‘The only crime is people not recognizing graffiti as a true art!’

How key figures from the 1980s New York graffiti scene found their way to Europe — and acceptance by the art establishment. Illustrated with rare works on paper from our First Open | Online sale from 4-13 April

It has become commonplace to see street art and graffiti being offered at auction, with works by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Banksy and Futura regularly selling for large sums, and a poster design by one street artist, Shepard Fairey, famously helping to win an American election. In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, things were very different, and it was only the forward thinking of a small number of dealers and collectors that led to the genre being accepted into the Western canon.

Yaki Kornblit is a Dutch gallerist credited with popularising New York graffiti in Europe, and launching the careers of many pioneering young artists in the process. Kornblit was not the first dealer to put on a New York graffiti show in Europe — Claudio Bruni has that accolade, with a group show at Rome’s Galleria La Medusa in 1979 — but before Kornblit, no one had presented the street artists as individuals.

‘Yaki would buy the work in New York, and then present the art in a solo exhibition. He was one of the first to do that,’ explains Daze, a Bronx-based artist brought to Amsterdam by Kornblit.

These works on paper from the collection of Martin Visser, many of which were acquired through Kornblit’s eponymous gallery, represent the remarkable story of graffiti’s journey from underground art form to major art movement.

Crash (b. 1961), Graffiti, 1980. Signed and dated ‘J. MATOS © 1980’ (lower left). Marker, felt-tip pen and pen on paper. 7⅞ x 10⅝ in (20 x 27 cm). Estimate $1,000-1,500. This work is offered in First Open  Online, 4-13 April

Crash (b. 1961), Graffiti, 1980. Signed and dated ‘J. MATOS © 1980’ (lower left). Marker, felt-tip pen and pen on paper. 7⅞ x 10⅝ in (20 x 27 cm). Estimate: $1,000-1,500. This work is offered in First Open | Online, 4-13 April

Graffiti writers and visionary collectors, such as Martin Visser, faced an uphill battle to gain recognition. Some didn’t care what the art world thought, others did, but all were driven by a collective sense of self-belief. This confidence is powerfully articulated in Graffiti, a 1980 work on paper by Crash; offered in the FIRST OPEN: Online  sale, it contains the words: Graffiti is a true art… the only crime is people not recognizing graffiti as a true art!

Before Kornblit’s intervention, the Amsterdam graffiti scene in the early 1980s produced work that was a world removed from the large, colourful and labour-intensive pieces produced by NYC graffiti artists. Street art in the Dutch capital at that time was primarily produced by punk rockers painting band names on the city walls using typography popularised in the UK punk scene.

In the pre-internet era, the arrival of New York artists in Amsterdam proved to be a pivotal moment, and one that had a profound effect on Dutch artists of the period. ‘They painted and hung out together,’ Kornblit recalls. ‘This gave the Amsterdam writers a head start. Amsterdam became the capital of style writing [a technique which uses letters in a highly stylised way, often unreadable to the untrained eye] between 1983 and 1986, which in turn influenced graffiti artists from all over Europe.’

‘I could see why graffiti was embraced there,’ says Daze. ‘As a society, the Netherlands was very liberal-minded. At the same time it could be permissive and look at the work as art without the various social and economic connotations that were very often attached to it.’

Polaroids of works from the exhibitions staged by Yaki Kornblit. Photo courtesy Aileen Middel

Polaroids of works from the exhibitions staged by Yaki Kornblit. Photo courtesy Aileen Middel

Yaki Kornblit discovered graffiti by accident. Looking for any art that excited him, he was first drawn to a work that hung on the wall of the apartment he was renting from a friend in New York. It was by Futura 2000, now known as Futura, a superstar of the graffiti world who was famous for his abstract style.

Kornblit’s friend offered to introduce them. ‘Something happened with me at that moment,’ says the gallerist. ‘I met Futura and it was like a revelation.’ His excitement for this new art from the street grew. ‘The more I saw,’ he says, ‘the more enthusiastic I became.’

His enthusiasm was not universally shared, however. ‘There was no fine art expectation whatsoever, from anyone,’ he recalls. Daze concurs: ‘No one had an idea that anyone outside those involved in the culture would have any interest in it at all.’ 

Kornblit was undeterred. Determined to showcase the artists fuelling his new passion, he selected ten New York graffitists — Bill Blast, Blade, Crash, Daze, Dondi, Futura 2000, Quik, Rammellzee, SEEN and Zephyr — he wanted to exhibit in Amsterdam, one month after another, and paid for their tickets, accommodation and expenses. The first solo show, in January 1983, exhibited works by Dondi (1961-1998). The exhibition sold out — as did the following nine.

‘People were inspired by it. The neighbourhood would bring lights, they would bring sandwiches. They would provide ladders’ — Bill Blast

Attitudes moved slower than the art on show. ‘The opinion about graffiti in the art world at the time was that graffiti was not art,’ says Kornblit. ‘There were only a couple of collectors in the Netherlands who believed in the graffiti art I was showing.’ One of them was Martin Visser, who revelled in graffiti’s outsider status, stating, ‘Nearly everyone who is anyone at all is against the graffiti artists. And that is the way it should be!’

