Lee Quiñones: Graffiti and the Gallery

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Lee Quiñones: I operated in a very dark place, a very dingy, dimly-lit utilitarian society. And that sort of sparked my idea that I needed to bring color to this. I need to bring a more of an atmospheric mood, a good atmospheric mood by the choice of colors.
And the colors themselves speak out. They speak volumes because the color itself indicates that the artist is trying to retrieve, restore or actually have some valid point.
Hrag Vartanian: In the 1970s, New York was a dark and gray place. Decades of political mismanagement, budgetary shortfalls, explicitly racist urban renewal and highway expansion projects had taken their toll. The economy was in shambles, too. At one point, chaos reigned when the city fell under a complete blackout for two days in 1977. And of course, public transportation was increasingly in ruins because of lack of funding and maintenance. But it was there, in the subterranean smog, that something new was growing in this city. At the moment when New York was breaking down, the subways were bursting alive with color.

Young kids from poor and working class neighborhoods were becoming the leaders of a new aesthetic movement that would revolutionize the urban landscape, not just in New York City, but in cities all around the world. Graffiti, in all its joyous and rebellious forms, was taking over the subway. And soon, it would take over the gallery world, too.
Welcome back to the Hyperallergic Podcast. Today, we have the unique pleasure and privilege to be talking with a legend of paintbrushes and spray cans, Lee Quiñones. Lee began writing graffiti at 14 years old, and by the time he turned 16, he was already renowned for painting electrifying murals all around the city, including being part of the crew that painted the first fully painted train.
At only 19, Lee's work had been picked up by wealthy and well connected art collector Claudino Bruni. He and Fab 5 Freddy debuted their first gallery show in Galleria La Medusa, in Rome, Italy, in 1979, which soon led to more trips across the pond to England, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even Germany's Documenta in 1982.
One of the few leading graffiti writers who's been able to sustain a successful career in the gallery world, today, he's still innovating, with works influenced not just by his time in the train yard, but also Dada, Futurism, and his time in the East Village scene during the ‘80s, where he experimented alongside Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others.
Today, his work is held in major museums all around the world. His trajectory from dazzling graffiti bombs to poetic abstraction is coming out in a new book called Lee Quiñones: Fifty Years of New York Graffiti Art and Beyond.

I'm Hrag Vartanian, the Editor-in-Chief, Co-founder of Hyperallergic. Let's get started.
Early Life and Work
Hrag Vartanian: Hey, Lee. How's it going?
Lee Quiñones: Hey. Going well. Happy to be here. Thank you for having me for this.
Hrag Vartanian: Pleasure. And this is the new book, Fifty Years of New York Graffiti, Art and Beyond. This is a long time coming, right?
Lee Quiñones: Fifty years.
[Both laugh.]
Hrag Vartanian: Truly amazing Okay, the figure on the front. How old were you here?
Lee Quiñones: I was 21 going into 22.
Hrag Vartanian: So what was 20 year old Lee thinking?
Lee Quiñones: Well, 20 year old Lee was reflecting on just six years prior to that. I'm starting with holes in my shoes, running the ties of tracks underneath the darkest tunnels, the catacombs of New York.
And at 16 years old, I was infamously known for my work running on the rails. But here, at 20, 21, the lights are on and cocktail society is pinging the glasses and I'm wondering what this is all about. I knew that it was a totally new arena, a new theater of operations for me. I was now tossed, thrusted into this limelight, where I was also meeting newer artists, and very diverse artists, particularly in the music scene and the poet scene. It was quite inviting, but it's also very frightening at the same time.
Hrag Vartanian: Right. So, and you were born in Puerto Rico, correct?
Lee Quiñones: I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Hrag Vartanian: And you, and you arrived at a young age. To New York, correct?
Lee Quiñones:Yeah. I arrived at eight months old.
Hrag Vartanian: Okay. And so what was that connection with Puerto Rico for you growing up? What role did that have, would you say, in your early life and even in your early art?
Lee Quiñones: I think the role that it had was that I was very enthusiastic and loud and proud, as my people are. Very festive. But I also understood that there was a line on the sand between the beauty of Puerto Rico and the culture and the people there—the relaxed state of mind, as opposed to the hustle and bustle of New York, which was going through its own challenging times.
I mean, it's right in the early 1960s, and things are starting to get a little frail and fragile around the edges. You know, the city went broke by the ‘70s. I was seeing the progression of oppression. The city was just in a fiscal crisis that had never been before. Though the city had grown to a certain plateau, where there was a shift in many things. I mean, the Vietnam War was just ending, in the early to mid ‘70s. The women's rights movement was in full swing. We were just on the outer fringes of the Civil Rights Movement. The Young Lords were here in New York.
I mean, I was accustomed to seeing a lot of street gangs operating in various neighborhoods. And at that point, at that early age, I was told that the Young Lords were a street gang. But I didn't understand until later on that they were actually an organization that was trying to build up equity for their own people and also had some kind of good judgment and a good cause.
So, you know, I heard about all these movements that were very radical at the time. You know, theoretically radical, when one is pushing against the grain, against a big establishment, it does seem radical because you have to make more noise than most.
Hrag Vartanian: But that's what you were doing with your early work, pushing against an establishment, right?
