Dive into “Writing the Future”

Read the full story of the explosive era of art and pop culture explored in “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” the first major exhibition to contextualize Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work in relation to his peers associated with hip-hop culture. Co-curators Liz Munsell, Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art, and writer and musician Greg Tate, share alternating insights on the elements central to these artists’ movement to infiltrate the art world and spread hip-hop culture throughout the globe. Artist biographies are by Dakota DeVos, former curatorial research fellow.

Writing the Future

Street artists began reinventing New York in the 1970s, altering a city mired in economic crisis into a dynamic visual empire. Their works, on subway trains and urban walls, were criminal in the eyes of the law—and transformative to contemporary art and pop culture.

By the early 1980s, young artists associated with graffiti entered the Eurocentric and racially exclusionary art world with gusto, giving rise to the insurgent “post-graffiti” movement in American art. Jean-Michel Basquiat became an icon of this movement, alongside his peers, friends, and sometimes collaborators A-One, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Rammellzee, and Toxic. Working across painting, sculpture, music, fashion, and film, they shared a conceptual approach rooted in early hip-hop’s sophisticated treatment of language. Their subversive abstractions generated new styles all their own, as they freely sampled and remixed multiple sources—from television, comics, movies, and modern art to facets of their Black, Latinx, Caribbean, and immigrant heritages and cosmopolitan experiences.

Known to each other as “writers” when their works adorned streetscapes and subway cars, these multidisciplinary pioneers fueled futuristic directions in fine art, design, and music, catalyzing the rise of hip-hop and street art as globally dominant phenomena. “Writing the Future” illuminates this unprecedented fusion of creative energies and its defiance of longstanding class and racial divisions—as these artists demanded, and commanded, the attention of not only the art establishment, but the world at large.

Liz Munsell and Greg Tate

Post-Graffiti

In the early 1980s, elements of hip-hop that had thrived in uptown Manhattan and the outer boroughs converged in downtown’s anything-goes club and art scene. Drawing from the multidisciplinarity of hip-hop culture—which at its core incorporated graffiti, rapping, DJing, and break dancing—young graffiti writers made forays into multimedia visual arts, experimental music, street fashion, and independent film. Basquiat soon forged a place for himself inside art galleries—outside of which he had previously, and strategically, spray-painted. Post-graffiti artists showcased their work in independent art spaces and commercial galleries, in newspapers, magazines, and television, in an academic symposium, and in museum exhibitions abroad, particularly in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.

At the helm of a new avant-garde, these artists were fueled by a desire to see their multicultural identities and multilingual creative vocabularies represented by institutions that seldom welcomed people who looked like them. Unabashedly ushering in the end of an era defined by carefully tempered conceptual and minimalist art, they infused the art world with lushly expressionist, pop, and street-inspired compositions that came to emblematize the bold and unbound aesthetics of the decade.

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The period of heavy bombing and tagging that preceded Basquiat’s arrival on the downtown gallery scene was produced by an urban guerrilla art movement at war with civic authority. Its artists were mesmerized by the prospect of spraying beauty on the alluring, blank surfaces of the city’s subway cars. In moving their creative action from underground ateliers to white-cube walls, the first generation of post-graffiti painters brought with them the self-crowned impudence and street anointed stardom they’d achieved in the big world beyond the gallery epicenter of Soho. They audaciously left behind the underground and entered the white cube with hella self-authorizing swagger. Novel as their presence was in the realm of galleries, these artists knew they represented a visual revolution.

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Community Portraiture

Heroic Black historical figures were frequent subjects for Basquiat, including master musicians Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong. Less known are his robust series of portraits of artists from his own generation, including A-One, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Rammellzee, and Toxic. Through portraiture, Basquiat inscribed his peers into the same lineage of important Black and Latinx cultural producers. This exhibition is the first to show examples of these works together.

Basquiat’s crosstown allies and fellow artists formed a close-knit, diverse community that was embedded in his life and oeuvre. They often gathered in Basquiat’s studio, moved through the downtown club scene together, and collaborated on visual art and music. Although these artists have consistently been excluded from art-historical accounts of Basquiat’s work, he ensured their presence through portraiture, centering and valorizing Black and brown creatives from his community. By depicting himself, too, he documented his present moment and projected his own image into the future alongside them.

