Art from the streets

Graffiti moves indoors at Colleen Greco Gallery in Suffern

By Nancy Cacioppo,

Rockland Journal-News, Rockland County, NY, August 18,1991

Subway graffiti, the painting style that epitomizes the street smart art of urban ghetto life, has come a long way.

Time was when graffiti artists were considered outlaws, creating in minutes colorful spray paint markings that took hundreds of hours and thousands of Transit Authority dollars to remove every year.

But in the 1980s, with the success of artists such as Keith Haring, graffiti came of age as a respected folk art, working its way into urban art galleries and commanding prices ranging in the thousands.The Museum of Modern Art just held its “High-Low Show”, introducing graffiti art. Another exhibit is currently on display at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C.

In Rockland, the Colleen Greco Gallery at Montebello Park, Suffern, followed suitby exhibiting the work of New York graffiti artists Erni Vales and Gil Aviles and furniture designer Robert Ferraroni.

“Graffiti Movement”, the current show at Montebello Park, running from 9 am to 5 pm weekdays through September 13, represents the work of 19 top graffiti artists, including Vales, Aviles and Haring.

Graffiti art started in New York in 1960s, said Greco, when teen-agers would stake out their territory by painting their nicknames, or “tags”, in public places around the city, including subways.

The practice gained popularity, as youngsters tried to outdo one another with complex and intricate variations. The advent of permanent markers and aerosol spray paint offered these budding artists an opportunity for even greater individual expression.

They experimented with distinctive styles. And the whole city became their canvas, as the subway cars carried their messages from borough to borough. They painted dedications honoring loved ones. Sometimes, they made philosophical or political statements.

But like elaborate sand castles facing the next tide, the best graffiti art was usually short-lived.

Painting graffiti is illegal, and there was always the danger of arrest. The subway system began using stainless steel cars that were easier to clean with chemical paint solvent washes. Aerosol paint sprays, which were once the only recognized tool of the authentic graffiti artist, were starting to be phased out. And some people in the art world began to recognize graffiti as a legitimate art form.

The result was that some talented graffiti artists were forced into the mainstream. Now in their 20s and 30s, they have turned to airbrush instead of aerosol spray paint. They get commissions for their work. And many have gained more recognition that they ever dreamed.

Erni Vales, Gil Aviles, and Sandra Fabara, three of the graffiti artists currently exhibiting at Montebello Park, also painted the interiors for World Stage in Spring Valley.

Greco said Fabara, who goes by the tag name of Lady Pink, has the distinction of being the only known female New York graffiti artist.

Vales, 25 and Aviles, 24, met in 1980 at the High School of Art and Design, and started painting subways. After studying illustration and industrial design at Pratt Institute, they went on to form Erni Gil Inc.

They now do commissions for nightclubs, restaurants, videos, television, motion pictures, furniture makers and textile designers. Last year, those commissions earned them $150.000.

Greco, 29, a 1980 graduate of Pearl River High School who holds a master’s degree in art administration from New York University, explained what led her to exhibit graffiti.

“Graffiti is part of my generation,” said Greco. “I grew up with cartoons and advertising. And the same kind of brightness and energy is in graffiti art.”

“I want community to understand that graffiti is an art form. But I believe graffiti artists should use it in a positive way. They should get ‘permission’ to paint. And they should get ‘commissions’ to paint – on canvas – so they can save their art. That’s what these artists have learned.”

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