Today we talk about big names in graffiti and street art history, more specifically about those big names coming from the never sleeping graffiti Mecca of New York City, the place where it all started.
This list does not intend to be exclusive, nor definitive, as there are plenty of other extraordinary and legendary New York graffiti artists, but stands as a reminder as there is no doubt that all ten of graffiti legends featured on the following list shaped the rise of graffiti art movement as we know it today, and inspired generations of young street artists worldwide. Some of the graffiti artists we mention are more prolific than others, but whenever and wherever they or their art show up, they quickly generate huge buzz.
Editors’ Tip: Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970's
It is often said that New York is the cradle of the graffiti culture. Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s by Jack Stewart celebrates the creative explosion that occurred in the 1970s New York. Jack Stewart did an excellent job in documenting the early developments in the NYC graffiti movement and the book is filled with authentic materials. From nearly 300 unpublished photographs and newspaper excerpts to compelling personal interviews with the pioneers in the field, this book revives the best and most exciting years of the scene. Throughout the book, you will find Taki 183, Blade 1, Phase 2, Co-Co 144, and many others, talking about their struggles with the city officials and the stories of thrilling adventures on NY streets and subways. For any graffiti enthusiast, this book should be among the most precious treasures of their book collection.
Zephyr (Andrew Witten) is a legendary New York City graffiti artist who emerged from the Bandshell scene of the 1970s. He is one of the graffiti artists who helped jumpstart the freight train graffiti movement and is often credited as the inventor of numerous graffiti styles still widely used today. Zephyr began his street art career in 1977 by writing his tag on freight trains and subway cars, which is the main reason why much of his earliest work is now forever lost. He quickly rose to prominence and was part of the first wave of graffiti artists to make commercial success and transition to galleries. Today, 54-year-old Zephyr is considered a graffiti elder, but cannot resist the urge and often tags his name on walls around the city.
Lonny Wood, better known as Phase 2, is one of the most influential New York graffiti artists, often credited as the inventor of the bubble letter graffiti, so commonly used today. Phase 2 began writing graffiti in 1971 by tagging his name across the city. It took him only a year to create an early version of his signature bubble letters, which were quickly picked-up and copied by other street artists. Over the years, this graffiti artist moved away from 'simple' tags and toward a more complex style of 'hieroglyphical calligraphic abstraction', and his works from those years stand as the most important in the early development of the street art movement. In the mid-1970s, Phase 2 joined the newly created United Graffiti Artists, a professional graffiti collective which quickly attracted media attention and skyrocketed his artistic career.
George Lee Quiñones is a famous American street artist from Manhattan, graffiti pioneer and originator of the New York City Subway graffiti movement, best known as Zoro, movie character from the hip-hop cult classic Wild Style. Quiñones started writing graffiti in the early 1970s and from the start he worked on groundbreaking projects. He gained reputation for the massive whole car murals he did on the surface of New York City Subway cars from 1975 to 1984, and his handball court mural in the Lower East Side, which is credited as an influence on the entire street art movement we know today. Quiñones is also credited as one of the first street artists to introduce graffiti to the rest of the world, as he was one of the few to exhibit his works worldwide in the early 1980s.
Kenny Scharf is a renowned painter, installation and graffiti artist from Brooklyn, widely recognized for his work associated with the Lowbrow movement and inspired by pop culture and comic books. Scharf was born in Los Angeles in 1958, after graduating at the School of Visual Arts in New York City he became a prominent member of the East Village art scene during the 1980s. His early works were greatly influenced by Hanna Barbera cartoon characters, but Scharf gradually moved to biomorphic imagery with astonishing results. Scharf received international acclaim in the late 1980s when he began a series of Glob paintings, which were inspired by abstract expressionism and surrealism. His most recent series of paintings from 2010, titled 'Naturafutura', depict abstract swirls of black paint, inspired by his studio in coastal Brazil and the British Petrol oil spill crisis.
One of the artists who created and popularized graffiti art in the 1970s is Blade, legendary New York graffiti artist and a proud owner of the title King of Graffiti. Active from 1972, Blade decided to paint original characters, and in 1980 chose subway trains as canvases for his conceptual works. During those years, Blade, a true graffiti pioneer, painted over five thousand pieces. Quickly he moved to paint canvases, and this decision led to his worldwide recognition. Credited as a developer of several classic graffiti styles, Blade remained very active in the contemporary art world all these years.
Daze, also known as Chris Ellis, belongs to the renowned group of New York graffiti artists, including Lee Quinones and Jean-Michel Basquiat, that broke out of the South Bronx in the 1970s. Even though Daze received his education at the respected New York High School of Art and Design, he has earned his degree in the streets and subways of New York City, and 'majored in exterior graphic design' by painting pieces and drawing tags on subway trains and walls in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Just like many other great street artists, Daze also turned to paint on canvases in the early 1980s and very quickly started exhibiting his works in galleries across the globe. Today he is a must-know artist, and if this was even a shorter list, Daze would still be on it.
Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara, born in Ecuador) is one of the greatest female street artists from Queens, New York. Looking for a way to cope with the loss of her love, Lady Pink took her grief to the streets when she picked up her first can of spraypaint in the late 1970s. What at first was simple tagging of her lost love's name across New York, quickly evolved into one of the most respected street art careers. It goes without saying that Lady Pink used to be the only prominent female artist in New York's graffiti scene for a long period of time. Her instantly recognizable 1990s murals and subway cars, which featured rather playful images with camouflaged graffiti, cemented Lady Pink's status of a living New York graffiti legend and one of the most famous graffiti artists.
Fernando Carlo, also known by his moniker Cope2, is a legendary graffiti artist from the Bronx who has been active on the street art scene for almost four decades. Even though Cope2 was one of the founders of the New York City graffiti art scene, he received international acclamation for his unique wildstyle and throw-up bubble letter graffiti in the mid 1990s. Since than, Cope2 has achieved respectable mainstream success for his graffiti art, which lead to his commissioned works including clients such as Adidas, Footlocker, Converse and Time Magazine. His abstract studio paintings of overwhelming raw energy have been exhibited in numerous exhibitions in galleries and auctions throughout the world. Cope2's work has also crossed into the virtual world with his appearances in video game classics such as Mark Ecko's Getting Up and Grand Theft Auto IV.
Richard Mirando, better known as SEEN, and often referred to as the Godfather of Graffiti, is one of the New York City's best known graffiti artist. SEEN began spray-painting New York subway trains as a young teenager in the early 1970s. He quickly gained a reputation as one of the most famous graffiti artists, widely recognized for his bright color lettering and cartoon characters. He was one of the first street artists who took the street art into commercial galleries in the 1980s by exhibiting his artworks in group shows together with great contemporary art names such as Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. During those years, SEEN opened his Tattoo Seen tattooing studio which quickly became one of the most successful studios in New York. Today he is still kicking and continues to create and exhibit his top-notch mixed media artworks, paintings and sculptures worldwide.
Lenny McGurr, better known as Futura or Futura2000, is a New York City graffiti artist and a contemporary urban art icon, a man who has seen it all and one of those who changed everything as there is graffiti before and after Futura. His tremendous influence on the New York City graffiti scene was largely seen in the 1970s when more street artists followed him as he introduced abstraction into a previously letter based art form by covering whole cars of the city's subway trains with his expressive paintings. Today, Futura is still very active, highly respected by both fellow artists and art collectors. He works as a renowned painter, photographer, sculptor and graphic designer, whose cutting-edge artworks always seem fresh and influence young artists around the world.
All images used for illustrative purposes only.