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Basquiat was situated in a dynamic, communal, emergent hip-hop moment he shared with a crew of ingenious peers—young people, like him, in the prime of their lives, who were equally ignited by the pluripotential, world-changing possibilities of hip-hop’s futuristic and combative aesthetics. Like Jimi Hendrix, Basquiat was already famous by the time most Black folk heard of him. He was likewise thought to exist in a social environment where he was suspected of being the token Exceptional Negro.

Over the course of his career, Basquiat made a point of visually proclaiming “au contraire” to any notion of him being alienated from or lacking in his own Black community. The many works he lovingly made of other artistic men and women of color stand out for their figurative splendor. Because of his many cryptically messaged and neo-expressionist works, Basquiat isn’t always thought of as an electric and mimetically revealing portraitist. These works vividly and charismatically beg to differ.

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Writers

In the ’80s, A-One, Basquiat, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee, Rammellzee, and Toxic stood out as multimedia artists who all incorporated and interrogated language in their work. Each developed a signature form of abstraction to communicate as well as obscure meaning: the written word could simultaneously serve as an invitation for dialogue with a mass audience and as an intentionally coded element designed to resonate with their specific communities. Distinguishing themselves from other post-graffiti practitioners who relied heavily on figuration in painting, these artists committed themselves to multilingual modes of expression.

A boundless array of sources—from comic books and cityscapes to ancient, medieval, modern, and pop art—informed their experiences creating art in a multicultural metropolis. Their vocabularies included elements of neo-expressionism, symbolism, concrete poetry, and wildstyle lettering in painting; freestyling, sampling, remixing, and scratching in music; and appropriation of the language of urban detritus and architecture through interventions of found surfaces for their sculptural works. Characters, symbols, music, the body, and words—spoken, written, seen, and heard—were their modes of defense and attack in expanding the canon of contemporary art to include their voices.

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If the guiding mission of subway art was to “bomb all lines,” the post-graffiti artists took that ethos inside and adapted it to any quotidian surface they found—refrigerators, windows, leather jackets, stretched canvases, notebooks.

The post-graffiteros busted onto the gallery scene a little bit post-Duchampian, to boot: from their years of bombing and tagging, they’d arrived at the understanding that any surface they left their language on was automatically a work of art.

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Big Screens

The 1983 hip-hop films Wild Style and Style Wars charted the connections between graffiti, breakdancing, MCing, and DJing on film for the first time. In Wild Style’s finale, the graffiti artist Rose (played by Lady Pink) inspires the film’s central character, Zoro (played by Lee Quiñones), to create an ambitious amphitheater mural that centers rappers, DJs, and dancers as the stars of an epic performance. The film’s coproducer and music director, Fab 5 Freddy, plays a character that ramps up the crowd, and MC Rammellzee dominates the stage with a foundational OG freestyle. Wild Style traveled the world, premiering in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and in Boston in December 1983, spreading the culture by inspiring international youth to walk, talk, live, and breathe hip-hop in their respective cities.

Just a year before Wild Style was filmed, the music video for Blondie’s hit single “Rapture” (1981) featured Debbie Harry rapping against a background of Lee and Fab’s bubble-letter murals, with Basquiat appearing as the DJ. “Rapture” became the first rap music video aired on MTV, reaching a national audience. Basquiat also starred in the indie film New York Beat (released in 2000 as Downtown 81) as an aspiring artist who moves through the culturally rich wastelands of the East Village, encountering everything from punk rock and Latin pop to hip-hop from the Bronx. Much like Wild Style, which was fictional but loosely based on the lives of its actors, New York Beat’s producer Glenn O’Brien has pointed out that “the film is an exaggerated version of life.” Together, these masterworks of the era encapsulated an explosive nucleus of cultural expression and enabled it to go viral.

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Music

Post-punk, new wave, and pop emerged as reinvented genres in the 1980s that channeled hip-hop’s emergent aesthetics—as attested by collaborations between Futura and the Clash; Fab 5 Freddy, Lee, Basquiat, and Blondie; and Haring/LA2 and Madonna. Rappers, DJs, and graffiti artists from across the city in turn found a satellite home downtown for their most out-there expressions.

