Hip Hop at 50
This is the second in a series of posts that celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Birth of Hip Hop. Our exploration takes us to the seminal places of Hip Hop’s early days in our neighborhoods and introduces some of the instrumental figures in the downtown world of Hip Hop.
The Museum of American Graffiti
Martin Wong (1946-1999) was a painter from the West Coast who moved to New York City in 1978 during the very early days of the burgeoning of hip hop culture. He established his home and art practice in a tenement building at 141 Ridge Street on the Lower East Side.
Wong was not a graffiti artist himself, but very early on he recognized the artistic and cultural value of the work of his graffiti artist friends, and became a passionate collector of their art. “No one thought what we did had any longevity, but Martin loved street culture”, says Aaron SHARP Goodstone. Wong was a painter who made a name for himself with his elegiac realist paintings of Lower East Side buildings and their inhabitants. While working at Pearl Paint, a Canal Street art supply store heavily frequented by artists, he befriended many NYC graffiti writers. He was drawn to the omnipresent graffiti writing he saw on the streets of New York and began collecting the drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks of his friends through purchase or trade. The collection he amassed is evidence of Wong’s preternatural eye for the cultural and esthetic significance of graffiti.
On April 8, 1989, Wong, along with Peter Broda, opened a graffiti art museum on the top floor of a townhouse at 6 Bond Street. Their “Museum of American Graffiti” was envisioned as a space where graffiti could be admired by a larger public and officially join the broader dialogue of the art world. He established the first permanent (though short-lived) home of hip hop art and ephemera there at 6 Bond Street. For a time, Wong’s art and life were a fulcrum around which the burgeoning hip hop street art cultures and the downtown art scene pivoted.
Wong’s legacy lives on through the vast collection he donated to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994, five years before he passed away. In 2014, the Museum of the City of New York exhibited nearly 150 of the works in Wong’s collection in the show “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art From the Martin Wong Collection.” Highlights of “City as Canvas” include Lee Quiñones’s “Howard the Duck” (1988), an oil painting; “Wicked Gary’s Tag Collection” (1970-72), which includes numerous tags, including ones by Phase2, Riff 170 and Coco 144; Lady Pink’s “The Death of Graffiti” (1982); and a variety of works by Keith Haring.
Hip Hop Fashion
Because of its strong link to hip hop in its early stages, fashion has historically been labeled as hip-hop’s unofficial sixth pillar (along with graffiti, break dancing, beatboxing, DJs, and MCs.)
The five “official pillars” have in turn influenced fashion. Early hip-hop style favored baggy silhouettes to offer more functional styles for break dancers. Fashion also took inspiration from graffiti artists, infusing the bright colors and graphic brush strokes of the art into clothing. Rappers and DJs called out brands and designers in their lyrics, which influenced fans to buy their pieces. Hip-hop’s emphasis on remixing extended to the clothing, where musicians and fans would mix trends and cull items from different decades for their outfits.
UNIQUE, once at 726 Broadway, was a legendary clothing store where hip hop culture creators and fans alike would shop for clothing and accessories. In the ’80s, this gigantic store pumped punk and hip hop music through speakers throughout the place. It was sort of a “nightclub-as-boutique” (or vice versa). It served up a spectacular selection of second-hand clothing; from items imported from Europe to a custom-painted jean jacket, and everything in between. In short, it sold everything you needed for “going out” and was a “scene” in and of itself. Artists would come in and “write” on the walls of the store while hip hop enthusiasts would hang out across the street in big groups in an all-day music party where promoters would distribute fliers promoting all the club parties that night. UNIQUE closed in 1991.
Canal Jean Co. formerly at 504 Broadway, in what is now Bloomingdale’s
Canal Jean Co. was a thrift shop founded in 1973 and was originally located next to Pearl Paints on Canal Street. Canal Jeans, as it was commonly called, eventually moved to 504 Broadway, a few blocks down Broadway in SoHo from UNIQUE, and served as an adjunct hip hop outlet specialty boutique that was ground zero for Levi’s, vintage clothing, and airbrushed carpenter pants, overalls, and jean jackets.
Interestingly, this gorgeous cast-iron building, designed by John Kellum & Son, was erected in 1860 and was originally occupied by C. G. Gunther & Sons, described to be “the oldest and largest fur house in the United States.” The firm not only imported raw furs and skins but manufactured fur clothing and accessories. So the building has a long history of housing fashion-forward enterprises.
These are just some of the spots in our neighborhood where hip hop was nurtured, grew, and brought to life. Click here to register for our upcoming walking tour, The 2nd Birthplace Tour (Hip-Hop at 50), to learn more.
This blog was partially adapted from the research done for our 2nd Birthplace Tour (Hip-Hop at 50). We would like to thank the following people and organizations for their invaluable input and support in developing 2nd Birthplace:
Amanda Adams-Louis, 36 Chambaz of Stylz, Big Tara, Cricket, DJ Spinna, Elena Romero, Eric “DEAL”Felisbret, FlashTalks, James Top, Justine Leguizamo, Keistar Productions, Kyra Gaunt, Leeanne G-Bowley, Martha Diaz, Michael Holman, and Peaches Rodriguez.