When Long Island City's incredible graffiti mecca 5 Pointz was whitewashed last year, many said that it was the end of an era. As a kid, I felt the same way when all the graffiti disappeared from the subways. Whether you consider graffiti vandalism or high art, there's no denying that it's long been a colorful part of the NYC landscape. It has also evolved with the city: In the '70s, graffiti grew out of poverty, politics and inner-city strife; by the '80s, the scene's biggest stars were exhibiting in downtown galleries; now it's an internationally respected art form (so long as no one's tagging up your property).
The Museum of the City of New York's brand-new exhibit, City as Canvas, features more than 150 vintage graffiti works, including pieces by legendary artists like Lee Quiñones, LADY PINK and the late Keith Haring, as well as photographs of subway art long since painted over. The display celebrates NYC's graffiti history but also puts the controversial art form in context, quoting its critics as well as its champions. Not that kids will really care much about that. The moment we walked in, my eight-year-old ran to a massive photo of a subway train covered in eye-popping images and asked, "Mommy, were subways really like that when you were growing up?" City as Canvas gave her a peek into what New York City used to look and feel like, and sent me on a serious nostalgia trip.
All of the pieces on display in City as Canvas come courtesy of the late Martin Wong, an East Village artist and collector who amassed an incredible array of graffiti art, including works on canvas and clothing, photos of street and subway art, and an amazing series of sketchbooks. He donated everything he owned to the Museum of the City of New York before he died of AIDS in 1999 and this is the first time his collection has been exhibited en masse.
Although the display is strictly don't-touch, the graffiti is so vibrant and accessible that kids should get a kick out of it. My daughter;s favorites included Lee Quiñones' "Howard the Duck" mural (even though she thought it was Donald), the kinetic drawings by Keith Haring, a fantastical painting by RAMMELLZEE (the subject of a recent Children's Museum of the Arts retrospective) and a piece sprayed on the door of a refrigerator. Some of the subject matter is a little racy: There's nudity (albeit cartoonish) and some curse words. But frankly, nothing worse than she sees doodled on subway ads (I guess that's what has replaced graffiti underground).
There are also a few short films, including a 13-minute doc about curating the exhibit by filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, who directed 1983's Wild Style set on NYC's hip-hop and graffiti scene. A lot of surviving graffiti greats like Quiñones and LADY PINK helped put the show together, and their work is well represented. But for me, the highlights were looking through Wong's digitized sketchbooks, which are filled with original pieces by a slew of artists both famous and forgotten, and seeing photographs of subways and street murals long gone. I actually recognized a few of the names from my childhood, like ZEPHYR, which seemed to be written everywhere back in the day.
For a more hands-on City as Canvas experience, visit when the museum is hosting one of its many interactive family programs like Flipping Out (Saturdays, March 1 and 8), when kids can create graffiti flip books, or Mural Mural on the Wall (Saturdays, May 10, 17, 24 and 31), when families can paint large-scale NYC-themed murals. The activities are drop in and free with suggested museum admission. It's also worth stopping by the gift shop, which has some cute and inexpensive keepsakes for kids like Keith Haring patches and graffiti coloring books.
Want to get your graffiti fix on the street? The museum is just a few blocks away from the famous Graffiti Hall of Fame, located in the schoolyard of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex on 106th Street and Park Avenue. Founded in 1980 by Sting Ray Rodriguez, it is an ever-changing canvas painted by invite-only artists. While the yard is often closed to the public, you can see the graffiti through the fence.
City as Canvas is on view through Sunday, September 21 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street. The exhibit is free with suggestion admission: $10 for adults, free for children under age 13.
Find out about other cool exhibits for kids in our Museum Guide.