Fab 5 Freddy and the Rise of Street Art in Fine Art
“Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly,” raps Blondie’s legendary frontwoman Debbie Harry on the band’s 1981 single, “Rapture.” While “Rapture” is far from being the first song to feature rapping—that honor is widely credited to the Fatback Band and its 1979 track “King Tim III (Personality Jock)”—it was the first to hit #1 on the US music charts and find widespread commercial success. Its music video is also noteworthy since it was the first “rap” song—ever— to air on MTV.
In it, Harry is seen walking down a grimy, graffiti-covered New York City street, supposedly located in the East Village. She passes a number of street artists, including Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is significant; back in the day, hip-hop culture (and all that it embodies) was still fairly underground; graffiti was not considered a legitimate art form, and rapping was a new concept to most consumers of mainstream music. But, everything was about to change.
In the late 70s, all three street artists were struggling to make it in the Big Apple. Fab 5 Freddy, (born Fred Brathwaite) and Lee Quinones were members of the Brooklyn-based graffiti crew The Fabulous 5. Similarly, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz were members of SAMO, a graffiti duo that was busy tagging up the streets of downtown Manhattan. Each was interested in elevating their chosen art form to fine art status.
Fab 5 Freddy’s interest in art developed early: “‘I would cut school to travel around Manhattan museums.’ The Metropolitan was his favourite because of its lax entry policy. ‘I would show up and toss a nickel in the admissions box then spend a day in fantasy land, going from English armour to Renaissance paintings, pop art to expressionism.’” As he grew, his interest only seemed to get stronger and he was determined to make it as an artist.
Although Basquiat is regarded as one of the most influential artists in American art history, it was actually Fab 5 Freddy who successfully helped bridge the gap between street art and fine art, in effect changing the course of art history. Joining forces with Quinones, the two members of The Fabulous 5 graffiti crew exhibited their art at an Italian gallery in 1979, “which can be credited as the genesis of hip-hop’s transition into the world of fine art on an international level.”
Around the same time, Basquiat and Al Diaz were gaining attention for their expressive tags on the Lower East Side, in part, thanks to Henry Flynt, a celebrated photographer who captured and then exhibited images of their work, and graffiti in general. Inspired by rising as well as established artists, Basquiat began to branch out on his own. In the process, he connected with other emerging artists, like Keith Haring.
According to John Gruen’s Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (1991), Haring was a fan of Basquiat since 1979:
“From the moment I saw Jean-Michel’s drawings and the things he did in the streets, I knew he was a great artist. The early drawings are really simple, yet aggressive and intense. A lot of them had this scrawling language at the bottom, and there was something hauntingly real about them. The messier Jean-Michel’s things were, the better they looked.”
Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Debbie Harry met thanks to TV Party, a public access cable television show in New York City that aired between 1978 and 1982. It was co-hosted by Glenn O’Brien—a legendary writer, editor, and member of Andy Warhol’s Factory—and Chris Stein—the co-founder of Blondie, rising media personality, and then-boyfriend of Debbie Harry. Though O’Brien brought the group into the film world and Stein brought in onto the mainstream music scene, Fab 5 Freddy made sure to have equal footing in both.
Since then, Fab 5 Freddy immersed “himself in the punk-rock and art scenes brewing in downtown Manhattan…[he] would become a major conduit and ambassador for both sides, hobnobbing and curating events with transcendent figures…while spreading the hip-hop gospel.” And the rest, as they say, is history. “Today Fab is focusing on making visual art, exhibiting his work, and was recently featured in the Los Angeles Museum Of Contemporary Art, ‘Art In The Streets,’ the blockbuster exhibit that was a historical survey on graffiti and street art.”