Lee Quiñones: Sure.
Hrag Vartanian: Did it feel like that though?
Lee Quiñones: No. You know, I would say that the establishment wasn't even there because it felt like the city was in such a in disarray and was so dilapidated, that there was no operational municipality, you know like in the city
Hrag Vartanian: So like, real dysfunction.
Lee Quiñones: I would say an abundance of disinvestment.
You know, I think the city just felt that it had to go to some kind of intermission. And that intermission was like, these crazy times, these two or three eras that we had to go through growing pains. I just felt, at that time, that the only thing that could reveal and heal me against what I was seeing and experiencing and hearing and seeing was the art.
And I think that I wasn't the only one thinking that way. But, you know, very quickly, I felt that even coming into the movement in 1974, I was re-establishing myself, regenerating, retriggering my batteries, if you say. It was only three or four years since it really started to gain some legs and traction. But I was like, “I need to push this envelope a little further.”
Hrag Vartanian: Love that. What was the first artist you were conscious of growing up? Was it a person? Was it someone in history? Was it a name?
Lee Quiñones: I would say that I was really attracted to cinema more than the visual arts. I mean, cinema is visual arts, right? But I was attracted to cinema first and foremost. My mother was a huge film buff. I ended up at a lot of, sort of, red carpet events. I don't know how she finagled that, or you know, how she worked.
Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs]. It's New York!
Lee Quiñones: New York, right? Sneak, sneak across, you know, cross the lines and stuff. You'll get in.
Hrag Vartanian: Someone knows people.
Lee Quiñones: Someone knows people. But you know, she took me to a lot of events, and also just to films. So I found my first love cinematically, in the moving image. And it was always inviting to me, especially when it had a great music score behind it.
Hrag Vartanian: Are there any early experiences at museums that made a big imprint on you?
Lee Quiñones: No, not at all. I really didn’t go to any museums. My mother, when it came to the fine arts, was kind of removed from that. She was a homemaker. She stayed home most of the time, dealing with four children, me being the youngest out of four. So it kept her, probably unfortunately, it kept her from exploring those outer reaches of the arts.
Cinema was a new, inviting sanctuary for most people, right? I mean, it's only, what, 30 years since the invention of television, and then theaters before that. To answer your question, one of my first favorite directors was Ishirō Honda, who created the 1954 Classic Godzilla. Which was a phenomenal breakthrough at that time, conceptually, visually, and politically. And that really grabbed me. It was like this thing, this mutant thing that is created not by nature, but it's a combination with human behavior, which is complicated. So I looked at it as very complicated. I wasn't entertained by that creature, and the science behind it, just for, you know, stomping buildings being this huge menace. I just looked at it more as a suffering creature that represented the suffering of the human condition.
Hrag Vartanian: Lee would also later appear in the movies himself. Most famously as Raymond Zorro in the classic 1983 hip-hop film that he and his fellow graffiti writers helped create. You've probably heard of it. It's called Wild Style.
Hrag Vartanian: In the book, Alan Schwartzman writes something where he says that all the gallery people knew who were. People were wondering, “Who's this guy painting these trains?” What did it feel like at that age to know that these people, who do this for a living, were looking out for your work and figuring out who you were?
Lee Quiñones: I mean, I think the art world and myself, we were going through a period that was kind of like dating. We were trying to figure each other out. And I think that there was enough information on their desk, based on hearsay or whatever, for them to be enamored, and to sort of say, “Wow,” or, you know, “Who is this?”
You know, curiosity kills the cat, right? But curiosity is also stimulated when you give someone a teaser, a trailer, or something so you don’t reveal so much. It's irresistible.
So, I mean, here are a group of painters. I'm painting the majority of these big, huge masterpieces on the sides of subway cars, 52 feet long. And people are wondering, “How is that even feasible, in this time and age? How is this person actually creating that? And being anonymous at the same time, not announcing themselves?” I mean, that was part of the atmosphere at the time. You needed to be anonymous, because it was totally against the law. But it was a very influential force. And I think, based on mural making, what they were calling a “vile act” was literally showcasing its best cards by these masterpieces that were rolling through the rail system.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. That makes sense.
Lee Quiñones: Yeah, it just made a lot of people in the art world wonder, like, “Wow, this is something that's been underneath our feet, literally, and now it's surfacing.”
Hrag Vartanian: Do you remember a mural or a tag, or something that you first saw and you were kind of like, “Huh!”
Lee Quiñones: I would have to say that I first saw color. Color sets the mood, in any atmosphere. And I saw a lot of color, a lot of flashing. Just a lot of flashes of color, not knowing that, obviously the dynamic energy, the train moving in motion created this blur of color. And those colors were all part of these paintings of names.
When I came across the first name I saw, I was like, “Wow. What does that spell out?” Was a “Vinny.” A “Vinny” on a F train. His name was Vinny. It was a legible “V,” and then “I,” and then the two “N’s” were lowercase that had a little swirl on the top. So it had a little flare, a little style. And they look like lowercase “A's.”
So I was like, “V-I-A-A-Y? What does that mean?” So it was very foreign to me. I didn't understand that to even be a name. I didn't even put it into the notion that it was an advertisement, right? But I know that it had a lot of character to it, that it was done by the human hand.
