How my relationship to graffiti transformed from the 70s to now.

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©Gayle Kirschenbaum — Photo of Ryan The Wheelbarrow’s Graffiti Art

Was figuring out recently what I could show a visitor to South Florida during the pandemic besides the ocean and nature. How about art, I thought? Then I remembered my past couple of visits over the last few years to Wynwood, Miami. It’s an art district which was a downtrodden industrial area that is now where graffiti artists create new work and display old. I asked a local friend what he thought and he couldn’t agree more. So off we went. It was an extremely hot day as we started walking the streets and tried to stay on the shady side.

Wynwood Walls, the outdoor museum of international street art, became a phenomenon attracting the world’s greatest artists working in graffiti and street art throughout the district. Wynwood’s development was the brainchild of Tony Goldman, who was also instrumental in the refurbishment of Miami Beach and New York City’s Soho neighborhood.

Wynwood Walls was closed due to Covid. With the sun baking on us, we were eager to get into air conditioning. I asked a passerby if there were any indoor museums which were open. Her response led us first to the Cars & Guitars museum/store where they took our temperature at the door and had plenty of hand sanitizer. I was thrilled about that. There was an assortment of vintage cars including Jaguars and Mercedes Benz. One car had on the rack on the trunk a vintage Louis Vuitton suitcase. I told the salesman my mother had the same one in better condition. He informed me that it came with the car. As we were not guitarists nor musicians, we walked through that part of the exhibit quickly. What caught my attention was the guitar which was shaped like an “ass.” I questioned the staffer who was taking us around. He indicated it was meant for persons who consider themselves “bad ass” guitarists. The owner fulfilled his dream of a place focused on his two passions which apparently he is not alone with.

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©Gayle Kirschenbaum — Portrait of Ryan the Wheelbarrow

Then we were directed across the street to the Museum of Graffiti. We chatted outside at the ticket desk with a graffiti artist named Ryan the Wheelbarrow. Ryan escorted us in and gave us a quick tour of the museum. It was co-founded by Alan Ket, a graffiti artist, archivist and advocate originally from Brooklyn, and Allison Freidin, a former prosecutor who was doing legal advocacy for graffiti writers. She quit her job to focus with Alan to create the museum which opened in 2019.

Being a New Yorker, who lived in the city beginning in the 70s, I was taken back in time when I saw a large collection of images of the graffiti-filled NYC subways. They were documentary photographs by Henry Chalfant, who captured street art and urban culture in NYC in the 70s and 80s. There was one particular image which had a strong impact on me. It was the face of a sullen woman standing by the door of the subway looking out of the window. She is framed by a massive amount of graffiti. Although I’m an artist who loves and appreciates the arts, I remember my disgust at seeing the trains’ surfaces getting more and more covered with spray painted words and images. Why do they have to destroy the property, I wondered? This was vandalism. And then it spread from the subways to my beloved buildings, several old and some landmarks. The vandals, as I saw them, were even able to reach high surfaces, such as bridges which took a great deal of effort and risk.

New York City in the 70s and 80s, the goal was surviving. Taking a subway late at night was not advisable. I witnessed crime all over, from the popular stealing of women’s gold necklaces, either by sticking their hands through the opened window of the stopped bus, or just coming from behind you. We carefully tucked our chains into our clothing or stopped wearing them. I was pickpocketed as I was using the pedestal phone booth. It was a two man job as one asked me something and the other was behind with his hand in my leather hanging shoulder bag. People were getting robbed, beaten and stabbed.

The topper for me was when I entered my apartment after taking an intense weekend workshop at 2:00 in the morning and saw a burglar ransacking my home. Just as I was distressed by the vandalism I personally experienced, I was not in the mood to admire the artistry of the graffiti. I only felt more violated. And then I saw it spread beyond my city, beyond my country and was now in Europe. On one of many visits to Paris, the city I was drawn to since I was quite young for its architecture, and culture, I was devastated to see what I left behind in New York and was now facing me on the surfaces of Paris only in French.

Although it’s been years, actually decades, since my first exposure to graffiti, it took my visit to the Wynwood art district, including the Museum of Graffiti, for me to stop and take a good look at the images and appreciate and admire the artistry and the message. The voices of people eager to be heard, eager to be acknowledged and most importantly eager to be loved. Something we all want. Screaming out loud, I’m here, listen to me, look at me. Graffiti began as a response to the hardships at that time, a mid-70s financial crisis resulting in decaying neighborhoods and infrastructures. As the officials believed the graffiti was defacing their city, the artists believed their work added character and uniqueness to the urban landscape. Graffiti began as an expression of the ghetto, a defiant shout of identity and courage of the individual.

Ryan the Wheelbarrow pointed me to a couple locations in the district where I got to see his work. His monochromatic, amorphous style left me seeing and feeling the sensuality of human forms. Originally from Phoenix, where he was trained as a graphic designer, he’s a known entity in Wynwood not only for his work but the tours he gives. Who better to give you a tour of graffiti than one of the artists?

If you find yourself near Miami, even during these restricted Covid days, don’t forget your mask and head over to the Wynwood art district. There are also cafes and restaurants following the pandemic guidelines. You could satiate your appetite for food and beverage, while also exploring the graffiti and the messages being conveyed by the artists. I was grateful for the chance meeting with Ryan and my stroll back into graffiti with a new and enlightened set of eyes.

Emmy award winning filmmaker, TV producer, TED speaker, writer, photographer with a wanderlust. Teach forgiveness as seen in my film LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER!

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