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 It’s 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)”. First to hit #1 on the US music charts and find widespread commercial success. Above all, it was the first “rap” song ever to air on MTV.
Harry is seen walking down a grimy, graffiti-covered New York City street, supposedly located in the East Village. Passing a number of street artists, including Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Rapture was significant back in the day because Hip Hop culture was still fairly underground. Graffiti was not considered a legitimate art form and rapping was a new concept to most consumers. 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 to pop art to expressionism.’” As he grew, his interest only seemed to get stronger. As a result, he was determined to make it as an artist.
Bridging The Gap
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, changed the course of art history. Combined with the 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. Thanks to Henry Flynt, a celebrated photographer, captured and then exhibited images of their work. Inspired by as well as rising established artists, Basquiat began to branch out on his own. In the process, connecting 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. His 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 Legacy
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. 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. Also the then-boyfriend of Debbie Harry. O’Brien brought the group into the film world. Then Stein brought the group into 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 is history. Today Fab is focusing on making visual art and exhibiting his work. Recently Fab was featured in the Los Angeles Museum Of Contemporary Art, ‘Art In The Streets’. The Exhibit turned out to be a blockbuster, historical survey on graffiti and street art.