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Essential Introductions: The New York Graffiti Scene

New York is famed for its colourful graffiti and street art. Lining parks, bridges and subway cars, it’s almost impossible to imagine the city without it!
Beginning in the early 1970s, the movement grew alongside the early days of hip-hop. Whilst graffiti artists haven’t faced an easy path, the scene has risen from humble beginnings to become a worldwide phenomenon.

Today, we take a look at the history of the New York graffiti scene – before introducing some of the most famous names and where you might just catch a glimpse of their art.

Spray-cans at the ready, let’s dive straight in…

A brief history of New York graffiti

Contrary to popular belief – graffiti wasn’t actually born in New York. Its roots are found in late-1960s South Philadelphia, with artists that subsequently migrated to the big city.

Making their mark on the city’s subway system, this generation of artists inspired not just creatives, but a whole social movement.

Popular amongst working-class Latino and African American residents of Washington Heights, the Bronx and Brooklyn, graffiti “writers” proudly tagged their names in black markers around the city. These writers started with subway cars, but the scene quickly grew as people competed to “bomb” as many locations as possible.

Tags very quickly became more sophisticated, with the colours and fonts (such as Bubble Letters and Broadway Elegant) we’d recognise today. Known as “Wild Style” as “throw-up” it was fast to create, leaving less chance of getting caught and the harsh penalties that followed.

Even with the 1984 “Clean Car Program”, artists such as Dondi, Seen, Lady Pink and Keith Haring continued to make their mark. Today, the scene has morphed to incorporate graffiti festivals, large-scale murals and even gallery shows – with artists continuing to shake up both societal and artistic preconceptions.

Famous New York graffiti artists

There are so many legendary New York graffiti artists… Where to start!?

Here’s just a few of the most inspiring names, to provide a feel of this varied scene.

Ketih Haring

 Keith Haring is one of the few graffiti artists to have really broken through into public consciousness. His graphic figures with bold lines and even brighter colours have become iconic symbols – recognisable the world over.



Keith Haring’s work responded to themes of sexuality, war, AIDs, religion and the crack-cocaine epidemic surging through New York city in the 1980s. Starting out with chalk drawings on the subway system, he soon rose to international fame.

In his all too short life, Keith Haring raised awareness on behalf of the gay community in New York. He created social hubs such as the gallery space “Club 57” and transformed the city with works such as the Bowery Wall mural and the “Crack is Wack” mural. The Keith Haring Foundation, set up in 1989, continues to support AIDs organisations to this day.

Lady Pink

Lady Pink shot to fame as an icon of the 1980s graffiti movement and has dedicated her career to empowering women and the youth of New York.

Earning the moniker the “first lady of graffiti” she created the all-female crew the “Ladies of Arts”. Lady Pink’s early work focused on painting the subway cars of New York. She turned to graffiti as a way to cope with the loss of a partner – tagging their name anywhere and everywhere.

Her work soon evolved to incorporate playful images, large-scale murals and camouflaged graffiti. Lady Pink’s creative style, social activism and continued output cement her reputation as one of the living legends of the New York Graffiti scene.

Lee Quiñones

Lee Quiñones was one of the original graffiti pioneers and inventors of the New York City subway movement. He began his graffiti career in the 1970s, quickly gaining a reputation for large “whole-car” subway murals.

One of his best known works is the handball court mural on the Lower East Side, featuring Disney’s Donald Duck protecting himself with a dustbin lid from the incoming “LEE” tag. It carries the now infamous message: “Graffiti is a art, and if art is a crime, let God forgive us all.”

Where to see New York graffiti

Many graffiti artists’ work now sells for millions of dollars. Today, the lines between graffiti, street art and “fine art” excitingly overlap.

If you’re hunting graffiti “in the wild” – then the good news is that there are still plenty of New York spots to check out.

Bowery Wall Mural, Manhattan

Painted by Keith Haring in 1982, this iconic spot showcases Manhattan street art to its full potential. Purchased by Goldman Properties just two years after it was created, the mural was kept intact until after Keith Haring’s death in 1990.

It has subsequently been tagged over, maintaining the “free for all” atmosphere that keeps New York’s graffiti scene alive today.

In 2008, Goldman teamed up with gallerists and legendary graffiti artists to create an evolving program to celebrate what would have been Keith Haring’s 50th Birthday. Reflecting its continued significance, in 2018 Banksy unveiled a mural on the wall, protesting the imprisonment of Turkish artist Zehra Dogan.

Crack is Wack Mural, East Harlem



As a truly iconic piece of New York graffiti, no trip to the city would be complete without viewing this artwork. Created by Keith Haring in 1986, the mural serves as a warning against crack cocaine. As a symbol of anti-drug activism, it commemorates the artist’s powerful socio-political work – and is maintained by the New York Parks department to this day.

Whilst you’re there, check out the nearby 100 Gates Project, focused on the Lower East Side, East Harlem and Staten Island neighbourhoods. The project aims to transform security roll-down gates across the city. Famous contributors include Paul Kasmin, Kenny Scharf and Buff Monster.

Welling Court Mural Project, Queens

Established in 2009, the Welling Court Mural project was born when residents approached Ad Hoc Art’s Bushwick gallery. Spread over multiple blocks, the project sometimes hosts over 150 murals in a single year. Some artists (such as Lady Pink) have maintained a wall for years.

Sadly, the recent trend of luxury apartments has meant many locations have been demolished and whitewashed. Despite this, there has been some productive crossover with artists invited to paint interior murals on one development. Well-known names including Lady Pink, Daze and CRASH contributed.


The Artmarket Gallery is an award-winning independent gallery with a friendly, knowledgeable team.

With some of the leading names in modern urban art, including Keith Haring, Banksy Stik and Zombi, we’re experts at pairing people with artwork they adore. Get in touch today to discuss either adding-to or selling your collection – we’d be glad to be of service.