When Graffiti Paintings Sell for Thousands, the Art World Sees the Writing on the Wall

updated 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a steamy afternoon, clusters of teenagers enter a rubble-strewn courtyard in New York City and begin to spray-paint their names on everything in sight. One covers a whitewashed wall with bright red letters, while another emblazons his signature in white on a broken flagstone patio. Zephyr has a better idea. Holding a smoldering cigarette in one hand and a can of flammable paint in the other, he spritzes a three-foot by eight-foot piece of tin he has hung on a graffiti-covered wall. Across the courtyard his friend ERO kneels, eyeing a large canvas splattered a la Jackson Pollock. Grabbing a silver magic marker, he writes his name on the painting in foot-high squiggly letters.

To the untrained eye, a tide of vandalism has been loosed. But the connoisseur sees art, believe it or not. And quite valuable art at that. In an adjoining storefront called the Fun Gallery—"one of the hottest galleries in the city," says Jeffrey Deitch, who co-runs Citibank's art advisory service—squiggles, spattered tin and spray-painted signatures are going from $1,000 to $4,000 a pop. And to think, when they aren't at the gallery, some of these same young graffiti artists get their kicks by similarly defacing New York's subways, gratis.

Is this surreal? "Graffiti art is energetic, crude, authentic and deeply felt," says Patterson Sims, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Trendy painters like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf from SoHo, Manhattan's art district, pay tribute by borrowing graffiti styles for their own work. Galleries in major European cities sponsor shows by Fun Gallery artists. Italian art critic Claudio Bruni sponsored the first European graffiti show in 1979 after seeing New York's subways. Says he, "To me, it was not just vandalism. It was the new expression of art, unsophisticated but very real. An art so strong it hurt people."

Without the excitement of sneaking paint cans into train yards (a criminal offense in New York), some say the art loses its urgent appeal. And Manhattan art critic Peter Schjeldahl thinks the form is limited. "In the short run, it's cheerful and energetic, but there isn't enough information in it to fuel growth in the galleries for long," he says. Metropolitan Transit Authority exec Arthur Perfall sees other problems unrelated to artistic merit. "We certainly prefer it on canvas than on subway cars," he says. "But will kids see the subways as a route to getting graffiti on canvas as opposed to a route to arrest and punishment?"

If it's any comfort to the MTA, their multimillion dollar anti-graffiti campaign (including $1.5 million a year just for cleaning subways) drove at least some artists away from trains and even helped create the Fun Gallery. Asked to star in an upcoming independent film about their lives called Wild Style, several graffiti artists met co-star Patti Astor, 33, a onetime feature player in a dozen underground films. They told her their troubles—unsympathetic transit cops, ever-stiffer penalties for getting caught in the act—and she was inspired. Some of the more prescient graffiti masters already had begun to shift their medium from rolling steel to canvas, and Astor figured she could preserve their art and make a few bucks as well by marketing it to moneyed hipsters. In July 1981 she and a friend, former fabric designer Bill Stelling, 31, opened the Fun Gallery.

Their success far exceeded her expectations. Located on the eastern edge of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, a motley area once jammed with Ukranian immigrants, then flower children, drug dealers and high-fashion rockers, the Fun Gallery brought further changes to the neighborhood. Through the door walked tough street kids, tourists, arty types and even a few millionaires. About a year later the gallery moved one block to its current location, where the major graffiti artists had their first one-man shows.

A Cincinnati native and former '60s revolutionary, Astor(real last name: Titchener) could not possibly have for-seen her current profession. "I used to go to all the SoHo gallery openings for the free drinks," she remembers, laughing. "So I got to know how truly booooring that can be." However, her lack of enthusiasm for the art establishment didn't keep her from becoming a major force in their world. In the past year her top artists have racked up impressive figures: Futura 2000 has sold some 30 paintings, Dondi 23, Zephyr 15. ERO, who didn't paint his first canvas until January, has moved seven. The profits from paintings sold at the Fun Gallery are split 50-50 with Astor, who uses the money to pay the gallery's $1,400-per-month rent. While many of their peers now face unemployment and prison, these artists travel the world in style. Not that their primary motivation—the existential thrill of spraying one's name where it doesn't belong—has changed all that much. "People might say graffiti looks really out of place in a gallery," says Zephyr "But I think it's good if graffiti is out of place. Sneaking into these places is just what graffiti is supposed to do."

With as many as 1,000 "graffiti writers" (as they are known in the trade) who hang out but can't get hung at Patti's, those who do have a lot of pressure to produce. During a peak week Zephyr, ERO, Dondi and Futura 2000 are all capable of knocking off three or more works.

All have literally made names for themselves. Zephyr (born Andrew Witten), 22, adopted the brand name of a surfboard. ERO (born Dominique Philbert), 16, is an acronym for Ever Rocking On. Dondi White's parents unsuccessfully tried to stick him with Donald. The former Leonard Hilton combined an old Ford car model and a typeface he used in his high school print shop, and thus was born Futura 2000.

A happy, stable home life is not a prerequisite for the graffiti Hall of Fame. Zephyr, the son of a Manhattan cosmetics sales rep, ran away at 16 to paint trains. But Dondi's father, a retired computer operator, and his mother, a retired nurse, with whom he lives in Brooklyn, approve of his new profession. "He's getting around, meeting respectable people," says Mom. "It'll keep him off the streets."

In terms of style, Zephyr's the traditionalist, still clinging to the one he developed on "his" subway line which runs under Broadway. Like Zephyr, ERO centers his paintings around his name, but he uses brighter colors and filigreed details that overlap, as if he were trying to vandalize his own work.

Dondi, 22, has expanded his subject matter to include the totem objects of primal graffiti—subway cars and spray cans—as well as a running stick figure culled from TV's The Saint. But it is in the work of Futura, 27, that Fun Gallery graffiti art has found its most elegant and sophisticated expression—abstract space images and pastel arcs that have earned him the title "the Kandinsky of graffiti."

Outside the gallery, the Fun artists' influence spreads. Futura painted album graphics and backdrops for the rock group the Clash. Zephyr drew an animated promo film for MTV. ERO designs fabric with graffiti patterns. And the whole gang leaves for a 50-painting Tokyo show in October. Seems as if sweet success mixes well with the acrid odor of spray paint. Though some say graffiti art is just a fad, Futura—as befits his name—has seen the future, and it is his: "To me a lot of art-buying is bull. I hate people who come down here and say, 'Oh, wow! The graffiti artists! Oh, they're black!' But I play the game because I want their money. Meanwhile, I'm still painting and getting better. The end of the fashion may be coming. But the end of my ability to survive is not."

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