Hrag Vartanian: It sounds like you kind of really like the mystery of it a little too. Like, “What is this?”
Lee Quiñones: Yes, of course. Of course. And it's rolling, and it's on a train. It's a boy and his train. I love trains. I still, to this day, love looking at those inanimate objects that have this real gallant presence. The noises and the sounds and the smells that they emulate, you know, I loved it back then.
Funny story about my mother and I. She was a very patient woman. And at that time, there was a transition from old train stock from the 1930s and ‘40s that was still running on the rails that was being replaced by newer stainless steel cars.
Hrag Vartanian: Are you talking about the red cars?
Lee Quiñones: Well, the red cars were still going to be in service for a number of years. But these are what we used to call the “coal mines,” which were the chocolate-brown, iron-clad cars with ribbed sides and the fans and the straw seats. They were still running all the way to like 1975, ‘76. And I loved them, because they came into the train station with a lot of character.
And, I don’t love this, but I said, “Ma, we have to wait for one of those trains.” Which were far in between sometimes. So she would wait there. I guess she had a lot of patience or we had a lot of time. Either one of those two, or the combination of both. Because we would wait for like, three sets of stainless steel trains coming through. Which had their own character, though to me they were very sterile and surgical.
Whereas, when these trains came in, the old trains, they had character. It had the scent and the smell of old New York.
Hrag Vartanian: And which kid doesn't like chocolate?
Lee Quiñones: Funny enough, I don't like chocolate!
Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs]
Lee Quiñones: You know, they looked like chocolate bars. And they were very incandescent. They had Edison-bulb lighted interiors. Really dim, like old New York from the ‘40s, which obviously, I didn't experience, but I saw the remnants of it in the early ‘60s.
So anyway, I was in love with that. And I saw this “Vinnie,” and I was like, “Wow, what is that?” And then I connected the dots once, in my neighborhood, I saw more and more people involved and immersed in the practitioning of creating a name, a persona for themselves, and then creating style around that persona.
Hrag Vartanian: And how about the first painting you ever saw? Because, you're a painter at heart. That's what you do. In many ways, it's the common thread that goes through all your art. Do you remember the first painting that made a real impression?
Lee Quiñones: I think the first work of art that I saw that I was more impressed by and in wonderment of was an actual sculpture.
Hrag Vartanian: Ooh! That's unexpected.
Lee Quiñones: I'm trying to remember his name…Tony Rosenthal.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow!
Lee Quiñones: Tony Rosenthal created a piece called “5 in 1.” And there were five discs that were actually welded, leaning against each other. Sort of using their own forces to sort of sustain themselves. And it was really an interesting sculpture. It was brought over to 1 Police Plaza, which was across the street from the projects where I grew up at.
Hrag Vartanian: Got it.
Lee Quiñones: So I was always walking by the sculpture with my parents, then by myself, and then with my friends. And with my friends, we ended up climbing on it every other day. It was like a ritual for us, to run up on it and climb to the very top, right there in front of Police Plaza. I'm like “Wow, I'm surprised that the police officers didn't come out and say, ‘Hey guys, get off of that.’” That was one of the first pieces that was really long standing for me, in memory.
Hrag Vartanian: I love that. Because it tells me that for you, art was always kind of more interactive. It wasn't like, “Oh no, I need to stand back here.”
So, who taught you can control? To actually use spray paint?
Lee Quiñones: Who taught me?
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. Did anyone teach you that?
Lee Quiñones: Self taught.
Hrag Vartanian: Self taught! Wow.
Lee Quiñones: I mean, it's all an experiment. Art in itself is an experiment of failures and, you know, achievements or whatever. Knowing certain brands of paint are better than others, that they react and behave a certain way, is always paramount to like your practice. I've always been sort of a representational painter, right? So on that note alone, I was always accustomed to looking through the lens of cinema. Looking at light, shadow, the temperature in the room. And the challenge to myself was to create an atmosphere of realism around my work so that it could also circumvent the practition of just writing your name on the side of a train.
I wanted to create works that would be like, “Wow, that's beyond.” Hence the word in the book itself, “and beyond.” It's a magic word. “Beyond” has always been part of my practice. To go beyond the boundaries, the theoretical limitations that people throw on you. So that made me always aware to challenge myself through the use of spray paint.
And knowing which ones work better than others, which ones have a better palette, because it's always a challenge to make something really incredible out of the spray can. It's a tool that's very compressed and it's always pushing itself off the surface.
“Howard the Duck”
Hrag Vartanian: Lee's 1979 painting of Howard the Duck is considered the first entire handball court mural in New York City. Howard quivers behind a garbage can lid, which becomes a makeshift shield he uses to defend himself from letters spelling “Lee.” And those seem to burst out of a stone wall. Above his moniker, written in white letters, is “Stop the Draft.” And above the duck's sweating forehead, he wrote, “Graffiti is a art, and if art is a crime, let God forgive all.”
Hrag Vartanian: So this is the work I feel like is probably your earliest well known work, perhaps.
Lee Quiñones: Above ground.
