Graffiti legend Stash brings New York street culture to Singapore
As a young boy riding the subway to and from school in 1970s New York, American graffiti and street art legend Josh “Stash” Franklin was captivated by the illegally painted murals on the sides of the trains.
“It was the time of the second generation of New York City subway writers. The murals had evolved from simple, straight letters – which are the most beautiful things – to letters full of color, pop and cultural references It was an amazing thing to see when I was a kid,” says the 54-year-old in local artist Jahan Loh’s studio at Mandai Estate in Singapore.
Void Deck – an art space in Jalan Besar founded by Loh and entrepreneurs Jazz Li and Cheo Ming Shen – brought Franklin to Singapore for a week-long residency, culminating in an exhibition at its premises.
Franklin, who arrived from the United States on June 28, is eager to get to work, but notes that he has come a long way from his humble beginnings in the graffiti movement.
“It certainly wasn’t sitting in a beautiful studio in Singapore with great people asking me if I wanted another seltzer,” he says with a smile.
It was a time before modern distractions like reality TV or the Internet, when mothers sent their children out of the house with instructions to stay out until dinner.
And so, armed with enough subway tokens to take him anywhere in New York — from his Upper East Side home to neighborhoods like Brooklyn — the boy grabbed a can of paint and tried his hand at graffiti. .
“It was the first version of branding – (my friends and I) were writing our own names. And we were going to other neighborhoods and writing our names there.
Their “handwriting” was more like large-scale calligraphy, characterized by vibrant colors and bold lines.
But their adventures weren’t the safest extracurricular activities, he admits.
“We would be standing in a subway tunnel in the dark on a narrow ledge with a can of paint, and the train could come at any moment. We didn’t have the luxury of stepping back and seeing how a work of art looked. And it was dangerous – you could be arrested or killed.
Recalling that he was the victim of a robbery at gunpoint, he says: “We got ourselves into awkward situations, but that’s how we learned – going overboard and then inside ourselves. withdrawing.
And either way, the sense of pride and accomplishment that came with getting a job done was unbeatable.
“Like, oh, shit. I just painted a train. I did it,” he said.
The graffiti on trains has largely disappeared – Franklin says he was one of the last real generation of subway writers – replaced by street art that has found its way into the commercial world.
He is a pioneer of this movement, the first graffiti artist to have collaborated with the sportswear giant Nike on sneakers.
Loh, 45, says Franklin has opened the door for other artists to work with big brands.
“Celebrities wear his stuff and he’s collaborated with the likes of (former American basketball star) Kobe Bryant. Kanye West even stood in line to get his autograph.
The switch to commercial work, Franklin says, was natural for him, given that he had been “hustling” since his teenage years.
“In high school, I was already trying to sell paintings to my mother’s friends – ‘let me do your daughter’s name’ – that sort of thing. And then I started making T-shirts very early in my career because I needed money to pay for my paint shop. It started my work in graphic design for streetwear,” he says.
Some of his contemporaries chose not to turn their passion into a business, but he notes: “I was also coming to a time when the old statesmen (of pop art and graffiti) had moved on to show their work in galleries, so I had this example to watch and learn.
He was only 17 when he saw his art exhibited at the famous The Fun Gallery in Manhattan’s East Village in the early 1980s – alongside artistic icons of the time, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
And now, Singaporeans will have the opportunity to see original works made by Franklin in Singapore, as part of the free showcase Subblueminal: Ultramarinus organized by Void Deck in partnership with watch brand G-Shock. It runs from July 10 to September 5 at the Void Deck.
“It’s nice to be able to immerse yourself in the culture here – smell the smells, eat the food and mingle with the people – rather than just shipping a bunch of artwork. To have a local breakfast before coming to the studio and getting to work,” he says.
Noting that he finds inspiration in the small details of everyday life, he adds: “It could be the smallest thing – rust on a pole, watching what oxidation does to paint, how it warps colors – and then I wonder how I can take this palette and incorporate it into my next work.
During his visit, Franklin will also launch a retrospective book, Subblueminal: Visual Maintenance in the Art of Josh ‘Stash’ Franklin Vol 1, on his career.
Only 500 copies of the first edition are printed and exclusively available in Singapore. It sells for 68 Singapore dollars (RM214) at the exhibition and on the Void Deck website.
The book tells the story of his first act, Franklin says, chronicling how his artistic journey dovetailed with the birth and subsequent explosion of streetwear. It features contributions from peers and other street art giants such as Kaws, Futura and Zephyr.
“I started out as a graffiti artist and I’m trying to get back to painting, to how the story started (before commercial work).
“That’s how I want to go out…walking into the sunset with a can of paint in my hand,” he says. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network