Artist and designer Mark Murphy reflects on his recent trip to New York and the significance one special site in particular has had on his thinking and the development of his practice.
In January 2017, I made my first trip across the Atlantic, a fact that surprises a lot of friends I tell … ‘What, you’ve never been before?’
Before heading south towards sunshine in Mexico and Cuba I spent 8 days in New York City. The impact so many cultural works produced in this city have made on me (as an artist, designer and musician) is enormous, yet this has always been from a distance.
Despite the cold, (it gets so cold) I was enamoured by the frenetic energy of New York. Like so many before me, I felt like I knew the city or at least, that the city knew it had inspired me.
Late in the afternoon of my second full day, after witnessing a beautiful sunset from the deserted boardwalk of Coney Island, I decided to make a little art pilgrimage ‘uptown’ to sit in a particular place in a particular subway station.
To the naked eye, my destination – a worn out, litter-strewn wooden bench at the far end of a station platform in the Bronx – doesn’t amount to much but for me its historic and cultural importance has great significance.
I can pinpoint my initial connection with letterforms and colour in combination, and the endless possibilities this held, to first seeing a book of photographs of New York graffiti art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. It was called ‘Subway Art’.
I was 11 or 12. It blew my mind.
I’ll hazard a guess that ‘Subway Art’ was the most borrowed book in my school’s library for a time, its full colour plates diligently pored over in wonder, its spine split, the pages creased and worn by use.
Whilst I’m not a graffiti writer, (a dalliance in my young teens but nothing significant) this interest propelled me towards studying art and design, then art school and ultimately a creative career.
Since graduating I’ve worked as a graphic designer, starting my own independent studio, Surely, in 2002. Alongside client work where I use letterforms and colour, daily, I take a lot of photographs, make music and sometimes lecture. In recent years, in reaction to copious hours of screen time, I’ve also been developing my calligraphic skills and making hand cut paper collages, using found print drawn from the last 70 years. Sampling perhaps but with images rather than sound.
The first wave of paintings documented in ‘Subway Art’ (ephemeral in nature, existing now only on film and in photographs), spawned a global artform that, after years of criminalisation, stepped into the mainstream. This created bridges that have led to many developments including an evolving worldwide street art movement and artists of global renown like Banksy and Shepherd Fairey. It has also left an ongoing and undeniable mark on the fields of fashion, music (sleeve art/video), graphic design and typography.
It felt good to visit 149 St. Grand Concourse, the Bronx, to sit in that station, on ‘the Writer’s Bench’ for a little while. This dusty bench is a rare remnant of a scene, now passed. A scene that in some ways helped lead me to do what I do, to see things the way I see them.
The same station is also home to a (now damaged) plaque, mounted in 2008 by Erik Burke as a mark of respect, but further research highlights that Erik’s plaque is actually on the wrong bench on the wrong platform.
‘Throughout the late 70s and 80s graffiti writers from all over the city congregated at a bench located at the back of the uptown platform. They came to meet, make plans, sign black books and settle disputes. The main activity was watching art on the passing trains (known as benching). The writers would admire and criticize the latest paintings.
This station was an ideal location for a writer’s bench for several reasons. It was a station where the 2 and 5 lines converged. The 2 and 5 lines featured some of the most artistic works in the city. The fact that many lay-ups and train yards for the 2s and 5s were located in both the Bronx and Brooklyn made creativity on these lines extremely competitive. An overpass connecting the uptown and downtown platforms was an ideal vantage point from which to view the passing trains.’
I have massive respect for all those crazy talents that took it upon themselves to share their art with New York and, subsequently, the world.
Creativity as a condition, once in your bones, rarely lets you go. These young men and women risked violence, arrest and 3rd rail electrocution to make their creative mark on their environment, and in some cases pushed letterforms to their known limits and beyond. Driven enough to take these risks, I doubt they would ever have foreseen the legacy and impact they would make, on the creative world and on individuals like me. This legacy is still alive and constantly evolving.
This short but significant journey and moment of contemplation, to pay homage and acknowledge my respect, felt essential somehow. I was, after all, in the same city … at last. ✊🏻
further watching … here