Hrag Vartanian: Above ground, that's right. “Howard the Duck,” from 1978. And the sketch itself was, or is, part of the Martin Wong collection. Now tell me a little bit about this piece, because I think it sort of encapsulates a lot of what comes afterward, right? Like, it's sort of this sense of time, a bit of social commentary, but at the same time, it feels very accessible and easily interpreted by people in different ways. But you also bring these little philosophical touches. At the top left, it says “Graffiti is art. And if art is a crime, let God forgive us all.” There are different messages. “Stop the draft,” is written on this. He's coming out of a garbage can. Tell me a little bit about this, and how you see this now in retrospect. Well, uh,
Lee Quiñones: I was drawn to Howard the Duck, over Daffy Duck or Donald Duck. And there was one duck that was sort of like X-rated. I think it might've been done by what's his name from Fritz the Cat's fame.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, right!
Lee Quiñones: It might've been “Dirty Duck.” Yeah, I think it was called Dirty Duck. He was sort of like a flasher. I was like, “Okay, that's not the subject matter I'm trying to project here.” I just felt that what Howard Duck represented was an outsider. Someone who was maybe on the fringes of conservatism. And he was dressed for the part. He was not in his Sunday's best, but in his midnight best. Like a very dapper Don, in a very sophisticated dress code. But also very much in the trenches, with “boots on the ground” kind of experience and savviness.
I saw this comic, I forget which edition it is, with him in a garbage can. He was sitting inside of a garbage can and using the lid as a sort of a shield. I felt that that was representational of what art was for me, as a shield as New York City was breaking down at the time.
Now this is 1978, at 18 years old. By that time I had exhausted everything that could ever be done on a subway train, right? And I'm only four years in. So you could just imagine, 1974 to 1978, the rapid pace. How fast it just developed itself, with the help of a little flavor of competition, intuition, and just pushing the envelope, breaking boundaries.
I think that's what art is all about. It's not always about being stuck in something that's very popular, but to go against the grain. And this is what Howard represented: going against the grain. Now, he's protecting himself from “Lee.” So I'm being protected and shielded by him. It's sort of juxtaposed between two characters that are very complicated, and maybe very frightened by the environment that they are in. And my protection is my glare. The fact that the “Lee” sort of trickles down and has this lightning bolt at the end of the letters shows that I am in control of my power. I am my own thunder. I am a silent thunder. And the glow of the nuclear explosion around it indicates that I am nuclear. I am very impenetrable. Howard the Duck on the other end is shielding himself from that, but we're sort of complementing each other.
And it was that wall, which was above ground, on a stationary object, that felt I had arrived as an artist.
Hrag Vartanian: Really?
Lee Quiñones: Yeah. With that scene on the top left, I was like, “I am an artist. I am a person of credibility. I am not dysfunctional. I am not dismissing myself or dismissing society. I'm trying to bring society in.” And that's why that piece became more of a neighborhood prescription,
Hrag Vartanian: Right. It sounds like you caught a little bit of what people were feeling in their own lives. Because here I see the ego of an artist who knows they have talent and wants to make a difference in the world, but also this other figure who's also trying to figure it out. There's this complexity that’s coming through, and the way you're talking about it is exactly what I think I can see, too. I just love that energy.
The color of this piece is really wonderful too. And it really goes against the grain of a lot of what the art world at that time was considering “good art.” I mean, at that point, were you looking at any of the art in galleries, and did you feel alienated by it? Or did you feel there was a connection there? What were you thinking?
Lee Quiñones: Well, to be honest, I wasn't looking at any art. It was a very minimal era.
Hrag Vartanian: But can I assume that you were looking at things like album covers, or things like that? Because there's a little bit of that vibe going on here too.
Lee Quiñones: Sure, sure. I mean the established art world that was not even taking any second looks at this at all. I was looking at a lot of album art. I was looking at a lot of advertisements that were plastered all over the subways, both on the trains themselves and platforms. So there was a lot of color in that. Now, you know, mind you, this is a very dark age for New York City, and maybe for a lot of the rest of the country. I came from a very dark place. I operated in a very dark place, a very dingy, dimly lit utilitarian society. And that sort of sparked my idea that I needed to bring color to this. I need to bring a more of an atmospheric mood, a good atmospheric mood by the choice of colors. And the colors themselves speak out.
They speak volumes. Because just the color itself indicates that the artist is trying to retrieve, or restore, or actually have some valid point.
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Lee Quiñones: And this was in that neighborhood, which was very dilapidated and on the fringes—
Hrag Vartanian: Which neighborhood was this?
Lee Quiñones: This is the Lower Lower East Side. We call it the “Lower Lower Level,” or the “Lower Deck, because it's below the Avenue, which is known as Alphabet city. A lot of people look at it as the Lower East side, but the Lower Lower is below that. And that's where I grew up.
Lee is “WANTED” by the police
Hrag Vartanian: Right. So one of the things in this book that I thought was a real revelation was this WANTED poster. Is this real? There was a wanted poster for you? In 1977, put out by the local police department? Housing authority? Is that true?
Lee Quiñones: Yeah. Yeah.
Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] I mean that's crazy to me! You were called “George Graffiti?”
Lee Quiñones: Yeah. Because my actual signature of my middle name Lee was not legible to them. So everyone knew me from my first name, which is actually “Jorge.” Not George, but Jorge, Jorge Lee Quiñones. They couldn't put those dots together. So by hearsay, it's like, “Yeah, it's that kid George.” So that poster was plastered in all 12 or 11 of the buildings in the facility where I grew up.
