzerism,” which elongated the seraphs of letters into arrows (“figurative missiles”), making his writing illegible to all but his crew, the Tag Master Killers. Separating fact from fiction in his biography is nearly impossible: his personal mythology was foundational to his artistic practice, forming a seamless blend of performance and life. In 1979, he published his Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism, a theory and history of graffiti writing that declared his letters were weaponized for a battle to reclaim language from a “diseased culture” of social control. Rammellzee embraced a great number of artistic disciplines, but he was best known as a rapper. He shared a close and sometimes contentious friendship with Basquiat, with whom he collaborated on a number of artworks and musical projects.
Toxic (Torrick Ablack)
Born 1965 in the Bronx
Toxic joined the Tag Master Killers crew in 1980, training under the older Rammellzee, whose Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism became foundational for the young artist. Each member of the crew devised his own style for arming letters; Toxic disguised his letters through elaborate and inventive geometrization. He was an especially valued friend and mentee to Basquiat, who hired him as an occasional studio assistant, invited him on his travels, and collaborated with him on musical projects. Toxic now lives in Paris and Tuscany, where he works on projects ranging from furniture design to public art installations. His paintings and large-scale murals continue to carry on the aesthetic tradition of the post-graffiti moment.