A Brief History of NYC Street Art

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A Brief History of NYC Street Art

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From Keith Haring’s “Crack is Wack” piece to Banksy’s mural on the Bowery Wall—explore New York’s most historic and famous street art hot spots.

Graffiti and street art have been synonymous with New York City since the ’70s, as the movement grew alongside the beginnings of hip-hop. Now a permanent part of pop culture, the evolution of graffiti and street art has given way to sanctioned and celebrated murals across the globe. We’ve rounded up some of New York’s most historic and famous hot spots for art lovers to explore and enjoy around Manhattan.

Bowery Wall Mural

The Bowery Wall mural remains one of the most iconic spots showcasing street art and graffiti in Manhattan. Famously painted by Keith Haring first in 1982, the wall was purchased by Goldman Properties two years later. The mural was kept intact until after Haring’s death in 1990. It was eventually tagged beyond repair and painted over.

In 2008, Goldman teamed up with gallerist Jeffrey Deitch to pay tribute to the wall’s role in graffiti and street art by creating a curated program bringing international artists to paint the wall in four-month increments. The first mural was a recreation of Haring’s 1982 piece, a tribute to his would-be 50th birthday. Immediately following were Os Gêmeos and a roster of who’s who in the street art world. Shepard Fairey, Maya Hayuk, Barry McGee, Swoon, Crash, and Logan Hicks have since painted the 70-foot wall. The piece, on the corner of Bowery and Houston, is popular day and night and receives a bevy of visitors all year long. Most recently, Banksy unveiled a mural protesting the imprisonment of Turkish artist Zehra Dogan.

76 E Houston St, New York, NY 10012

Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack Mural

Keith Haring painted this mural in 1986 on a playground handball wall to raise awareness of the growing epidemic of crack cocaine that plagued New York in the ’80s. Although it was an illegal piece, the city embraced it, and the Parks Department continues to care for this important piece today.

2nd Ave, New York, NY 10035

190 Bowery

Originally the Germania Bank Building, 190 Bowery was the massive home of commercial photographer Jay Maisel and his family from the mid-’60s to 2014. Maisel, who rented floors of the building to artists like Roy Lichtenstein, was a friend of artists and allowed graffiti writers to tag and paint the ground level of the building along Bowery and Spring Streets. The corner quickly became a favorite spot of street artists who would decorate the large blocked-out window bays on the regular. Maisel sold the building in 2014, and most of the graffiti has since been scrubbed away, yet artists still continue to leave their mark. The boutique restaurant across the street, Vandal, is said to be a tribute to the once-favorite graffiti hot spot.

190 Bowery, New York, NY 10012

100 Gates Project

Since 2014, the 100 Gates Project has transformed ordinary security roll-down gates city-wide as a way to bring more art into everyday life. Focusing on the Lower East Side, East Harlem, and Staten Island, the project has brought dozens of artists and handmade murals to the streets. Artists range from emerging to well established, such as Paul Kasmin artist Kenny Scharf whose pieces can be seen all over the city (my favorite is on Bowery and Delancey), while fan-favorite Buff Monster’s piece at 40 Canal Street shows one of his iconic pink, drippy ice cream characters.

The Lisa Project

The Little Italy Street Art Project has extended its curated roster of sanctioned murals beyond the confines of Mulberry Street, and into SoHo, NoHo, and the Lower East Side. The non-profit was formed in 2012 by Wayne Rada and has since come to include some of the biggest artists around. Ron English’s giant Temper Tot on Mulberry Street has been a central focus of the project, not just because it’s a favorite of passersby, but also because it’s the central focus of the LISA Project’s annual party that takes place in the lot in front of it. Shepard Fairey has several pieces in the LISA collection including a new mural in honor of Blondie’s Debbie Harry on Bleecker and Bowery. Tristan Eaton’s painting of Audrey Hepburn on Mulberry is one of the most photographed murals in New York City.

JR’s Unframed on Ellis Island and Elizabeth Street Garden mural

In 2014, French artist JR created a huge installation in the abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, turning vintage photographs of immigrants arriving to New York into his signature black and white wheatpastes. Earlier this year, he revealed a surprise: the faces of the figures on the outside of the building were swapped out. Although they have the bodies from 19th- and 20th-century photographs, JR superimposed the faces of modern-day Syrians he photographed while visiting a refugee camp in Jordan.

A bit closer to home is a large piece inside the sanctuary that is the Elizabeth Street Garden. Amidst the trees, plants, and scattered sculptures is a Trompe-l’œil wheatpaste of a woman and her child looking out from an apartment window. The piece is perfect to contemplate while lounging in the garden with a cup of coffee.

WORDS Lori Zimmer

Photography Allan Tannenbaum; Keith Haring paints a Mural at Houston St and the Bowery, New York, New York, October 28, 1982

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