And I happened to grab that one, which was in my building. I kept it just as a joke, like, “Oh my God, look at this, look at these guys,” you know.
Hrag Vartanian: That's crazy. Do you think that influenced why you chose the name Lee more later? Because you don't use “George.”
Lee Quiñones: Yeah, I don't know. Lee was just there. I mean, my mother was in love with a lot of actors that had the Lee nam. Lee Marvin, Christopher Lee. Again, cinema. And I think that that's where it comes from. And, just keeping the quickness and the rapidness of creating a name or writing a name that has very few letters in it was very strategically, it was very important to…
Hrag Vartanian: It’s easier to write quickly.
Lee Quiñones: Exactly. Everything's on the quick, right? Everything is literally on the quick.
“Lion's Den”
Hrag Vartanian: And then of course, “Lion's Den,” from 1982, I feel like is probably the most iconic in terms of what people may know from your early work. I mean, it has a very distinctive look. When I thought of your work, the first thing I thought of was this one.
Hrag Vartanian: “Lion's Den” is a seminal work of the golden years of graffiti. Anyone familiar with the era will have inevitably seen Martha Cooper's classic photograph of two kids playing handball in the early ‘80s. A sinewy lion roars in a chain filled dungeon. A candelabra, spiderwebs and green cowering skeletons complete the scene. This time, the letters making out “Lee” glow in iridescent blue. It's a poignant snapshot of the era.
Hrag Vartanian: What role did this one play in your career? Why do you think people resonate with it?
Lee Quiñones: Well, you know, I'll tell you a little story behind that piece. Short story. I actually got permission to do that side of the wall from the school itself.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow.
Lee Quiñones: They seeked me out, found me in my classroom. I had left the school already. and they had asked me, “Can you come back and paint the wall?” I was very skeptical and very suspicious. “Wow, the dean and the principal of my junior high school is asking of me, you know, who I am?”
So I was in denial of who I was. I was like, “I don't know what you're talking about. That's not me.” They were like, “Well, it's got to be you. Everyone has told us that it's you. I was like, “Well, everyone has their own opinion.”
Hrag Vartanian: You have to be a little quieter!
Lee Quiñones: Yeah, a little incognito! You know, I didn't know what was the intention of these guys. They eventually broke down. I said, “Listen, if you want me to do that wall, give me a permission slip with your letterhead. Write it, and I'll have that on my person when I create this wall.” So the night I painted that wall—
Hrag Vartanian: Please tell me you kept that letter.
Lee Quiñones: I did.
Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.]
Lee Quiñones: I still have it! I still have it. That's for another volume of the book, trust me.
But that night, I went to the wall without it, intentionally, wanting to see if I can actually create this persona of this legitimate work of art being created, even though it was in the dead of night. I wanted to see that I can walk and talk myself out of this situation if anything went awry.
So, like the one on the opposite side, Howard the Duck, I painted the whole thing in one night. It was the first of its kind, in many ways, this particular piece, because it was the first time that I was experimenting with shadowing, with no outlines to the actual characters or the items in the piece. Again, I was working with light, the effect of light, shadow, and lack of light. I was using certain colors and hues that I discovered in the stores. Now mind you, some of these cans came from Europe, because by this time in 1980, 1982, I'm already traveling back and forth to Europe.
Hrag Vartanian: Got it.
Lee Quiñones: And I was discovering this whole new palette of paint, new spray paints out there.
Hrag Vartanian: What brands were they?
Lee Quiñones: The first brand that I encountered was a car paint. “Auto-K,” that was the name of it. I started bringing in all on my person, on the plane, as early as 1979, 1980.
So I was going back and forth to Europe, bringing back cans of paint that were not available here, and colors that had never been seen. So when cats in the arena were like, “Where’d you get that hue of green, that olive drab?”
Hrag Vartanian: You’re like, “Europe.”
Lee Quiñones: I would not!
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, so you wouldn’t!
Lee Quiñones: I never revealed it! I would say, “Oh, It’s at the Lamson's down the street, or the Woolworths. They got a whole new stash of new colors.” Not knowing that a year later, the paint companies here would start shifting towards a bigger palette of color.
Hrag Vartanian: Gotcha.
Lee Quiñones: So there were a lot of things that came into play at the same time, simultaneously. I started bringing colors because I was like, “There's a lack of color here, so I need to bring my own color palette to the game and create my own atmospheric effects on the works.”
Hrag Vartanian: So what is this piece about for you? Because there's something about it that feels very like Disney, but there's something really loud and proud about it too. Now that you talk about film, I think of the MGM Lion, even. But I'd love to hear it from you.
Lee Quiñones: Yeah. Well, the MGM Lion is a big influence. The lion represents the gatekeeper of any jungle. I felt that New York was a jungle. I'm a Leo. I'm actually a really complicated Leo. I'm a triple Leo.
Hrag Vartanian: Woah!
Lee Quiñones: So it's the moon, sun, and rising signs, all the same. This figure is not shielding itself from the name, but actually protecting it. Because now I'm starting to see a number of things unfolding. Not only is New York still falling apart, but also what's falling apart for me was the transition from the subway era to being an established artist in the art world, which was very frightening to me. And that transition was very difficult for me, because I didn't know anything about the dialogue and how you operate in that very structured world. So here, the Lion was representing me and sort of being my head of security as I walked through the gauntlet of this new experimental stage into the art world.
