The 'Piece of Lee' or: Wild Style (The Bronx-De Lijnbaan)

Siebe Thissen 07.11.2016
© 'the Friends of Lee' / BKOR archive collection

On a rainy day in 2001, I trudged along with Boris van Berkum after Robert de Haas. De Haas, at the time director of the Rotterdam Art Foundation (RKS), took us to a storage shed in a garden on Westersingel. He turned on the light and pointed to a pile of wooden plates that lay in a large pool of water. "Well, here it is." As if we were saying goodbye to a dear friend we had just lost, we stared at the wet pile of misery. Moreover, the plates were painted gray, so that no view was taken of the legendary painting that once was hidden behind it. Because that was the Piece by Lee, as the wall painting in Rotterdam was called. Boris van Berkum, artistic director of Showroom Mama at Witte de Withstraat, wanted to explore the feasibility of a restoration together with the Center for Visual Arts. But after seeing Lee's final resting place, it could only be determined that the piece had become a memory. A pity, there was no longer a second life.

 

Six years earlier, the artwork had already been destroyed by a group of construction workers. First it was painted over with gray wall paint and later pulled off the facade. Because the work in 1982 was an initiative of the RKS, it ended up in its warehouse on the Westersingel. The mural was then installed in the Berenkuil, a dark and somewhat gloomy floor below the Lijnbaan, where the notorious Thelonious jazz club and a popular comic strip shop were housed. The concrete staircases connecting the Lijnbaan with the Berenkuil functioned as a hip meeting place in the evenings and especially during the weekends. The 'Lijnbaanjongeren', a culturally differentiated company that attached great importance to hip-hop and graffiti, gathered here.

 

The affected work was a graffiti artwork. The Piece by Lee only had three letters: Lee - written in a beautiful typography that betrayed a relationship with the aliases and pseudonyms, documented in the legendary book about New York graffiti culture: Watching My Name Go By (1976). The style was unparalleled simplicity and beauty. It was in no way reminiscent of the raw street graph with which the Netherlands had become so familiar. Compare the piece but agree with the slogans and logos published three years earlier C'est Klote. Kalken In Rotterdam (1979). There was a real paradigm shift here.

 

Lee, an alias of Lee George Quinones, was a generation member of Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat and Dondi White. Born in 1960 in Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico, he joined the vanguard of the graffiti movement in the 1970s as a New York immigrant. In 1982, Lee had achieved pop star status and, like Basquiat and Haring, he preferred visual art to a marginal life in anonymity. Moreover, he was invited to participate in the Documenta from Kassel. Art connoisseur Gosse Oosterhof, connected to the RKS, persuaded Lee to make a stopover in Rotterdam on the way to Germany. In the context of Town painting Lee received an order from the RKS and a fee of five thousand guilders - not nothing at that time. The artist chose the Berenkuil as a location, just below the Lijnbaan Center. Not only because he found a suitable audience for his work here, but also because he was able to apply his painting high and dry, so that the work remained free from vandalism and too harsh weather conditions. In those days, Lee had already left his graffiti work behind, but Europe, not yet spoiled by the new graffiti culture, could have a classic masterpiece use. Arrived in New York, the Piece by Lee the first public expression of hip hop and graffiti art in Europe. And a new mascot.

 

Exactly that last aspect was not sufficiently appreciated. In 1982 the RKS considered a graffiti work a nice and contemporary variation on the theme of wall painting, but artistically the work made little impression on the local art community. Outside of art, however, the work's reputation grew steadily. The piece became a hip-hop icon, a source of inspiration for homegrown graffiti artists. Artist Navin Thakoer, who himself started out as Lijnbaanjongere, noted that the territory of Lijnbaanjongeren was marked by two intercultural works of art: on the southern edge was the Piece by Lee and on the north stood the Chilean Column. "Young people from all over the country gathered here," he wrote, "they looked at the work, discussed it with each other and then set off to create themselves."

 

Thakoer was part of the 'Friends of Lee', an action group of young artists and designers, born of concerns about the silent removal of Lee Quinones' work. In 1997 they had formed into a real pressure group that searched for the news and asked art institutions, municipal services and colleagues for this remarkable work. Was that year urban culture broke through as an urban mass phenomenon and hip hop, break dance and graffiti broke away from their subcultural status. During a major festival in Nighttown - the International Breakdance Event - the film became Wild Style (1982) programmed for the first time in Rotterdam. That event was seized by the Friends to bring their case to the attention of a new, young and interested audience. Why was the screening of the film so important?

