Volume 18 • Issue 11 | August 5 - 11, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Clayton Patterson

From left, Lee Quinones with fashion designer Ann Hanavan and Joey Semz, a musician and artist, in front of Quinones’ new mural on Ludlow St.

Hip hop artist pairs with Nike

By Sara Levin

As painter Lee Quinones outlined the form of a snake on his new Ludlow St. mural, a young man wearing a graffitied cap glanced over as he walked by. He slyly scribbled a tag on a nearby grate and then wheeled around in sudden realization.

“You were in ‘Wild Style,’ right?” he asked, slowly approaching.

“Yeah,” Quinones laughed. Still recognizable by his role in the early “hip-hop classic” film shot more than 20 years ago, the artist whose work was more recently inducted into the Whitney Museum of American Art’s permanent collection has had a hard time finishing his mural on time, because so many people stopped to chat with him on the street.

The Nort sneaker store in conjunction with Nike commissioned Quinones to cover the wall neighboring Max Fish on the Lower East Side. Though still unfinished on a recent visit, the dominant figures in place command attention. Contrary to the sports images normally associated with Nike, the mural scene depicting a craps table encircled by two snakes is self-consciously political.

“The two snakes are about to do battle,” Quinones said, arching his hands in front of the wall in imitation. “The imagery is depicting the moral climate of our society right now; the political climate that seems to be evolving where people are putting themselves in a snake pit.”

His mural, which now covers most of the Tats Cru cityscape there before it, is the second among a planned yearlong series of pieces by different artists sponsored by the Eldridge St. store.

Numbers painted on Quinones’s dice table, 911 and 41, evoke a comparison between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. Critical of United States involvement in Iraq and fearful of government manipulation, Quinones said that the 33 represents Hitler’s exploitation of the Reichstag fire in 1933 Berlin to limit civil rights and target Communists; according to him, the actions of President Bush after 9/11 were similar. Defiance of authority has been a staple of his work going back to his Howard the Duck mural that said, “If art is a crime, let God forgive all.”

“None of the artists is going to stand up there and paint a basketball,” said Stash, Nort’s owner. “I’m in between a company that’s sponsoring it and the love of the art.”

Maurice Menares, C.E.O. of Nort’s sister store, Recon, said that Nike was very receptive to sponsoring artists, even if it wasn’t necessarily a direct advertisement and that the paintings they sponsored tapped into the local community.

“People passed by that mural every day. It’s accessible. It isn’t like walking into a gallery,” he said. Stash added that it can be seen as part of “sport culture.”

When asked what he thought of being a “corporate artist,” Quinones simply said, “I’m not. [Nike] just gave me the green light.” Being paid for art that so many people associate with graffiti culture is nothing new for the painter, who had his first show in Rome in the late ’70s and counted Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat among his admirers. But unlike other artists who made their name at the Fun Gallery and were part of the gritty Lower East Side art scene of the ’80s, Quinones was born and raised Downtown in the Smith Houses near the Brooklyn Bridge.

As one of the first graffiti artists to make a lasting impression in the art world, Quinones said that many other “writers” from his neighborhood never wanted to expand into gallery art, or felt excluded, like they’d never be able to get in.

Mark “Tev” Alequin stopped by the site to say Hi. “We grew up together,” Alequin said. “He taught me the ins and outs of painting.” Though Alequin had served time in prison, Quinones maintains he’s never been caught because he almost always painted alone.

Welcoming the happy distraction, Quinones reminisced about how much the Lower East Side has changed from its infamous heroin days and Patti Astor glam. Incidentally, Astor — who appeared in ‘Wild Style’ and founded the Fun Gallery, at which she gave the graffiti writers shows — and Quinones are both working on memoirs.

Helping manage scaffolding and carrying paint was Quinones’s apprentice of sorts, Gregory Beylin. The two met while the artist was lecturing at Spofford juvenile detention center. At 15, Beylin had been arrested for graffiti on several counts and called Quinones after being released.

“I took him under my wing, assisting,” Quinones said. “Kids today are entrenched in video games, hearing but not listening, looking but not seeing. I think it’s very different today,” he added, describing how young people were once galvanized by the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and Vietnam. “Kids [today] are disoriented to the fact that they’re being kept in the dark.”

The upper part of his mural depicts two high rollers, one in a white suit, the other with the appearance of a quintessential hip-hopper, both leering over the snake pit. “Bush is orchestrating a manipulation of the masses,” he said.

When asked why Nort chose Quinones to paint for Nike, Stash said he had known the graffiti legend a long time and had always looked up to him.

“He represents the Lower East Side, born and bred,” he said. “He is the godfather of the spray can to me. I was on the street photographing him almost every day and it’s amazing the skill that he has.”

Quinones is currently working to put together a solo show for next year. Though he was recently in the “East Village USA” exhibit at the New Museum, he said he has not had a personal show in New York for about two years. While painting is his lifelong love, Quinones added that he is now experimenting with sculpture, working at a studio above a metal fabrication shop where he has access to unique types of metal. But the recent creation that he is most proud of is a ’65 Dodge for which he hand built many parts. He was planning to bring the car down to the mural site to do a photo shoot for Hot Rod magazine.


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