Graffiti Legend Lee Quinones Has No Time for Your Nostalgia

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The street art icon on taking his art from the subway to a high-rise hotel, Hannah Ongley reports in this article in Details.

Lee Quiñones has a sore throat. Anyone else thus afflicted might appear somewhat muted, but the slight ailment only serves to make the underground graffiti legend sound more aggressively passionate than usual. “A play is always in constant motion, right? New York is like a 24-hour play,” he says, after ordering a lemon tea from the server at the 16th-floor NYC hotel bar where we’re sitting. “You don’t see no evidence of the last act. When I came to this project, I wanted to bring to the forefront the last act of New York … the raging ’70s and ’80s, a little peppering of the ’60s in there—my growing years here.”

His latest act is the 40 x 16-foot Lower East Side tribute mural installed on a ceiling inside the newly erected Hotel Indigo, 15 floors of upscale accommodations and the airy rooftop bar, Mr. Purple, looming over Katz’ Deli on the stretch of Ludlow Street closest to Houston. The mural honors the neighborhood and the art, fashion, and music icons who ran with Quiñones in the ’70s and ’80s, back when he was pioneering whole-car subway graffiti. There’s urban gardening godfather Adam Purple, an early Jean-Michel Basquiat from his band with Michael Holman, and Patti Astor of FUN Gallery. Astor played a reporter in Wild Style, the 1983 film starring Quiñones as a young graffiti artist commissioned to paint a backdrop for a rap convention. His new commission is a rare throwback for the artist who sees closing curtains as an opportunity to create something new. “If I need to do nostalgia, it needs to be now-stalgia. It needs a now to go back to that conversation and then come back to understand this point in time. Sometimes you need to go back to step forward.”

One facet of modern life where Quiñones has no interest in being a pioneer is technology. Throughout our 30-minute talk, which ended up being a very entertaining two hours, his archaic Nokia flip phone rings and beeps constantly as if to brag about its still superior battery life. “I’m a storyteller, that’s what I am,” he tells me after apologizing for taking a call the third time his phone rings. I tell him Anna Wintour still uses a flip phone, he mentions Warren Buffett. “He probably doesn’t like to butt dial, and neither do I. I’ll be like, hello? and I’ll call people back, because I love talking, right? and I’ll be like you just called me, and they’ll be like, oh, Lee I just butt dialed—whatever,” he says, slamming his phone shut for effect. ”I like pigeons, man, send the pigeons with the messages back.” He recently updated his Instagram for the first time in a month to post a solitary show shout-out from Art Basel Miami. “I don’t feel like I need to be that instant. I don’t need to be that accessible that quick. People will be like, Lee, you’re a dinosaur, you’re falling through the cracks into the tar pits. And I’m like, so what, I’ll be a fossil,” he says. “We’re all extracting fossil fuel now, so when you guys need me, I’ll have the lights on for you.”

Quiñones appears simply to have no interest in telling stories via mediums that are already popular. After painting what he estimates to be 125 subway cars as part of the elite and Fab 5 graffiti crew, he became instrumental in moving the art from above ground with his legendary piece “Howard the Duck,” the first entire 25 x 30 foot handball court mural. He then became one of the first train artists to move onto canvas, and the first artist to spread graffiti to the rest of the world with a solo show in Europe. His commissioned pieces—customizing shoes for adidas, cars for Ford, and a gutted train-turned-gallery in Detroit for charity—are opportunities to reach new audiences in new ways. His Hotel Indigo act and its inevitable tie to the G-word isn’t his first brush with backlash. But the artist who once rode a bicycle from New York to Miami to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims sees it as an opportunity to ensure that the artists Downtown Manhattan incubated aren’t written out of the neighborhood’s next act. “These are my people,” he says after ordering a second pot of lemon tea. “Murals have always, since the beginning of time, been very communal. Community identifies with that, because there’s always a little part of themselves in there somewhere.” And besides, “It’s my neighborhood, why would I throw it under the bus?”

Like any good storyteller, Quiñones is clearly not afraid to provoke controversy. “Be careful with the pizza,” he warns me after giving highly descriptive recommendations of his favorite local food joints, all of which sound Italian or Caribbean, family-owned, and hard to find if you’re walking around staring at an iPhone. “Pizza places suck in New York.”

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