 

Wild Style is a unique document in which the young graffiti artists Zoro (played by Lee Quinones) and Rose (Lady Pink) play the leading roles. Supported by a fictional, somewhat sentimental love story about a boy and a girl in a large metropolis in the early 1980s, the film is primarily a special documentary about a desolate urban district, The Bronx, where young people shape their lives thanks to graffiti and hip hop . Wild Style testifies to a new, innovative climate: we see rap and deejay sessions in small clubs, where the microphone moves from hand to hand and record players are operated with the finger. But we also witness nocturnal adventures of graffiti artists and we gaze at beautiful shots of painted trains. In addition, the actors were recruited from local youth, mostly migrants, and a selection of now-famous graffiti artists pass in review. The images of The Bronx are mind-boggling: Ahearn shows a battered and wounded city as a post-apocalyptic backdrop - as if the smoke and dust of a bombing had just cleared. In a concrete jungle, dominated by vacancy and impoverishment, modern architecture seems to be breathing its last bits.

 

But the flat, stacked, and half-abandoned boxes - "as flat as the last cent of a dollar" (Norman Mailer) - also provided space for parties, rehearsal rooms, graffiti workshops, and mutual aid networks. Like the projects from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, with over a hundred social housing units, where the young Jamaican migrant Clive Campbell (aka Kool Herc) and his sister Cindy organized the first 'Back To School Jam' on 11 August 1973. The parties were a form of fundraising: school fees, books and writing materials were paid for from the proceeds. We now commemorate that event as the birth of hip hop. An attempt is currently being made to place the building on New York's list of monuments, because hip-hop has also become a material heritage. A few blocks away, the entrepreneur Lloyd 'Bullwackie' Barnes, also from Jamaica, opened his famous studio Wackies, the first reggae label of any significance in the United States. Phenomenal records of Horace Andy, Wayne Jarret and the Love Joys were recorded here. Wild Style is an ode to The Bronx as a formidable, intercultural breeding ground. And graffiti transformed the gray reality into a colorful and adventurous venture.

 

Director Charlie Ahearn, trained as a visual artist, had already organized a number of programs about the work of his great example, artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Since 1970, Matta-Clark has been involved in documenting and subsequently editing graffiti expressions in New York, in particular on trains. His project was called Photoglyphs. He also had his truck modified by young graffiti writers from the South Bronx and then exhibited his car at the Washington Art Fair of 1973. Just as Matta-Clark involved the early graffiti culture in his work, Ahearn turned out to be a documentaryist of the emerging hip-hop culture. He initially projected slides behind break dance and hip hop shows in The Bronx. This is how the scenario gradually came about Wild Style: "When I looked at my slides, with that great pumping music, I saw a movie that still had to be made."

 

But Wild Style was also indebted to two films that had premiered six months earlier. Lee Quinones also has the name on those films. Downtown 81 (1981), created by Edo Bertoglio, sketches an episode in the life of the artist Jean (played by Jean-Michel Basquiat). He traverses New York in search of buyers for his artworks. Along the way, he meets graffiti artists (Lee and Fab Five Freddy), visits bands (Arto Lindsay's DNA, James White & The Contortions, Kid Creole and the Coconuts) and kisses a pompous woman who then turns into a fairytale princess (Debbie Harry). Indeed, it is a wafer-thin story, but it did offer a wonderful glimpse of hip Manhattan - exactly this element made Downtown 81 to the cult film that it is today. At the time the film was shot, Basquiat was still a homeless street frother with spray cans in his knapsack. But the scroll print turned out to be a turning point for him. The works he made as an actor for the film are among his first works on canvas and heralded his short career as a successful visual artist.

 

In the same year, Blondie took the single Rapture (1981) on. The long video clip that accompanies the song uses a number of actors and scenes from it Downtown 81. Again we see Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy at work with spray cans and Jean-Michel Basquiat figures as deejay behind the record players. Blondie was part of the punk culture in New York, but she certainly saw that a new and multicultural youth culture was emerging that was just as exciting and innovative. Deborah Harry's husband Chris Stein, also guitarist for Blondie, would be released shortly after the release of Rapture the soundtrack for Wild Style compose. The role of Blondie and Ahearn (but also of The Clash, who toured Grandmaster Flash and made it known to a large audience) confirms the extent to which visual art and (white) pop culture contributed to the marketing of hip hop.

