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STRAAT pays homage: United Graffiti Artists @ Razor Gallery

STRAAT pays homage: United Graffiti Artists

STRAAT is proud to continue the efforts of our predecessors when it comes to showcasing graffiti and street art as a gallery-worthy and museal artform. Which is why we will revisit several exhibitions from the past that laid the foundation for what we are able to do today, in a series of articles called STRAAT pays homage. Remember: if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you don't know where you’re going...

United Graffiti Artists at the Razor Gallery, New York City, 1973

1973. The very first graffiti art gallery exhibition. Talk about laying the foundation… 

In the early 1970s, graffiti writers made the transition from just doing tags - the graffiti writer’s quick signature - to also doing pieces, the bigger, more stylized, time-consuming works. Painting a larger surface gave graffiti writers more creative opportunities to separate themselves from their competition. Having a cool and original style became a bigger focal point. Quantity was still a factor, but quality was on the rise. It didn’t take long for people from outside the subculture to recognize the artistic potential of the movement. 

In 1972, New York student Hugo Martinez embarked on a sociological mission to track down the top graffiti writers in the city. He united artists such as Coco 144, Phase 2, SJK 171 and many others under the moniker United Graffiti Artists (UGA). He inspired these ‘subway writers’ to create graffiti art on canvases. The UGA first showcased their graffiti art at the City College of New York, the educational institute Hugo Martinez attended at the time. 

In 1973, the Razor Gallery hosted a United Graffiti Artists group show, which made for the very first graffiti art exhibition in an art gallery. Art critics from the New York Times, New York Post and the Daily News attended the exhibition, as did a reporter for Newsweek. According to one critic ‘graffiti makes dynamic pop art’, while Peter Schejldahl - a well-known critic in the New York art scene - noted that “none of these [canvases]  would do discredit to a collection of contemporary art”. Not bad for a maiden voyage into the contemporary art world.

STRAAT pays homage: United Graffiti Artists @ Razor Gallery

The UGA continued to do group shows into the mid 1970s, until the artists went their separate ways. They were arguably so far ahead of the times that it would take until the late 1970s before graffiti art made a comeback in the more established New York art scene. 

While some may say that graffiti lost its innocence when it entered the institutionalized art world, it is undeniable that the UGA are the absolute pioneers of graffiti (as) art. The artists involved have not only cemented their place in graffiti history, but in art history as well. We should continue to honor them for their groundbreaking endeavours. 

Want to see some of the early styles from back then in real life? STRAAT is proud to showcase a 2.5m x 3m canvas by Mike 171 and SJK 171 in our current exhibition Quote from the streets, which you can also admire online through our Collection database.

SJK 171 at work for STRAAT
SJK 171 at work for STRAAT


By: Alex Pope

Picture UGA and flyer design: Migdoll

Picture SJK at STRAAT: Tim Stet

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