Hrag Vartanian: I love that. So the first one, Howard the Duck, and this one, the “Lion's Den,” they're both dedicated to your mom.
Lee Quiñones: Every work of mine was dedicated to my mother.
Hrag Vartanian: That's amazing.
Lee Quiñones: Yeah.
Hrag Vartanian: So that relationship must have been really important for you throughout your life. How would you describe her support of your art, or the way you saw the world?
Lee Quiñones: I mean, you know, like any parent, she probably was frightened out of her shoes, out of her sleep every night when I was out. She must have looked at something, a gleam in my eye, a glitter or whatever, when I told her straight up, I said, “Mom, I'll always come home to you. Don't you worry about me. I fear no evil in the valley of death, because I am the meanest S. O. B. in the Valley of Death.”
It was a very loving home. I knew that she had good intent. She had a good heart. My dad at the time as well. They were very hard working Puerto Ricans that came here after World War II. And we're living in a neighborhood that was very challenged. Not just people of color that were challenged, but people of all colors that were being challenged at that time. And I think through all that mess, that fog of war, she probably had a little hint that the art that I was creating was something that was not dysfunctional and missing the mark, that I was creating some kind of new platform for myself.
And I saw it in her, by her patience.

Hrag Vartanian: Supportive parents are amazing.
Lee Quiñones: They so much are. They're so ahead of the curve as well. Though she wanted me to be a postal clerk for, for security and for economic reasons. You know, being an artist was like, way far. I mean, she never mentioned, “You should be a lawyer or a doctor.” That idea would never present itself in the situation that I was in. Being a postal clerk was more…
Hrag Vartanian: Stable job, we paid well, right?
Lee Quiñones: Right, at that time. So being an artist was way on another planet. It was on the red planet at that time.
Hrag Vartanian: So what are the skeletons here in this thing? Is it like the old guard? Is it the old world? Because they're being stabbed by these swords, right? So who are these skeletons?
Lee Quiñones: These skeletons are the people in my neighborhood that I saw…not only being manipulated, but succumbing to the pressures of the neighborhood at that time. It just represented…maybe an old guard, but a guard that fell. And that the lion is a refreshening reminder that the chain behind it represents that you can be chained by your own limitations.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah.
Lee Quiñones: And this was a challenge for me to say, “I am still here. I am relevant. This movement is very relevant.” The flashes of light were the first of their kind. Those little hints of light in the painting are the light at the end of the tunnel. That's what it represents. And that's why I put them strategically, very tastefully, in very small places in the work, so that they're not so obvious that you have to look for them. Just like you have to look for your achievements in the struggle of life. Nothing comes easy. If you're spoon fed success, you have no great story to tell.
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Lee Quiñones: If you come from struggle, from a brash environment that challenges your ideals, your politics, your sexuality, everything, if you go against that grain and you have a struggle, you have a better story to tell.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. Absolutely, I get that.
The East Village scene
Hrag Vartanian: By the early 1980s, Lee was becoming a fixture of the burgeoning East Village art scene. There, as punk and hip hop was playing on the stereos, contemporary artists like Jenny Holzer came together with graffiti writers and street artists like Basquiat and Lady Pink, as well as queer innovators like David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring. They were also backed by risk taking gallerists like Patti Astor, whom many of you may know as the founder of the infamous Fun Gallery, which was very influential at the time. Some, of course, stayed true to the rebellious, anti authoritarian spirit of experimentation more than others. Looking at you, Jeff Koons.
The scene gave birth to alternative schools of thought that embraced counterculture, color, fun, and figuration melding together with abstraction. And it changed the course of the art world itself.
Hrag Vartanian: So now let's fast forward a little bit, to the East Village scene, which you were a part of. You showed at Fun Gallery, you were running with a number of really well known artists, such as Basquiat. Now, was there a real sense of camaraderie? Did you all have each other's back? Was it just a coincidence you all sort of ended up at this place? How would you characterize that?
Lee Quiñones: You know, it's funny. Keith Haring, bless his soul, was very, very supportive. He immersed himself in the scene more than most other artists did of the time. I hung out with Francesco Clemente and Schnabel, Jonathan Barofsky and Jenny Holzer, and Judy Rivka, a number of people. We sort of mingled in the same spaces and same openings, the same clubs, in most cases.
Hrag Vartanian: Like Mud Club? What were the places?
Lee Quiñones: Mud Club was one of them, The Paradise Garage was another. The World, Danceteria. A lot of the underground places, like The Ones and CBGBs, you know, a number of these clubs, which were very instrumental in sort of gathering all of us on the one roof and being able to have a discourse, an exchange with each other. But I never felt the camaraderie as I did from cats like Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, and a number of other notable characters who were involved in the street.
Hrag Vartanian: How was that? How was the East village scene? Did it blow your mind? What was the general vibe for you?