 

That mutual dependence is also the deployment of Culture Clash. Dread Meets Punk Rockers (2007), the autobiography of Don Letts. In this captivating boys' book, Letts tells the story of a Jamaican immigrant and music lover in London. He was a reggae DJ in the famous Roxy Club (the first punk club in London), roommate of Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, involved in the fashion galleries Acme and Sex, chronicler of The Clash, band member of Big Audio Dynamite and director of the multicultural blockbuster Dancehall Queen (1997). Today he makes documentaries for the BBC, including monographs by Sun Ra, George Clinton and Gil Scott-Heron. In his book Letts shows how white and black youths challenged each other over and over again in one culture clash who produced musical and social innovations. While Ahearn in New York Wild Style edited, Don Letts was in the studio next door, where he finished a documentary about the American tour of The Clash. 'I saw shots of the final at Ahearn - fabulous, comparable to The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979), but with a much better soundtrack. Moreover, the film did not have paid extras, but only the youth of the street. The language, style and movements of hip hop were recorded lifelike for the first time. It was just like punk. Also Wild Style was a reaction to the far too commercial pop culture of the US, which had moved further and further away from the harsh daily reality of young people in The Bronx. Don Letts spoke from experience: his own documentary The Punk Rock Movie (1977), shot with a Super 8 camera, is still considered the first film about the British punk movement.

 

This development did not pass silently by Rotterdam. Gallery Black Cat on the Mauritsweg already showed work by Keith Haring in 1979. And Hans Sonnenberg from Galerie Delta organized the first Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition in Europe in 1982. But "Basquiat was a graffiti artist altogether," the gallery owner noted, "he has only been occupied with that mess for a year in the street - Basquiat was a great artist." A year later, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and the Groninger Museum opened their doors for a large retrospective of the new street masters from New York. The organizers, Wim Beeren and Frans Haks, defended themselves against allegations that graffiti did not belong in a museum: "We believe we can see great vitality, also on the square centimeter." Anne Tilroe in the Hague Post (12-11-1983). She denounced 'the cult of the trivial' and thought that graffiti had nothing to do with visual art, but everything with advertising, comic culture and top sport.

 

Twenty squatters reacted even more militantly. Armed with spray cans, they entered Boijmans van Beuningen and went for it with attendants. Six arrests for vandalism and assault followed. Yet it was an isolated incident. Because politically committed punk graffiti had already alienated itself from the new, multicultural hip hop graffiti. The most famous Amsterdam crew United Street Artists (USA) was founded after the members watched a VPRO documentary about the exhibition in Boijmans van Beuningen. Lee Quinones was also not bothered by feelings of guilt. In an interview with critic Jan van Adrichem, he explained why his work deserved a place in Rotterdam and Groningen. 'My paintings are aimed at society and many young people feel related to them. Unfortunately, all our work on the New York trains is being destroyed today. Thanks to the museums, the works of our generation remain at least intact '.

 

In the Maas city, this attention resulted in a strong impulse for the new graffiti culture. In 1986, artist Joe Cillen and architect Maarten Struijs organized the first graffiti exhibition of local train painters on the Noordereiland, including Jean and Alien. Humor was also present, because the opening was performed by the renowned Commissioner Jan Blaauw. Shop owners on De Lijnbaan, including Profoot, Levi's, Broekhuizen Opticiens and Pour Toi, also commissioned graffiti artists to paint their shops and shutters. Gradually, the entire shopping zone between the Piece by Lee and the Chilean Column colored by young people. Visual arts and the middle class were responsible for the fact that graffiti gained glamor and prestige in the 1980s. After the success of 'Kunst van U - art for you', the action of the Ter Meulen department store in 1965, the middle class of the Lijnbaan again played an innovative role.

 

The premiere of Wild Style in Nighttown was based on that great appreciation for this special heritage. In Rotterdam's perception, Lee Quinones was the umbilical cord that connected De Lijnbaan to The Bronx. Just as the British artist Banksy is of great significance for contemporary street graphics, Lee was just as important for the Rotterdam graffiti culture of the 1980s and 1990s. But the Friends of Lee did not have mere emancipatory interests in 1997. They were not faithful followers, but new cultural entrepreneurs. This class opened a new art discourse in Rotterdam, in which much attention was paid to street culture, graffiti, murals, nightlife and wild cross-fertilization with other disciplines. The initiative for this promotion was from Boris van Berkum, director of Showroom Mama, founded in 1997, the first center for street art in Rotterdam.

