Martin Wong’s papers: a deeper look at the graffiti art collector
This week, we feature a post from one of our Collections Interns, Houda Lazrak.
As shared in a post from earlier this year, artist and collector Martin Wong donated his graffiti collection to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994. Made up mainly of works on canvas and piece books from the City’s most influential graffiti writers, the collection also included an assortment of archival material. When I began processing the Martin Wong Papers, I found publications, correspondence, and photographs that shed light on his work, his relationships, and his everyday life.
Martin Wong, September 1992, in the Martin Wong Papers. Museum of the City of New York. Activity 26400, box 2, folder 33.
Martin Wong (1946-1999), a painter and a native of San Francisco, moved to New York City in 1978. Here, he established his new home and art studio in a tenement building at 141 Ridge Street on the Lower East Side. He rapidly became active as an artist, collector, and curator in the East Village art scene and befriended many teenage graffiti writers while working at a local paint shop. Wong gained their trust and began buying their personal sketchbooks and art. In August 1989, Wong opened a graffiti art museum on Bond Street in Soho. He envisioned his “Museum of American Graffiti” as a space where graffiti could be admired by a larger public and officially join the broader art historical dialogue. Below is a description of Wong’s intended mission for the institution, typed on the museum’s customized stationery paper.
Museum of American Graffiti announcement, undated, in the Martin Wong Papers. Museum of the City of New York. Activity 26270, box 2, folder 22.
Martin Wong’s papers contain several legal agreements for the transfer, lending, and purchase of artworks between various parties, including an official loan form from the Whitney Museum of American Art for some of Wong’s personal paintings to be featured in a 1992 exhibition titled Power of the City/City of Power; and a hand written receipt from Patti Astor from her well-known Fun Gallery in the East Village, a seminal art gallery that promoted aerosol art in the early 1980s. Wong also drafted deeds of ownership transfers from artists, giving him full custody of the works and allowing him to use them as he pleased, including a hand written form signed by legendary graffiti writer Tracy 168 for the transfer of a piece book. These documents are superb examples of Wong’s versatility within the art world and re-emphasize his talents as a cultural broker.
Whitney Museum of American Art Loan Agreement, July 1992, in the Martin Wong Papers. Museum of the City of New York. Activity 26270, box 2, folder 29.
Fun Gallery Receipt, March 1983, in the Martin Wong Papers. Museum of the City of New York. Activity 26270, box 2, folder 29.
The collection also includes 42 handwritten letters from the prolific graffiti artist Angel Ortiz. The correspondence reveals the personal relationship between the two artists, as well as Ortiz’s dedication to his art and Wong’s support. Ortiz signs each letter with variations of his personal tag, either LAII or LAROCK, which both stand for “Little Angel.” Some letters include colorful hand drawn cartoon characters on the envelopes.
Correspondence from Angel Ortiz, January 1993, in the Martin Wong Papers. Museum of the City of New York. Activity 26877, box 3, folder 38.
Wong also donated dozens of graffiti related publications. They range from European museum catalogs to local mainstream art magazines to underground aerosol zines such as IGTimes or International Get-Hip Times. IGTimes documented the graffiti culture in New York City from 1983 to 1994 and includes photographs, interviews, profiles, collages, editorials, etc. Martin Wong may have used them as sources to learn about the latest movements or happenings in local aerosol art culture. The zines provide insight into the materials Wong collected but also shed light on the zeitgeist of the graffiti art world during the 1980s and 1990s.
IGTimes or International Get-Hip Times, undated, in the Martin Wong Papers. Museum of the City of New York. Activity 26270, box 1, folder 8.