Long a hallmark of Black music’s brilliance, improvisation reached a pinnacle in the freestyling talent of Rammellzee, who rapped on the track “Beat Bop,” produced by Basquiat in 1983. Improvisation was as key to Rammellzee’s sonic lyricism as it was to Basquiat’s visual works. In all of these artists’ respective oeuvres—whether visual, musical, or both—abstraction served as a restructuring device: to repossess language on their own terms. Their tactics included poetry, freestyle, semiotics, and multilingualisms, and their subversive practices often ignored disciplinary lines, emphasizing instead unbound expression and shape-shifting.

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Before the internet, Black folk and others of color did not expect to find many culturally authentic and non-degrading images of themselves in mass media, TV, radio, or film. For this reason, we swam in music, staying in close contact with the avatars of sonic genius who proliferated throughout the era’s overlapping jazz, funk, rock, R&B, and hip-hop scenes.

These tuneful creatives also provided spectacular optics through their theatrical album covers and super-heroic, extraterrestrial stage costumes and live shows. It’s no surprise that many of the artists in this exhibition constantly referenced music, befriended celebrity musicians, and experimented in musical performance and recording. Basquiat, of course, revered Charlie “Bird” Parker and his wildstyle cast of fellow bebop revolutionaries. He made several now-famous works honoring the bebop geniuses’ bohemian legacy and their ancestral godfathering impact on his upstart and genuflective own.

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Futurisms

The hip-hop generation imagined culturally expressive alternatives to bleak surroundings and circumstances in the aftermath of New York City’s economic collapse. With limited resources, and despite the fact that their work was criminalized, they cultivated one of the largest and most visible distribution circuits for art ever conceived: the subway system.

Rammellzee (stylized RAMMΣLLZΣΣ) was graffiti’s first major critical theorist. He and his crew, Tag Master Killers (TMK)—originally A-One, Kool Koor, and Toxic—were guided by Rammellzee’s lifelong philosophy, articulated in his 1979 manifesto Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism. This futurist project included letters armed for battle, intergalactic starships, and beautiful renderings of nebulae—prophetic projections of adventurous human tomorrows, far above and beyond the battleground streets. In 1980, Rammellzee stopped writing on trains to focus his attack on the art world. His alchemical mashup of experimental materials, live performance, and speculative fiction grants him legendary status in hip-hop history, but efforts to decipher the full breadth of his visual corpus are only just beginning.

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Every generation of modernists in the Afro-American tradition has produced its own philosophical warrior-entity who could extravagantly and expansively articulate the meaning of their peer groups’ abstractions for an unhip world. The Harlem Renaissance had Duke Ellington; bebop had Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Miles Davis; rock and roll summoned Jimi Hendrix; freedom swing jazz had Sun Ra; funk had George Clinton. Rammellzee had next and dared to see, hear, and proclaim hip-hop culture as more militaristic than Star Wars, more gothic than Darth Vader, and more futuristic than light sabers and death stars. In his speculative fictional vision, the subway cars he and his generational crews bombed and tagged weren’t mere vessels of urban transport, but tanks—“Iconoclastic Panzers”—which they armored with their wildstyle adornment to ignite wars against the hijacking of the sacred alphabet by a “diseased culture” of racism, classism, and virulent authoritarian corruption. It was a fully fleshed mythos when Rammellzee introduced it to art magazine outsiders in 1983, and it only grows in Jack Kirbyesque concepts, characters, and scenarios as time goes on.

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Bodies

For Basquiat, the subject of the human body provided a platform to explore issues of resounding social and political import—from memorializing victims of lynching, to the fragility of the human form, to protesting US foreign intervention. At the age of seven, Basquiat became enamored with the medical book Gray’s Anatomy while in the hospital recovering from a car accident and resulting splenectomy. His fascination with human bones, organs, and skeletal structures carried over into artworks he made as an adult—many of which deployed severed anatomical parts.

Lady Pink shares Basquiat’s obsession with the fate of embattled bodies. Her paintings of skulls and flowers depict organisms as degenerative and regenerative factors in the cycles of life and death. In 1983 she collaborated with Jenny Holzer, an established artist fourteen years her senior, who invited her to create a series of paintings that combined her spray-painted imagery with Holzer’s texts. Their violent and apocalyptic literary motifs are the narrative equivalents of Pink’s figurations, which draw from the photographer Susan Meiselas’s images of the contra war against a socialist government, covertly supported by the Reagan administration, in Nicaragua. An immigrant from Ecuador, Pink made her politics regarding US foreign policy in Latin America clear through her images of warfare. Holzer’s texts, added in response to Pink’s imagery, offered a comparable critique of normalized violence, chaos, and disaster in everyday American life.