 

Other members were Rens Muis, Hans Foks, Navin Thakoer, Gyz La Rivière and Mark Huige. Rens Muis is still part of the design agency 1996B, founded in 75, responsible for many house styles in the cultural sector, from the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) to Museum Rotterdam. In 1998, Hans Foks was the initiator of the equally hip design agency DC, which spontaneously made work for the public space, but also carried out assignments for the cultural and commercial sector. Artist Navin Thakoer was part of the infamous Rotterdam graffiti collective Bad Boyz Inc, acts as a performer ('Nafer Loves You') and organizes parties such as Club Lau and Cool Asia. Former fashion designer Gyz La Rivière was a member of the artist duo Humobisten and today focuses mainly on Rotterdam - he published a book about the local flyer culture, made with 12. The Fret Click (2009) a beautiful documentary about a group of skaters from Rotterdam and his film was shot in 2012 Rotterdam 2040 in premiere. Mark Huige is the manager of Urban Unit, now located on the Nieuwe Binnenweg. The store specializes in selling urban fashion, sneakers and graffiti supplies. This generation served as a model for the young and hip art city that had become Rotterdam and provided the ammunition for the hosanna vote in the year that Rotterdam was declared Cultural Capital (2001). And that was no mean achievement.

 

In this light, we must also see the Friends of Lee's action - as a smart marketing campaign, promoting a program of its own, with its own accents, its own art history and its own sources of inspiration. Graffiti offered many a first introduction to visual arts, but it was the removal of the piece that only really provided new cultural entrepreneurs with identity. Only they understood the importance of the work and their enterprise forced a break with previous creative generations. The removal of the artwork was part of a physical and social upgrade of De Lijnbaan. First, the Beurstraverse was constructed - the 'Koopgoot'. After that, all graffiti was removed. Also the Chilean Column was dismantled and taken to the demolition. Subsequently, all places of residence disappeared and the Lijnbaan youngsters dissolved in a series of police regulations. Finally, the Bear Pit was locked and the basement was sold to an entrepreneur who turned it into a large record store.

 

However, The Bronx continued to appeal to the imagination in Rotterdam. In 1991 the Witte de With art center opened an exhibition by the artists John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres - South Bronx Hall of Fame, was their program, named after a project that Ahearn had already started in 1979. He belonged to a new generation of committed artists who wanted to comment on daily life from the Bronx. He makes extremely realistic sculptures of prostitutes, truants, hip hoppers and methadone users. In his images, social criticism and art are powerfully combined. "My work knows no irony," Ahearn told the Financial Times (28 April 2012) in the context of a retrospective. "My sculptures are genuine expressions of feeling and passion." With Torres, Ahearn wandered from neighborhood to neighborhood and immortalized dozens of passers-by in special images. Also in Rotterdam. Together with the Cool residents' organization, the artists selected a number of local residents. The residents are still visible as sculptures in the Kromme Elleboog, the Kortenaerstraat and the Boomgaardstraat.

 

De Piece by Lee, that other legacy from the Bronx, silently disappeared from the scene in Rotterdam. That may not be a disaster, because the memory seems sweet: the Piece has become a myth. Yet Lee Quinones showed up in 2006 in Rotterdam for a while. He was invited by Navin Thakur and Faisel Rajjab. They had been commissioned to make a mural in the tunnel tube between the Wilhelminapier and Rijnhaven metro stations. With this the municipality hoped to put an end to illegal nocturnal descents. Together the designers made a digital sketch that was then printed. The nearly one hundred meter long painting was revealed by a councilor on a cold winter night. Two hundred curious people descended into the cracks of Rotterdam and saw that Lee was back in the city.

 

It was the first and last time that the new work could be viewed. Because the monumental painting cannot be seen from the metro. Lee looked back once more piece in the Berenkuil: 'You know, in 1982 art still came from the darkness, not the darkness of the tunnel, but the darkness of the ghettos in New York. It was the darkness of life as we knew it. But then suddenly there was light: our art! My Rotterdam thing was actually very modest, but here too it was loose. It became a refuge and the Piece turned out to be the expression of a wonderful way of life. I would like to return to that time '.

 

 

 

 

Related artwork

Mario & Antonio (1991) John Ahearn & Rigoberto Torres