My childhood memories of New York in the 1970s are littered – or should I say “lettered”? – with graffiti. It streamed, like animated comic strips, across the elevated subway tracks near my grandmother’s house in the Bronx. It encrusted the once-gracious limestone base of my Upper West Side apartment building and was carved into its wood-panelled lift. Spray-painted swirls threatened every surface of the city. Graffiti was an unceasing reminder of danger and decay.

So I didn’t approach the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection in a spirit of fuzzy reminiscence or wowed appreci­ation of an undervalued genre. In its original efflorescence, it defiled a damaged city; in its dotage, when graffiti aged into “graffiti art”, it became pathetically domesticated. A raucous underground expression was neutered by institutional approval.

And yet the show conjures a joyous vitality that I didn’t remember from those days. Graffiti democratised art-making, opening up the vast urban screen to anyone with the guts and agility to leave a mark. “Writers” competed to unfurl their signatures in ever more intricate and bloated form, crowding or obliterating competitors’ contributions. But anarchy had its rules. Only an initiate could decipher the cryptic marks and understand the hierarchy they represented. And this territorial, macho movement had room for only one female, proudly codenamed Lady Pink.

City as Canvas has to make do without those towering self-monuments, most of which vanished during Mayor Ed Koch’s war against vandalism in the 1980s. Instead, the exhibition boasts an impressive set of remains assembled by artist Martin Wong. Wong’s own style veered toward the surreal, but he got to know graffitists while working at Pearl Paint, the art supply store on Canal Street where they bought supplies. Using barter, cash, and cajolery, he acquired sketchbooks, decorated denim jackets, tags, and a large group of paintings on canvas. Wong even founded a Museum of American Graffiti in 1989, although it shut down within months. He squeezed more than 300 items into his tiny flat on the Lower East Side, and donated them all to the Museum of the City of New York after he was diagnosed with Aids in 1994. (He died in 1999.)

You can see graffiti in its most heroic form in Henry Chalfant’s panoramic photos of subway cars blanketed in layers of paint. The words – by Lee, Daze and Sharp – inflate across each carriage like candy-coloured balloons. They share the visual language of pop art, psychedelic album covers and comic books, translated into tropical hues. In his 1979 handball court mural, Lee (whose full name is Lee Quiñones) painted a cartoon duck with a dialogue bubble above his head proclaiming: “Graffiti is an [sic] art and if art is a crime let God forgive all.” The duck holds a garbage pail lid across his chest, shielding himself from a burst of paint emblazoned with the name “Lee”.

The mural vanished long ago, but Wong commissioned Lee to make a copy on canvas, which the museum has hanging next to a photo of the outdoor original. The differences between them stand out: the duck in the mural looks scared, with droplets of sweat spilling down its face, eyebrows crimped in consternation, and feet glowing red like hot coals. It conveys the urgency of its creation; graffiti was, after all, a crime committed in haste, at night and under precarious conditions.

But Lee’s copy of his own work is blithe and banal, an imitation of itself. The fever has subsided; the stakes are low. By the time Wong started collecting, the golden age of street writing was, in effect, over. The crackdown and the invention of the graffiti-proof subway car forced it out of public view, and trend-watching gallerists were happily waiting to gentrify it. The transition was emasculating, stripping the form of its bluster – which is why this show fits so snugly into a history museum. Wong’s collection eulogises a movement killed off by respect.

At its best, graffiti added sparkle to a drab city in the throes of depression. Each night, writers alleviated the monochrome with explosions of gaudiness. The rhetoric was equally loud: graffiti was a source of empowerment, reclaiming the streets for free expression and rejecting the concept of private property.

But graffiti was never a benign form of social activism. Writers didn’t differentiate between private property and public amenities. Subways, bridges, boulders in Central Park, the Bethesda Fountain angel – all of them wore a changing costume of primary colours. The public had no voice in this, of course. Empowerment edged toward the raw assertion of power.

When real estate prices rebounded, graffiti was corralled on to reservations. For 20 years, a Long Island City developer called Jerry Wolkoff authorised taggers to use the walls of an empty factory building they called 5 Pointz. When Wolkoff decided to replace his building with an apartment tower, the artists protested. Apparently oblivious to the irony, they petitioned the city’s Landmarks and Preservation Commission to protect premises they considered morally theirs. When authors of ephemera ask the bureaucracy of gentrification to endow their creations with permanence, that’s pretty close to the definition of chutzpah.

The context for City as Canvas has shifted during its gestation. Had it opened a few years ago, during the shiny Bloomberg era, it would have seemed like an archaeological artefact. Now, a new mayor is stirring both hope and dread that the freewheeling swagger of the graffiti days could circle back around. It’s hard to know whether to think of this show as reminiscence or portent.

Until August 24,

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