Lee Quiñones: It's funny, even in the subway era, I felt that, there were times that I needed to be very savvy about how I operated and who I spoke with shared information with. That didn't really come back into play, once I was creating works that were now for consumption. Wanting to keep my work original and keep it on the wraps until I felt it was good to lease it to the rest of the world. So there was that transition, a time where it was very open minded, very experimental. You know, alternative music, alternative film, alternative poetry, radical or not, and the visual arts. And then in comes this flash dance, this attitude of dance and posture and style and fashion
Hrag Vartanian: MTV.
Lee Quiñones: MTV. Everything gets introduced and thrown into the mixer all at once. And it was really fun. It was very experimental. And not necessarily always a success, right? It was all about, you know—
Hrag Vartanian: Trying things, right?
Lee Quiñones: Failure was success in itself. And I don't even think we thought of things as failure. It was just, “Oh, that's just another peg in the ladder of experimentation.” So it was very relaxing at that time. As the late great Glenn O'Brien said, you could bartend one night and have your rent paid, and the rest was gravy. The rest was butter. So you had a lot of time to actually marinate, and ingest, and investigate the world around you, which in our case, was New York city, which seemed to me like the world. You had that time to actually look into that and let it reflect in your work.
Hrag Vartanian: That makes sense. So one of the myths I think of the ‘80s in the East village was that like graffiti writers and everyone…everything was related to hip hop, right? But when I’ve talked to writers from the ‘70s, they’ve said that the musical tastes of the scene were much more diverse. Can you tell us a little bit about what people were listening to? What was the inspiration coming from? What was the sort of soundscape of that era?
Lee Quiñones: Yeah, I think it depended a lot on the demographics, like which particular neighborhood you was living and growing up in, and which neighborhoods you actually ventured into.
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Lee Quiñones: I ventured all over the city. I've been in almost every neighborhood. I almost know the streets better than a taxi driver. Like, “Oh yeah, I was there in 1975. Yeah, I went there in ‘73. I was over there in 1985.” Being able to spread your wings and break open beyond your block was…most people never left the block, right? They were comfortable in their little sanctuaries of the block. Whatever was playing there at the time, on the loudspeakers or on the street jams, was what you based your playing list on.
I was always playing music since day one, because my mother was always playing music. And then films always had music scores involved in them, right? So, you know, from West Side Story, listening and seeing and experiencing that iconic film made in 1960 or whenever it was, it was amazing to see my own culture, Puerto Ricans, coexisting and mingling and maybe being in friction with other cultures at the time, Irish, Italian. So that kind of opened up my aperture of thought of music.
But I was also attracted to funk and soul, Motown at that time. And then eventually rock. Soft rock and then heavy rock after that. I was listening to—and I love them to this day— Elton John, Dennis Coffey. I was listening later on to Grace Jones, and then Isaac Hayes and Baby Huey. All these different genres of music: funk, soul, blues, all coming in. I just felt that I needed to have a bigger menu, to actually experience all the different genres, all the things that are happening simultaneously at the many intersections in the city. So it was a very democratic listening list that I had. And I'm not the only one. I know many writers that were themselves listening to a lot of Jefferson Starship, and then they would listen to Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan was a person that I discovered way after, in the ‘80s. When I started listening to his music, I was like, “Wow. Oh my God.” His lyrics and the music and the way he delivered the piece was like painting to me. It was my paintings in a musical sense, because he was sort of almost creating a barrier and a wall against the Vietnam War. It's amazing.
Hrag Vartanian: So now, when it came to your first time working on canvas, what was different for you? One of the other parts in this book that I found interesting is William Cordova's piece where he talks about your work as time-based art. Graffiti tends to be time-based, because it gets buffed, for example. But did you really have that feeling for yourself? Or what changed for you, when doing on canvases versus on walls?
“The buff”
Lee Quiñones: Well what happened was a little thing known as “the buff.” The buff is when all my work on the trains was totally whitewashed away. Not faded away, but whitewashed away. And that was a death that I had to deal with. Because it took so long to actually create, right? And for it to just disappear almost overnight…I had to come to the very difficult conclusion that that was the chapter that got me to this new chapter: canvas, where now the work will live forever. And even then, to be accepted as an artist in that room, in that theater of creating works on canvas, creating sculptures and creating wall pieces and murals. was already a challenge, because I was still designated as all those “vile” kids.
We were not kids. We were young people that had a vision. We were not dysfunctional. We were not misdirecting ourselves. We had an agenda. And. I felt that my agenda was to create work that would outlast my living self. That it would be relevant of the time, and it would be relevant beyond that time. And I think that great art has a way of reintroducing itself and re re-triggering an idea, a conversation over the course of time.
And the thing about this movement that it always runs along with time as it changes. Because…I don't know how to phrase it, but the art reflects the moment. And I think that that's the beauty of this particular movement, that it is an art that lives within the moment and lives beyond, and it lives in the past as well.
Hrag Vartanian: So where were those ideas coming from for you? Because, I mean, those are pretty ambitious ideas. Where's that urge coming from?
Lee Quiñones: It's curiosity, of creating something that’s finally under light. Creating something where I’m not having to look over my shoulder. And creating something that is literally not moving, that I can actually have a nice long conversation with. Because everything before was done very rapidly, under the cover of darkness, and then staying undercover when it was out “in the wild,” as I say. I was anonymous for obvious reasons, being the most wanted graffiti artist in New York for two years in a row because I was an influence, as I was told, was very powerful, but also very frightening.
