Photos: Emily Nadal. Bianca Romero in front of her ‘Phoenix Rising’’ mural inside of WallWorks.

Paving the way: Graffiti transformed from a crime to an art

Bianca Romero’s floor to ceiling “Phoenix Rising” mural is the newest addition to increasingly filled walls of the WallWorks art gallery in the South Bronx. Completed in just one evening, the mural complements her other pieces on display in her new solo exhibition, which debuted Nov 14.

Romero’s show, “The Resilient Ones,” is an ode, she says, to the “strength and resilience that we have as a society and our ability to rise up and shine even through the darkest times.” Growing up in the East Village, Romero was surrounded by public art in the infamous graffiti-laden neighborhood. But it wasn’t until recently that she began experimenting with the medium after encouragement from friends.

“I was working on a lot of stuff in quarantine, we were all kind of in solitude.” Romero says. “I thought it was a really good time to address and uplift people during this crazy time.” The paintings that hang in the exhibition are bright and colorful but feature strong titles like “Strength from Within” or “Power to the People,” reminding the audience of what 2020 brought the city and country.

Two of Romero’s pieces are collaborations with her graffiti predecessors — Albert Diaz and John Matos — who paved a way for the next generation and continue to help create a community around the medium.

“Floating in Limbo” by Bianca Romero and Al Diaz.

Better known by their graffiti monikers — AL DIAZ and CRASH — the artists began tagging in their early teens at the height of the graffiti art era in New York City. At the time, the city was plastered with bubble letters, symbols, and most notably: the nicknames of hundreds of 1970s youth making their mark.

Albert Diaz had a few run-ins with law enforcement in his youth. Today, his work hangs in galleries and articles are written about him, documenting his process or his infamous friendship with the late Jean Michel-Basquiet.

“If you would’ve told me 50 years ago graffiti would be what it is today, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he says.

CRASH shares the same sentiments as his graffiti comrade. A Bronx native, he fondly remembers his favorite places to make his mark all over the city as a kid, especially on the side of subway cars in big, bold, bubble letters.  The Bronx is still home for CRASH and in 2014 he opened the WallWorks Gallery to create a space for emerging and established artists to showcase their work.

When he isn’t curating work in the confines of his gallery space, CRASH is often outdoors creating public art, sometimes in collaboration with organizations that assist at-risk young people through art.

“Nine out of ten times the people in the community like what we do” CRASH says. That one person who doesn’t? The artist chocks it up to a disagreement in the vision. Nonetheless, he is mindful, more so these days than in his youth, of using graffiti to create something his fellow neighbors can be proud of, and that amplifies a space rather than reduces it. 

Despite one of the originators of NYC graffiti being a woman by the nickname Lady Pink, the art form has been heavily dominated by men. Though more women graffiti artists have emerged since the ’70s, Romero is still in the minority.

CRASH inside of WallWorks Gallery

“I was very intimidated at first to do murals. The way public art is, you’re really taking and claiming space. It scared me” Romero says. “People need to see women painting walls and women doing art exhibits and seeing women putting themselves out there. If not just as an example but to see that women can do it too.”

Even in a pandemic, CRASH felt it was necessary to continue displaying art and opening up the space for people to safely get together to enjoy it. The exhibition will be on view until the end of the year and visitors can make an appointment to visit for free.

Although CRASH had his own run-ins with law enforcement in his youth, he never saw what he was doing as a crime.

“It was always art,” he says.