Getting to Know Lee Quinones – Graffiti & Street Art Pioneer and...

Getting to Know Lee Quinones – Graffiti & Street Art Pioneer and Originator of the NYC Subway Movement (Videos & Gallery)

“Graffiti is art and if art is a crime, please God, forgive me” – Lee Quinones

This dope quote is from one of most outstanding writers in New York, who worked on groundbreaking projects in the early days, got graffiti considered art and was one of the few graffitists to paint an entire train from top to bottom and front to back, as he started with Subway Graffiti in 1974. Quinones cited Simon & Garfunkel “Sound of silence” song, pointing out the line:The words of the prophets are written on the subway wall”.

Graffiti is art and if art is a crime, please God, forgive me

In this article it’s time to get to know the legend that is Lee Quinones and run along a handful of his most influential and powerful visual art and video works.

Lee Quinones exhibited his works in 1979, in Rome, ‘the eternal city of arts’, a city filled with heritage and art. Although much of it is classic art, Lee Quinones was one of the first introducing graffiti and street art to Europeans and the art world. He exhibited at the White Columns Gallery in New York, and P.S.1’s 1981 exhibition New York/New Wave, his paintings were displayed in the 1983 Documenta #7 held in Kassel, Germany and much more.

He managed to break out of the label of ‘street, graffiti artist’ to internationally respected, influential, at most contemporary, artist. He also did work for music videos and classic NYC / Hip Hop movies, but we’ll get to that in a min. First we some fly featured imagery for you to check out some of his visual work right here ..

As from the 70s and by the guidance of Lee and other pioneers, aerosol art has shifted from the streets to the galleries, in New York and Europe and now, in 2014, Aerosol Art is coming close to being generally accepted as an art form all over the world!

So, who is Lee Quinones?

Born in Puerto Rico in 1960 and raised in New York City, Lee Quinones was one of the founders of the New York City subway graffiti movement in the mid 1970s and was most likely the most influential subway artist all throughout 70s and 80s. He found himself in a vibrant time and space, and at the cross-section of two movements in their infancy; Hip Hop and punk rock.

Lee gained reputation for the 40-feet wide murals he did on the surface of MTA subway cars from 1975 to 1984. His 1978 handball court mural in the Lower East Side is credited as an influence on Keith Haring and on the entire street art movement as we know it today.

Besides his skill with a spraycan, Lee worked on video projects to construct an alternate format that expanded his perception through the lens of the camera. Let’s take a quick glance at his film career:

Wild Style

I’m sure you’re familiar with this Charles Ahearn’s 1983 classic film – of graffiti, breakdancing, and rap music brought together under the umbrella of Hip Hop. If not, you should watch it right tonight. In this documentary-style film we follow Zoro, played by…you guessed it: Lee Quinones, and how he handles his way from the bombed-out streets of the Bronx to art world of Manhattan.  Many Hip Hop pioneers appear: Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Rock Steady Crew, Cold Crush Brothers, Angie Stone, and it manages to capture that NYC environment and vibe it all sprung from. To many, this is considered the first Hip Hop motion picture.

Downtown 81 AKA New York Beat Movie

An alternative opinion is this to be the first ‘Hip Hop’ movie ever made, in the backdrop of New York City, in 1981. The film reassembles the life of artist Jean Michel Basquiat with cameos by Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy, as well as a very cool soundtrack. Another, less-known, classic and if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend that you do.

Artwork for Blondie’s “Rapture” Music Video

For Blondie’s 1981 funk/rock/jazz/rap-inspired hit, Lee and Basquiat decided to take on a mainstream challenge and created the video set around her. Quiñones was originally booked into this gig with Grandmaster Flash, who upon a no-show was replaced by Basquiat, resulting in this innovative piece of ornamentation. Some even consider this the first rap video ever broadcast on MTV.

And Quiñones is still doing his thing.

In 2004 he was VH1 Hip-Hop Honors honoree and co-presenter with Debbie Harry of Blondie and Fab 5 Freddy and he received a Jam Master Jay Award for the Arts in 2007. Lee got involved in designing his own Adidas superstars 35th, The Lee Quinones Edition.

leequinones adidas

In 2005, he took the challenge to traverse 1500 miles by his bike, from New York City to Miami, to raise money for the victims of Katrina Hurricane. The artwork he created during this campaign was displayed in a Miami exhibition that donated the earnings.

He addressed young people at various academic youth institutions and juvenile detention centers, teaching them how to be proactive, creative and believe in their skills and talents.

Future projects include a solo exhibit at The Suzanne Geiss Company sometime in 2014, and a mega-mural unveiling at a yet to be confirmed NYC Sky lobby.

Lee Quinones affirms that listening to Hip Hop beats got him in the right mood so he felt motivated and also invincible while doing his work, painting the trains and whatnot.

At those times, DJs, MCs, Bboys and Graffiti were all influencing each other, they were part of this bigger thing called Hip Hop culture that brought all these elements together. Younger people might say old school hip hop heads are stuck in the past, but the perspective is rather different: those were the standards, all the elements influenced each other and kept each other going; it was a very high standard of talent and every element involved in Hip Hop pushed the overall culture forward.

Though Hip Hop made him feel invisible during his work, Lee Quinones’ work has definitely not remained invisible to the world and to us. An inspiring an without a doubt one of the most, if not the most, influential writer and street artist of the early days, and a cool dude too. Check these clips for some words from this truthful and talented man:

Videograf 10: Video Segment from 1989

Life + Times: Interview from 2011

“There are people who see the graffiti experience as a vocation of adolescence, the rites of passage without a sense of direction,” says Lee. “I’m not surviving by offending it or defending it, but I saw it early on as a catalyst to develop as a painter and explore the other horizons outside of a forty foot subway car. My sense of art was to create art without a reference point to art history, because this was art history in the making. A true art movement never goes by the script; instead it flips the script, faithfully reinventing itself.”

I am of opinion that graffiti is an amazing art form that brings beauty and color to our everyday lives and Lee Quinones has been pushing it since its beginnings. And if you don’t know, now you know.

Much respect to him, to you, and we hope this article rooted your attention and appreciation of his works and ways and influences to this day. Peace!