Fab 5 Freddy On His New Art Show and Avoiding '80s New York Nostalgia

David Hershkovits

When he's not kicking back with hip-hop royalty, chilling in his Harlem brownstone, having dinner with David LaChapelle or managing one of his numerous side-ventures -- most recently as a curatorial advisor to Jeffrey Deitch on MoCA's monumental "Art in the Streets" exhibition -- Fred "Fab 5 Freddy" Brathwaite can be found painting in a Brooklyn studio he shares with his old running buddy and fellow graffiti artist Lenny McGurr, a/k/a Futura 2000. After putting art on hiatus for a number of years to launch "Yo! MTV Raps," direct videos and maintain his status as playa par excellence, Brathwaite is back with "New York: New Work," a solo exhibition that will be on view at Gallery 151 (350 Bowery) through July 1.

With the help of Art Production Fund and Swarovski, Brathwaite has produced a series of crystal bedecked pieces on the theme of boxers and show girls that are included in the current exhibition as well as a second series that harkens back to his graffiti work. Brathwaite's graffiti cred stems from an entire subway car he painted in homage to Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup can, foreboding his critical role as a bridge between the art world and the street. Co-Producing and acting in Charlie Ahearn's seminal film Wild Style, which told the story of how the downtown art scene of the '80s embraced uptown and vice versa, was another pivotal moment in Brathwaite's evolution, straddling many worlds but never losing sight of his roots. "Working in film and TV has been very closely associated for me aesthetically with what I did as a painter," he says. "When I look back at it, I didn't plan to stay away from art for so long. I started directing music videos to get stuff more immediately in front of an audience and when the MTV thing dropped in right after it kept me in that lane. I was thinking about art but I wasn't making it on canvas."

Being in LA for the "Art in the Streets" opening brought the story full-circle. "That show is a real culmination of a hell of a lot of people expressing themselves. Jeffrey [Deitch] was one of the earliest champions of the work that me, Jean (Michel Basquiat), Keith (Haring), Kenny (Scharf) and Futura were making. He was literally the first guy in the building then as the art buyer for Citibank. So as the director of MoCA today, I couldn't have thought of a better person to do the show."

There remain purists who maintain that graffiti loses its energy when placed in a museum setting, but Brathwaite is not one of them. The ongoing dialogue between the artist and the art world, he believes, is a necessary component of graffiti. "The MoCA show puts in historical reference the pieces that created the movement, inspired people globally and led to its new manifestation street art."

As the man credited with connecting the graffiti hip-hop community with the downtown scene immortalized in Blondie's 'Rapture" and Glenn O'Brien's TV Party, Brathwaite is forever on the pulse, a pattern-recognition cognoscenti who can make all the connections. "Walking into CBGB and seeing that place completely scrawled with tags at a time when every subway station was I knew then that there was a connection. And we built on that."

With the MoCA show a certified blockbuster and scheduled for a modified run at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012, Brathwaite feels like it's time to dip into the art world again. "What I didn't know [about the street artists of today] is how they all studied the blue print of what we did in the 80s. "They all saw Wild Style, they all saw Subway Art, they all saw Style Wars. At the opening, I was going up to meet Shepard [Fairey] to say 'Yo, dude I want to shake your hand for helping to elect the President.' Before I can get that out of my mouth, he's gushing about all the shit he knows about me and what it meant to him. It was the same with Banksy and the guys in Bristol - Goldie, Tricky, Massive Attack -- they all had the Wild Style, Style Wars blueprint."

As time passes and people begin to look more and more on the '80s as a Golden Age of art and lifestyle, does Brathwaite feel any nostalgia? "Cant fight change," he says. "You will play yourself out if you try to do that. If you look at history, New York things have been changing forever. Nothing has been the same for too long. Although we're in a period now with media when things move at hyper-speed comparatively, I've always been about now and tomorrow with a strong understanding of what's going down."

Subscribe to Get More