“If it wasn’t for someone like Henry or Marty what’s happening globally would not have happened”, said legendary graffiti artist John “Crash” Matos at the Q & A session for Steel Canvases held recently at the Bronx Documentary Center. The event was an intimate look into the “aggressive form of performance art” photographed by the iconic documentarian Henry Chalfant. The panel boasted roughly eighty years of combined experience in the realm of graffiti art from the likes of the aforementioned Matos and TATS CRU members Nicer and Bio Feliciano.
The photographs displayed for the packed house went as far back as 1970 and stretched out to the early 1990s. They were composed of subway art and murals by some of the panelists on hand plus those of Lee Quinones, Michael Tracy and Keith Haring. “There was no internet. So if it wasn’t for the fact that someone like these two people (having) the love of what we were doing, through God’s hand it was able to be reproduced. The first time I went to Europe they were bombing all over Amsterdam and it was because of the fact they had these books out there. If it wasn’t for the books we wouldn’t be sitting here today. The books underlined it. They put the stamp on it”, Matos shared with audience with regard to the global spread of the art form via photo compilations turned books by Henry.
The artists along with Chalfant passed down stories of their experiences within the subculture. They told tales of the many dangers involved with the once outlaw form of expression. How it traveled along the nearly six hundred miles of train tracks above and below Gotham becoming a pre-internet sensation only to eventually become a permanent part of the pop culture landscape. “I was still painting trains when a move like Beat Street came out,” Nicer told those in attendance. “I was doing what I loved to do. For us it was a subculture. We did it for each other. We did it not for fame of the newspapers or magazines. We did because we wanted to show other writers we were nice at what we did. It was really a battle against each other. This art form is very infectious. We’ve seen it go through an evolution. Nowadays with the advent of the internet and magazines it’s crossed economic barriers, genders and ages. It’s for everyone.”
However, Steel Canvases was more than just about discussing how graffiti and street art made if from the once impoverished neighborhoods of New York City which were riddled by neglect causing urban decay. The night was a tribute to not only the artists but to a photographer not native to the land close to some forty years ago who braved the harsh times and terrain in order to hone in on his craft and display one of his many passions. This kind of work would lead Chalfant to open a landmark studio in Lower Manhattan; where over the years a who’s who of the graffiti world have come to show their love, respect and work of their own for a man who has shown them the very same. “We would go to Henry’s studio, sit there and look at his portfolio’s full of Crash, Daze and all the rock stars. We grew up seeing it on subways but you’d see it for a split second. But in Henry’s studio you could go in there and dissect it,” Bio divulged of his early days in Chalfant’s studio.
This studio would eventually allow Chalfant to develop relationships with the artists who passed through the halls. These relationships have surpassed that of the average one that exists between artist and curator. One example of this was echoed by Feliciano at the closing of the panel. “I remember one time Brim and I were at some place and he got his head cracked with a carjack. Henry came out of his house at two or three in the morning to go to the hospital and pick us up. How many photographers or documentarians were there for the writers? So Henry, Marty and people like that were there sharing their personal lives,” acknowledged Bio as he closed out the panel for the evening.