Gradually, however, graffiti began to find mainstream acceptance. William ‘Bill Blast’ Cordero, another of the artists given a solo show at Galerie Yaki Kornblit, predicted as much in his 1983 work on paper New York, which shows a subsection of the city from the subway to the sky. ‘I was trying to express how this art form started underground,’ he explains. ‘It starts from a real lower level, and it comes up through the city streets and comes up towards the sky.’

Bill Blast (b. 1964), New York, 1983. Signed ‘Blast’ (upper centre); dated ‘83’ (lower left). Marker, watercolour, pen and pencil on four attached sheets of paper. 48⅜ x 9⅞ in (123 x 25 cm). Estimate $1,000-1,500. This work is offered in First Open  Online, 4-13 April

Bill Blast (b. 1964), New York, 1983. Signed ‘Blast’ (upper centre); dated ‘83’ (lower left). Marker, watercolour, pen and pencil on four attached sheets of paper. 48⅜ x 9⅞ in (123 x 25 cm). Estimate: $1,000-1,500. This work is offered in First Open | Online, 4-13 April

This uplifting and energetic piece was a reflection of the zeitgeist in New York. ‘The people vibed with it, they were inspired by it,’ Blast remembers of the enthusiasm of the growing community around graffiti. ‘The neighbourhood would bring lights, they would bring sandwiches. They would provide ladders.’

The colourful anecdotes from this formative period include Bill Blast painting the mural in the music video for Malcolm McLaren’s seminal hip-hop single Buffalo Gals, which featured the world-famous breakdancers The Rock Steady Crew.

In The City Below, The City Above (below) from 1982, Daze showcases the different elements of his work. ‘The background of the piece is painted in spray paint, which is what my medium was for doing public works,’ he explains. The addition of the photograph shows ‘that the drawing is kind of a study for the work that became public. I wanted to show the process in that piece.’

Daze (b. 1962), The City Below, The City Above, 1982. Signed and dated ‘Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis © 1982 (lower right). Spray paint, marker, ink and collaged photograph on paper. 19⅞ x 25⅝ in (50.5 x 65 cm). Estimate $1,000-1,500. This work is offered in First Open  Online, 4-13 April

Daze (b. 1962), The City Below, The City Above, 1982. Signed and dated ‘Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis © 1982' (lower right). Spray paint, marker, ink and collaged photograph on paper. 19⅞ x 25⅝ in (50.5 x 65 cm). Estimate: $1,000-1,500. This work is offered in First Open | Online, 4-13 April

Daze’s second piece in the sale, Untitled (below), is, he says, ‘more of a traditional piece, in that what you see is basically what I would have painted on the side of a subway car or on a wall somewhere. There aren’t many works like that of mine around.’

Daze (b. 1962), Untitled, 1982. Signed and dated ‘Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis © 82.II.two’ (lower right). Marker, felt-tip pen and pen on paper. 10⅜ x 14 in (26.5 x 35.5 cm). Estimate $800-1,200. This work is offered in First Open  Online, 4-13 April

Daze (b. 1962), Untitled, 1982. Signed and dated ‘Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis © 82.II.two’ (lower right). Marker, felt-tip pen and pen on paper. 10⅜ x 14 in (26.5 x 35.5 cm). Estimate: $800-1,200. This work is offered in First Open | Online, 4-13 April

Remarkably, the first work Daze ever sold was a collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat. ‘Keith Haring worked at The Mudd Club in Tribeca and he invited Fab 5 Freddy and Futura to curate an exhibition called Beyond Words [1981],’ he says. ‘I sold my first work through that exhibition — a collaboration between myself and Jean-Michel, a very impromptu one. I wrote my name in different stylisations; he wrote “Flat 6” on it and then did a crown’. The piece was bought by the art critic Rene Ricard, who went on to write The Radiant Child, a famous 1981 ARTFORUM essay on Basquiat.

Another artist featured in the FIRST OPEN: Online  sale is the legendary Rammellzee, who was an art theoretician as well as a graffiti writer. His works were based on his theory of Gothic Futurism, which he described as a battle between letters and their symbolism and the standardisations enforced by the rules of the alphabet. Kornblit remembers him as one of the most focused members of the group — while the others celebrated their sold-out shows, ‘Rammellzee never went out, except for a good T-bone steak dinner.’

Rammellzee (1960–2010), Sectioners Houseing the House, circa 1980s. Signed with the artist’s monogram (lower left quadrant); titled ‘Sectioners Houseing the House’ (on the reverse). Spray paint, acrylic and pen on card. 29¾ x 39¾ in (75.5 x 101 cm). Estimate $3,000-5,000. This work is offered in first open  Online, 4-13 April

Rammellzee (1960–2010), Sectioners Houseing the House, circa 1980s. Signed with the artist’s monogram (lower left quadrant); titled ‘Sectioners Houseing the House’ (on the reverse). Spray paint, acrylic and pen on card. 29¾ x 39¾ in (75.5 x 101 cm). Estimate: $3,000-5,000. This work is offered in first open | Online, 4-13 April

The collection of Martin Visser, offered in the FIRST OPEN: Online sale, is a time capsule of one of the most exciting movements in contemporary art. Works from the period are extremely rare, as graffiti art is inherently ephemeral — municipal walls, subway cars and other ‘canvases’ are regularly cleaned, which makes these works on paper even more collectible.

Additional interview material provided by Aileen Middel, aka graffiti artist Mick La Rock