Shafrazi was able to get his father and stepmother out of the country shortly after the Shah was exiled
, and he ended up back in New York, where he gravitated towards the artists who tagged the streets of the East Village with graffiti. He thought he could show them in the standard white cube of the art world.
“I felt like it was important to acknowledge this new variety of voices, and that’s when the idea of opening a gallery started to evolve,” Shafrazi told Wilson. “I didn’t start the gallery with the idea of being a dealer to make money.”
He opened a space at 163 Mercer Street in SoHo in 1981, and by 1982, he was giving shows
, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. In 1985, Tony Shafrazi Gallery hosted the first fruits of the collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat.
All the while, the same artists were still tagging the East Village. In 1984, People profiled
Shafrazi, writing: “While members of the limousine set buy Haring paintings from Shafrazi for as much as $20,000 apiece, Haring continues to do graffiti in the subways for the fun of it.”
It was an unlikely second (third? fourth?) act for the criminal who disgraced Picasso just months after the artist’s death, something not lost on the art world at the time.
“The reemergence of Tony Shafrazi, the Sprayer of Guernica, as the Graffiti dealer of choice was further proof that that reality can be more high-colored than any novelist,” wrote Haden-Guest in True Colors.
Shafrazi would go on to open a gallery in Chelsea, winning the lucrative U.S. representation of the
estate in 1998. In 2008, his reputation for Guernica
and his successes as a dealer collided head-on. That summer, Shafrazi gave his gallery over
and dealer Gavin Brown
, who together conceived of a group show called “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” which had a fairly novel conceit. The walls of the gallery were plastered with wallpaper that featured exactly-to-scale images of the last show at the gallery, which was a group show of the artists Shafrazi was famous for making famous: Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Donald Baechler
, Keith Haring. And on top of the flat images of the previous show, Fischer and Brown installed actual artworks, this time by
While the show referenced Shafrazi’s past triumphs as a dealer, it also referenced the most notorious line on his résumé. There were photos of Shafrazi being led out of MoMA in handcuffs; during the afterparty, two strippers dressed as cops wheeled
out a cake that had on its front a reproduction of Guernica
. Brown handed Shafrazi a tube of red icing and implored him to write something, to deface the painting again. “I’M SORRY,” he wrote
, until he got to the end of the cake. Then, he added: “NOT.”