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Ascension

Basquiat and several of his fellow artists infused their art with African diasporic spiritual practices and aesthetics to reconfigure Western modernity as they knew it. In doing so, they reshaped their lives on earth, their reach into the future—and into the next dimension. Here, otherworldly figures by Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, LA2, and Rammellzee are poised as commanding conjurers who occupy a shape-shifting realm in between the living and the dead or between the planet and outer space. They can be seen as aliens or zombies, or as masked priests speaking for forces beyond the grave or in the cosmos.

Their portraiture reflects on the encroachment of space travel, computers, and other automated technology on their everyday experiences. The difficulty of computing such advances from the vantage point of their trash-heaped cityscapes led to their engagement with recycled materials and apocalyptic imagery. As a result of such evolutions, the hip-hop generation rendered themselves as readymade kings, queens, robots, and antiestablishment super beings. Their supreme confidence in calligraphically and rhetorically defying art-historical unorthodoxy can only begin to be fully appreciated now—four decades after the fact—as their visionary contributions have become cosmically reverberant and revered.

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The Artists

three artists with spray paint posing in front of graffiti-covered wall
Toxic, A-One, and Kool Koor, September 1982. Photograph © Mark Baron.

A-One (Anthony Clark)

Born 1964 in Manhattan, died 2001 in Paris

A-One grew up in the Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, surrounded by a thriving community of graffiti writers. He joined Rammellzee’s Tag Master Killers (TMK) crew around the age of fifteen, along with his neighbors Kool Koor and Toxic. A-One developed a style he called “aerosol expressionism,” which he used to execute elaborate, florid armored letters in blazing color combinations. Figurative elements in his work—typically enigmatic depictions of Black male figures and symbols of ancient African civilizations—reflect an interest in identity and lineage that he shared with Basquiat, his friend and mentor.


Jean-Michel Basquiat

Born 1960 in Brooklyn, died 1988 in Manhattan

From his artistic beginnings as SAMO© spraying conceptual phrases in downtown Manhattan with his high school friend Al Diaz to his signature cacophonous mixed-media paintings, Basquiat harnessed the rawness, vibrancy, energy, and insurgency of urban art into a style that represented the zeitgeist of 1980s New York City. By the mid-1980s Basquiat reached a level of international renown unprecedented for so young an artist. His career was cut short by his untimely death at the age of twenty-seven. Today he is one of the world’s most exhibited and influential artists.


ERO (Dominique Philbert)

Born 1967 in New York, died 2011 in Manhattan

ERO, whose moniker is an acronym of the phrase “Ever Rocking On,” developed a style oriented to the picture frame, with maze-like wildstyle letters stretching across his canvases. He started spray-painting in the East Village at the age of eleven and was still a young teenager when he followed the lead of esteemed older artists and friends, including Basquiat and Futura, and began working primarily on large-format canvases as well as fabric designs. After a brief but prolific career, ERO retreated from the commercial art world around 1986, preferring to live a less public life.


Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite)

Born 1959 in Brooklyn

Fab 5 Freddy is a savvy and passionate advocate for his artist peers and an artist in his own right. Throughout the 1980s, he was a key figure in elevating graffiti and hip-hop culture onto the international stage. In 1979 he joined Lee Quiñones in the first post-graffiti exhibition abroad at Galleria la Medusa in Rome, which incited a fervor for graffiti art across Europe. Fab 5 is also a pioneer in the realms of music, television, and film and was the original host and producer of “Yo! MTV Raps,” the first hip-hop show on the music television network. He lives in Manhattan, where he continues to produce and direct film and make visual art.


Futura (Lenny McGurr), aka Futura 2000

Born 1955 in Manhattan

Futura has earned a reputation as a master of spray paint manipulation. His early artistic practice, which included onstage collaborations with British punk band the Clash, embodies the seamless merging of visual art, music, and performance characteristic of the post-graffiti moment. Futura’s signature style overlays expansive fields of color with spare, abstracted elements that conjure a fantastical interstellar world. Graphic design, from ads to album covers to typography, continues to be an important influence for Futura, including in his recent collaborations with high fashion, street wear, and luxury brands. Futura is based primarily in Brooklyn and works on projects around the world. 


