A few weeks back, an intergenerational group of five iconic NYC graffiti and street artists descended on Welling Court Mural Project (WCMP) in Astoria, Queens. The latest batch of mid-sized murals to grace this otherwise unassuming treasure trove of paint at the intersection of Main Avenue, 30th Avenue, and Welling Court includes Chris “Daze” Ellis, John “CRASH” Matos, JM Rizzi, Queen Andrea, and Joe Iurato, a world-class lineup whose collective come-up eras span the 1970s into the aughts.
Today, graffiti and street art have established full-on synergy with the fine art world. However, it’s crucial to note that while graffiti as we know it in our collective consciousness found its shape around the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the fine art world allowed this outsider art form into the fold. Names like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring helped push that envelope, but so did names like Daze and CRASH, two graffiti writers who got their start in the 1970s.
After the initial graffiti frenzy of the 1980s, artists like CRASH and Daze doggedly continued their craft. Their efforts perhaps inadvertently advocated for graffiti and street art’s continued validity through gallery shows curated in counterculture spaces like Fashion Moda in South Bronx and Mary Anthony Galleries in SoHo, well into the 1990s. NYC remained the graffiti movement’s epicenter, even as the city began to clean up and crack down on ‘quality of life’ violations like vandalism.
The 2000s brought their own aesthetic shift, with a taste for the authenticity public art connotes. Following in the hallowed footsteps of the art form’s first generations, street artists like Sheperd Fairey, Swoon, and Banksy rose to dominate the art world, igniting a greater movement to come. Today, mural festivals thrive around the globe, giving street art the immense power to alter entire neighborhoods like Wynwood, Miami and Bushwick, Brooklyn. From Coney Island to the Bowery Wall, public painting anchors the current iteration of NYC where so many artists dwell today.
Welling Court is one of the longest running mural projects of this current iteration. WCMP was founded over ten years ago by AdHoc Art NYC, one of a few Bushwick-based galleries that spearheaded the street art movement’s 2000s advancement, and cemented Bushwick as that movement’s de facto headquarters. Present WCMP head Alison Wallace told me the program began when local Welling Court residents Jonathan and Georgina Ellis reached out to AdHoc in hopes the institution could help beautify their rough neighborhood. Borne of a renegade spirit, WCMP stood apart from other mural programs with this proprietary focus on community—allowing upstart muralists to paint alongside the biggest names in the game and throwing a banger block party every year to celebrate.
Daze first started painting at WCMP a while back, through his connection with longstanding contributor Lady Pink, another seminal figure from graffiti’s earlier days. For his latest work at WCMP, Daze brought his craziest wildstyle—the iconic manner of writing graffiti with 3D interlocking letters that are hard to read but mesmerizing to look at. Daze told me it was the reigning monarch of punchy type, Queen Andrea, who suggested their squad all paint their names. This choice makes a shoutout to original graffiti culture, where the goal wasn’t to sell artwork but claim fame by writing one’s name with the most bombastic style in the most daring place. Daze brings the theme into sheer modernity, adding an intergalactic twist inspired by the billionaires who launched their private joyrides into space over the past month.
Like Daze, CRASH has also returned to WCMP time and again to contribute to the project’s walls, stepping away from his robust mural practice and WallWorks, the gallery space he operates in the Bronx. CRASH teamed up with Joe Iurato for their second collaboration at WCMP, fresh off the heels of Iurato’s successful solo exhibition at Tagliatella Galleries in Chelsea. CRASH likened his own practice to jazz—he paints intuitively and off the cuff. His visually syncopated background marked by bursts of color and dynamic line work lends necessary spontaneity, while Iurato’s meticulous stencils offer a new dimension—a child imaginatively inflating the tag CRASH has crafted.
Wallace told me over the phone that this year’s edition of WCMP gears itself towards healing—not only from the pandemic and the civil unrest of the past year, but also from the gentrification shaping this community, a complicated force cruelly baked into street art’s arrival in any area. “This is a love project, not an ego project,” Wallace remarked. In lieu of all this, WCMP is allowing new walls to unfold all summer long in a decidedly low-key fashion. Still, genuine connections abound, true to the project’s original form. An Instagram post by Iurato depicts a neighborhood girl coloring in front of this artwork moments after its creation—a testament to the power of public art, party or not. He says, “I was late to the party at Welling Court, after driving to NJ from vacation in Long Island and then back out to Queens to paint. I missed everyone, including CRASH, who I was collaborating with. I was a bit flustered, end of day, there with the fam, and I just went in and got my piece up before sundown. We got back in the car to leave, and over my shoulder I saw this little person, maybe 5 years old, just plop herself in front of the freshly painted mural with a black book and a box of Crayola markers. And she started drawing. Her mom was there. I got out of the car and watched as she sat there for a good 15 minutes, just staring and scribbling and drawing her heart away. Her mom, a local elementary school teacher said she always looks forward to the art and this is what she does. After a long day, flustered and tired, at that moment I felt like I timed it just right. After all, if someone asks me why I do what I do, I could show them this picture and it explains itself.”
The relationships that exist amongst these five artists who just painted at WCMP speaks to the ongoing progression of public art’s legacy, legal or not. So many people in this field yearn for “the good old days”—a time where subway cars streamed through stations doused in paint, when graffiti and street art had more of an edge than the recent trend of corporate mural festivals allows. The problem though, is that time moves forward. Queen Andrea and Joe Iurato and JM Rizzi are living testaments to this—each one a street artist who came up in the markedly different NYC of the new millennium and carried the art form’s updated torch.
Dallas-based JM Rizzi was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Staten Island. He spent his teenage years exploring the last years of Manhattan’s 20th century cultural heyday—all night raves and underaged drinking at the Limelight and shredding through the Lower East Side on skateboard. Rizzi wrote graffiti with his friends and went on to study fine art at SVA, developing his practice to explore the dynamism of gestural mark making. For WCMP, Rizzi has signed his mural the best way he knows how—not with his name, but with abstract artwork evocative of graffiti tags in memorial to his self at any given moment. Stepping out of his studio and back into the old stomping grounds, Rizzi rendered his Supastar motif with inventive techniques like marbling spray paint to recreate the sensation of collaged tissue paper present in his experimental fine art works.
Welling Court might have been a rough spot when WCMP first started up, but the city has changed significantly since. While most people know Queens as a quiet, residential, working class borough, it’s actually home to an immense chunk of NYC’s art history. Who could forget 5Pointz, for what it was, and for all the hotly contested debates that followed its destruction? Nowadays, the area surrounding WCMP also features decidedly refined art amenities like Socrates Sculpture Park and MoMA Ps1. Anyone looking to converse directly with the city’s golden days should make their way off the beaten path to enjoy these blocks where art history is still created, sometimes quietly, in real time all summer long. Graffiti writers who pioneered the form work alongside the countless artists that have arisen since—ours is a moment to sink into. The golden days are taking place wherever we seek their shimmer.
Vittoria Benzine is an art writer, personal essayist, and self-employed PR professional based in Brooklyn, NY. While her writing focuses predominantly on the recent phenomena of graffiti, street art, and contemporary art, she is entirely enamored of the creative process across its countless manifestations.