Hrag Vartanian: What years were those?
Lee Quiñones: That was 1977, 1978.
Hrag Vartanian: Wow.
Lee Quiñones: Consecutively. I was 17 going into 18 years old.
Hrag Vartanian: Who knocked you off the top of the list?
Lee Quiñones: I don't know. But for the whole movement, I think that by the time 1980 came through, a whole transition was happening. The MTA was still discounting what had happened. But there was a huge shift, a seismic shift of interest towards the arts above ground. Because again, it was a way of self preservation.
Hrag Vartanian: As the broken windows philosophy began growing in popularity in the early 1980s, graffiti was quickly being associated with crime, rather than the creative, artistic outlet Lee and his fellow writers saw it as.
Police surveillance, razor wire, acid washes, and even vicious guard dogs were being used to fight a war against graffiti and artists like Lee. It's ironic, of course, because graffiti is probably one of the most globally influential art movements associated with this city.
Lee Quiñones: And even on the trains, it was self preservation, because the work can move very dynamically all around and be almost unapproachable and not legible and be secret in a way. Like in a superhero sense, it was very secret,
Hrag Vartanian: Like, coded.
Lee Quiñones: Yeah, very coded. And be anonymously fulfilled. And here I am, creating works that are stationary, that are not moving anymore. But I'm creating movement within the canvas and creating the movement of conversation. Conversation is movement , because it creates a whole plateau, another platform, another ideal, another vibe. That's the beauty of conversation. And, and if art can encompass that and not be stale and frail, you know, it's great art.
The 21st Century
Hrag Vartanian: Lee's work, of course, changed when his painting moved from the streets into a studio. But it also never stopped changing. His body of work defies categorization. Works like Tablet No. 28 from 2005 are filled with bright swaths of color, dotted with lines of poetry and light figurative drawings.
In Utica, from 2021, he shows his mastery of depicting real life, as a figure leaps across as the bright lights of a train are rattling towards him. He can wield the spray can with skill, but also pastel, pencils, paintbrushes, well placed found objects, and even written words. Lee's constant experimentation leads to a body of work that is never stagnant. But that constantly changing nature is the very same throughline you can see in all of his paintings. There is always a sense of movement, a force propelling the image forward into something new.
Hrag Vartanian: So, let's fast forward to the 21st century. Where's this coming from for you?
Lee Quiñones: A lot of these works come from me enabling myself to look at my past with a much more mature sense of things. I’m reflecting on those things and why they happened and why I thought of them in certain ways and how I think of them now, 50 years later. A lot of it is reflected in my recent series, which is ongoing, what I call the “Tablet Series,” where I do a lot of writing, but it's all spontaneous and very urgent. So I don't look around for that pad, because the idea, the words may slip. It may slip my mind, right there and then. So I just write it on the walls. So the writing is on the wall right? Literally. It's these poetic ways that I like to write that actually become paintings later on.
So, some of these are already paintings in their own way. But sometimes I need to write them, because they’re sort of like a hint of a painting, of a vibe in the room, more than just words. And sometimes a painting needs words, to give it a little push. Or, actually, to put all the parts together. Because everything is subjective in art, right? You look at art one way, someone else sees it the other way. And sometimes words have a way of bringing those two different views together, creating like, the “wow” moment, the light bulb moment.
Hrag Vartanian: Totally. In these works this century, there seems to be sort of a rethinking of the wall. Am I right? I don't know, but it feels like there's conscious remixing of past and present. I don't know what it is. I'd love to hear a little bit about that, because they both feel like they're part of the wall, but they're clearly not. And there's like something going on there. What's that tension?
Lee Quiñones: Yeah, I look at whatever's going on there as…first of all, a lot of subconsciousness, floating in the present. I like to say that the words are sort of lifted off the wall itself. It's almost like they're living right in front of you, around you, in you, and not necessarily in that wall. To me, those writings seem to be like they're separated from the wall. The wall is just a sort of a background, a filler for the strength of what those words are saying. So, they're very minimal to me, and abstract, and yet very representational at the same time.
They're literally the studio walls. You know, I've cut them out of my previous studios that I've had in the past. When I walked away from the studio, I was like, “Wow, the studio walls look a lot more inviting than my own paintings.” So I just love preserving that, as a test. They all become testimonials to my time at that time. And some of them are just way ahead of their time.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah.
Lee Quiñones: They’re titles, to paintings or shows. They’re names of people that I admire, or I remember. They’re sadness. They’re all over the place, such as life.
Hrag Vartanian: I mean, there's some beautiful stuff here, Lee. I just want to say thank you so much. This was an absolute pleasure, and you've been so generous with your time. So thank you again.
Lee Quiñones: Thank you so much.
Hrag Vartanian: The new book on Lee's work is titled Lee Quinones, 50 Years of New York Graffiti, Art and Beyond, and it was just published by Damiani at the end of April.
Thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you had as much fun listening as we had putting this one together. Our membership is the main supporter of our podcast. So thank you, as always, to all the Hyperallergic members out there. You make a difference. I'm Hrag Vartanian, the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic.
We'll see you next time.

Lee Quiñones: Graffiti and the Gallery
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