In the 1970s, a rebellious band of artists in New York City snuck into subway yards under cover of darkness and spray-painted graffiti onto the idle cars. They exasperated authorities, but their bold designs inspired street artists far and wide.
Today graffiti is above ground, showcased on murals in public places, sold in galleries and reproduced in art books. Lee Quiñones, a celebrated subway artist, now paints on canvas in his Brooklyn studio, but feels his mission is the same: to create art that moves people.
He spoke about his career in a videochat with street artists and musicians gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
They peppered him with questions about his journey from the underground to cultural icon. “You started as a vandal. People saw you as a hero. Now what do they think?” one artist asked.
Quiñones, 55, who was born in Puerto Rico, says he still feels like “a creative vandal” even as his artworks have made their way into galleries and people have become “very nostalgic about this art movement.” It took a while to learn how “to navigate the waters of acceptance,” the avant garde artist said.
Underground or in museums, he believes, the power of art is that it makes everyone listen, as when a glass shatters in a restaurant. “Everyone stops talking and hones in on where that noise comes from. That’s what art does. It’s a silent and vivid reminder of our times.”
As a young man with a spray can in his hand, Quiñones never imagined that he was helping give birth to “a global art movement.”
Across years and borders, he and the artists in Burkino Faso found common concerns. Several artists spoke of their role in a country grappling with sharp inequities and political problems.
“What drives me is to change things,” said one. “We need to be part of the solution, because solutions are not going to come from someone else. It’s up to us to do it.”
A second artist echoed that sentiment. “Everybody needs to bring something to the table. … That’s the meaning of being an artist and activist. You are an advocate for something.”
But a singer said, “It’s not just about being sad or what goes wrong in society. It’s a way for us to share our emotions and feelings. In the beginning you do it for yourself, but when people start to like it and listen to you, you do it for everybody.”
The artists invited Quiñones to their annual graffiti festival. He welcomed the invite and expressed hope to one day collaborate with them on a mural.
His subway art is long gone, painted over not long after the graffiti’s creation. But his paintings are in demand, and he hopes one day they will hang in museums “where the conversation of art can be shared with everyone.”
Spraying graffiti on subway trains, bridges or other public places is still illegal, but today it’s not uncommon for cities to set aside spaces for artists to do their work. Quiñones isn’t sneaking into train yards anymore, but “until my last breath, I will continue to be the world’s oldest teenager.”