#TBT: On Lee Quinones, Vietnam, Puerto Ricans & Graffiti (DETAILS)

Originally published in Winter 05 in the now defunct Fuego Magazine. ***
Contrary to the sickle shaped scar on his nose, famed Puerto Rican artist Lee Quinones is not a communist. A concerned artist? Yes. A communist? No.

New York City artists have become as ordinary as tattoos and terrorists. Glorified in magazines and fashionable toyshops, they are a nickel a bakers dozen with delusions of sovereignty saying nothing to everyone. For Quinones saying no is just as important as saying yes. This is what separates him from the herd, his choices.

“I am not against money,” Quinones explained last winter while parking his old school Dodge, a former cop car, on his way to a Williamsburg cantina. “This [society’s] is an infrastructure of capitalism, built to keep the machine going.”

Quiñones is best remembered as LEE, the protagonist of the seminal hip hop film Wild Style directed by Charlie Ahearn, and the documentary Style Wars by Tony Silver which introduced to the world the phenomenon of graffiti art and rap music. There wasn’t much of a story line or acting in both films as the artists improvised their lines. Still, the films did something that mainstream media was 20 years late in achieving: pivoting Latinos as influential artists and trendsetters.

As LEE, Quiñones has the distinction of being one of two artists who painted all ten subway cars of New York transit system in 1977, the equivalent of carving the Grand Canyon with a coke spoon. Quinones grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the Alfred E. Smith Projects, with two parents and three siblings. His obsession with painting moved him from the trains to handball courts, from millions of viewers to a few hundred, allowing him time to pay more attention to details often lost in the dark, enabling him intimacy with a small controlled space and with his audience. In 2005, dozens of years after he conquered the Metropolitan Transit Authority, his popularity and his collect ability has gained momentum. His paintings are in the permanent collection of The Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art. At the adidas store in SoHo New York last February, his limited edition shell toe shoe, part of adidas’ 35th Anniversary celebration of their Superstar brand, sold out in an half an hour.

His unique mark in the form of a poem made its way to the laces, not just the body of the shoe. Its details like these that set him apart from his peers and induce his fans and collectors into frenzies. Last fall they devoured 250 custom designed and hand crafted wooden display cases that contained vintage spray paint cans from his personal studio collection, all of which were acquired during the height of his subway graffiti career: 1974-1984. Last year he made his first trip to Japan after contributing live painting for a benefit for the Jam Master Jay Foundation, and biking down south to raise interests and funds for Hurricaine Katrina survivors. His first book, a coffee-table book with literary sprinklings, will be released in the near future.

“I am glad I didn’t do it,” he says of the book he’d thought about releasing in 1979. “Now, I can take that time as a chapter. I have no regrets because [since I left the trains] my work gravitated to another level.”

The US National Archives and Records list 345 the number of Puerto Ricans killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War. How accurate that number is remains to be seen. The war began in March 1965 and lasted well into the 1970’s as New York City was battling its own crisis of bankruptcy, poverty, and corruption under mayor John Lindsay and a maniacal urban developer named Robert Moses. Thousands of mostly black and Puerto Rican (and some whites) adolescents and teenagers were protesting against the machine of neglect perpetuated by city administrators: their weapon was paint and markers and fragments of popular culture. Though unorganized, their messenger was the passenger trains which transported millions of working adults between the boroughs while two wars, one in Asia for “democracy,” the other at home called “apartheid” recognized now as Civil Rights, were fought. For a few years the teenagers, unorganized, were winning, eventually costing Lindsay his bid to run for president.

“I don’t like when people call me legend,” Lee says before the black beans arrive. “I am here as a voice box, a black box recorder. I am not a king,” he says humbly.

Quinones’ allusion to the black box device is not unconscious. In fact it’s part and parcel of a motif that is constant in a few of his paintings and murals: helicopters and Vietnam.

The MTA’s early attempt to permanently eradicate graffiti has direct ties to Vietnam. The chemical used to erase graffiti from the trains was dubbed “Orange Crush” by graffiti artists, after Agent Orange, the chemical used to annihilate the Viet Congs and, subsequentially, parcels of American GI’s over time.

“We thought the Vietnam war would never end” Quinones explains. “It seemed like it was just gonna go on forever”. And in a way it has. All wars have resonance and the Vietnam war is still echoing in Quinones’ aerosol and canvases.

One of Quinones large scale works is a mural of a chopper flying over a Vietnamese rice field. The black box recorder is witness in the helicopter, surveying and/or destroying a field. Titled “Securing the Requiem” the mural occupied 5 stories of a building in Manhattan in August of 1999. The new world is represented by the chopper and is “technology” demolishing the old world, “nature.” Statutes, figurines and ultimately the people who created these artifacts and fields, lends credence to the notion of impermanence of things espoused by Buddhism one of Vietnam’s many religions. What Lee was saying via “Requiem” is that war is nature, and like people and culture, all suffering, is impermanent. The mural will be either buffed by nature or rubbed out by man who is also of nature, therefore the depiction of impermanence is impermanent also. 
“Boomerang” is more direct.Simply put it is the equivalent of Malcolm X’s famous rebuttal upon hearing about the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “The chickens have come home to roost.”
Quinones was asked by the designer and art partron Agnes B to organize a show in response to the September 11th attacks of 2001. Quinones recruited Jose EASE Parla and Ramon ROSTAR Yang to be apart of “Boomerang” where they proposed that the US deserved what it got in the guise of September 11th, feelings, impressions, words no one wanted to hear considering the wound hadn’t yet scabbed. Of the three artists LEE’s “Chapter 11”
spoke volumes in its depiction of a city, as its title suggest, on the verge of bankruptcy, a title perhaps taken from an earlier decade when president Gerald Ford gave NYC, with barbed wire gloves, the middle finger when it asked for economic relief. Quinones was living in the Lower East Side with two parents, his father a chef, and an understanding but patient mother who knew her son would return home after late nights of painting.

The colors of “Chapter 11” are candy colored and juxtaposed against sharp lines of hyper skyscrapers, phallic symbols erected by money and dubious actions unknown to the public. The perspective is suicidal. A note reads “What Goes Around Is Already Here.”

“People forget the foundations in their lives,” he says, explaining his stance on material acquisitions and his motivations. As an artist and concerned human being “there should be no fear in saying no. I’ve said no many times more than yes.” For Quinones, it’s a matter of knowing when and to whom.

At 45 years old, feeling Smurfy, Quinones dives into his rice and beans.