Keith Haring

Born 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, died 1990 in Manhattan

Haring lived by his principle that “art is for everybody.” His iconic line drawings of figures and objects function as a universally and immediately accessible language of symbols, their seeming simplicity often belying humanitarian and left-leaning political sentiments. Haring formed generative friendships with graffiti and street writers—he had a particularly longstanding artistic partnership with LA2—and bridged many social circles, including New York’s vibrant gay subculture and the fine art galleries and nightclubs where he worked. Haring was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and died three years later of AIDS-related complications. In the last years of his life, he leveraged his art to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis at a time when the topic was highly stigmatized.


Kool Koor (Charles William Hargrove Jr.)

Born 1963 in the Bronx

Kool Koor fashioned his graffiti moniker by reversing the letters in “rook.” The chess game piece aptly personifies an artist for whom the play of line, the possibilities of architecture, and the allure of imagined worlds have been hallmarks since his earliest years. Koor grew up in the South Bronx Mitchel Houses along with A-One and Toxic, and he attended Manhattan’s selective High School of Art and Design, where his classmates included fellow graffiti writer Lady Pink. In addition to honing his personal style through formal study and visits to local museums, he joined a number of graffiti crews, including the Tag Master Killers alongside his mentor Rammellzee. Koor lives in Belgium, where he continues to create art.


LA2 (Angel Ortiz), aka LAII, Little Angel, and L.A. Rock

Born 1966 in Manhattan

By the late 1970s, LA2 had covered the Lower East Side with his distinctive looping tag. Mentored by older graffiti writers who met daily at the Boys Club of New York, he experimented until he found his own visual style, which incorporates the tags “L.A. Rock,” “LAII,” and “LA2” amid arrows, squiggles, curves, circles, stars, and radiating dashes. His assured, synthesizing style attracted the attention of Keith Haring, and the two enjoyed a prolific, mutually influential artistic collaboration for six years. LA2 continues to work and live on the Lower East Side.


Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara)

Born 1964 in Ambato, Ecuador

Lady Pink has gained recognition as one of the most original graffiti writers of her generation, despite the discrimination faced by women in the field. She developed a style that drew heavily from comic book aesthetics, with voluptuous, powerful women dominating scenes of urban decay overrun with fantastical creatures and plant life. Collaboration and social impact are core aspects of Pink’s practice. Now based in upstate New York, she continues to create murals throughout the world and paint in her studio. She returns regularly to Queens, where she grew up, to teach high school art students.


Lee Quiñones, aka Lee

Born 1960 in Ponce, Puerto Rico

Lee came to be called the “King of New York” by fellow graffiti artists for his evocative, moralizing murals and whole-car protest pieces. His early spray-paint works portray the struggles of marginalized communities and lambast the systemic forces perpetuating their plight. In the late 1970s, Lee shifted his practice from “bombing” trains to painting on canvas and metal, though he maintained his political and religious themes and his excoriating narrative style. Influenced by comics and classic sci-fi and horror film posters, he became known for his figures’ dramatic foreshortening and exaggerated forms. Lee is based in Brooklyn and continues to paint and exhibit in Asia, Europe, and North America.


Rammellzee

Born 1960 in Queens, died 2010 in Queens

Separating fact from fiction in Rammellzee’s biography is nearly impossible: his personal mythology was foundational to his artistic practice, which seamlessly blended performance and life. In 1979, he published Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism, a theory that explained graffiti as the weaponization of letters in a battle to reclaim language from a “diseased culture” of social control. Rammellzee led the Tag Master Killers, a graffiti crew based around an elaborate tagging style, which included members A-One, Kool Koor, and Toxic. He embraced a great number of artistic disciplines, but he was best known as a rapper. His sometimes contentious friendship with Basquiat resulted in a number of collaborative musical projects.


Toxic (Torrick Ablack)

Born 1965 in the Bronx

Toxic joined the Tag Master Killers crew in 1980, training under the older Rammellzee, whose Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism became foundational for the young artist. Each member of the crew devised his own style for arming letters; Toxic disguised his letters through elaborate and inventive geometrization. He was an especially valued friend and mentee to Basquiat, who hired him as an occasional studio assistant and portrayed him in at least five paintings. Toxic now lives in Paris and Tuscany, where he works on projects ranging from furniture design to public art installations. His paintings and large-scale murals carry on the aesthetic traditions of the post-graffiti moment.