Three Street Artists who Call New York City Their Muse

Artsy Editorial
Mar 15, 2014 8:30PM

Forever an artist’s muse for its multi-storied skyscrapers, bustling neighborhoods, and electric energy, New York City has had a particular effect on the artists who grew up within its bounds. Although the city is no longer covered with graffiti the way it was in the 1970s and ’80s, for a long time it was a street artist’s playground, encouraging spray painting on every outdoor surface that wasn’t yet covered in tags. In honor of Avant Gallery’s new location in New York, we take a look at three of their artists who are native New Yorkers, and have each undergone a similar journey that began with tagging on their hometown streets.

For Alec Monopoly, growing up in New York, which he regards as “the art capital of the world,” turned him onto tagging, particularly because it was illegal. He was inspired to transition to street art following the economic recession in 2008, when he adopted the Monopoly man as his main subject. Initially a symbol to comment on the economy and capitalist greed, eventually Rich Uncle Pennybags came to represent the artist himself. Like Banksy, Alec chose to be anonymous, hiding under his alias and covering his face while in public; this became necessary during his debut gallery exhibition in New York in 2010, when the NYPD repeatedly sought out the artist, determined to arrest him for vandalism. For his best-known non-street art works, Alec applies newspaper to canvas, paints on top, and seals the whole work with resin—a process through which he intends to “seal history.”

In a similar experience, Brooklyn-born artist DAIN transitioned from spray-painted graffiti to street art to showing in galleries. Influenced by his New York City upbringing, DAIN has said, “The diversity of people, the culture, the style—it can’t be matched. Graffiti used to be huge here, especially in the late ’70s early ’80s. Trains were covered floor to ceiling. Art was all around and still is.” His paintings, which are collages on wood, are a natural progression from his street art—created through wheat-pasting methods—employing photographs of Hollywood icons from Elizabeth Taylor to Angelina Jolie. Focusing on their faces, he paints their lips and draws circles around their eyes but manages to highlight their beauty, rather than detract from it. When asked about the latest chapter in his art career he replied, “I love showing work in galleries. I want my art to maintain a street grittiness, though.”

Pursuing this same trajectory generations before while growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s, John “Crash” Matos started out as a 13-year-old bombing spray paint cans in the train yards, created subway graffiti alongside compatriot Keith Haring, and began showing in galleries across the United States and Europe by the time he was 20. Like Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who traveled in the same circles, Matos seamlessly translated his street art style to canvas, and his works became recognizable through his signature, “Crash”—which he acquired during school after crashing a computer. Bright colors and closely cropped graphics characterize his canvas works, which combine comic and cartoon-style characters with advertising imagery.

Explore more artists from Avant Gallery.

Artsy Editorial