For many Americans of a certain age, the initial exposure to hip-hop came by way of the breakdown on Blondie’s 1981 hit, “Rapture,” the part where Debbie Harry rapped, “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly.” Thirty-six years later, the figure she was name-checking has proved himself no mere footnote. Fab started as a teenager on the New York graffiti scene and — alongside Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat — helped bridge the gap between street art and the moneyed world of galleries and collectors. Since then, he has gone on to write, produce, and compose music; feature in the 1983 cult film classic Wild Style; host the first internationally broadcast hip-hop show, Yo! MTV Raps, in the late Eighties; direct music videos for artists including Nas and Snoop Dogg in the Nineties; and even appear in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married in 2008. More recently, the downtown trendsetter has taken things back to where he started with the solo exhibition “Afro-Greco,” currently on display at Pioneer Works.
In the Seventies, according to Fab, there was no real recognition of graffiti as an art form; he made it his mission to “create a better image for Black and Latino youth who were made to think we were always doing something wrong.” Growing up in Bed-Stuy with politically active parents, the young Fab (born Fred Brathwaite in 1959) would tag along with his father to lectures in Africana studies, the kind of history he would never see in the textbooks given to him in school. By the Seventies, he was bombing trains with the trailblazing graffiti crew the Fabulous Five and immersing himself in the world of Andy Warhol’s Factory. With the works in “Afro-Greco” — in which he juxtaposes repeating motifs of African tribal masks and Greek urns, set off by the vibrant wildstyle lettering of his youth — he revisits these aspects of his heritage, along with a dash of ancient history.
“It speaks to the advanced civilizations that were already taking place before Greece became the basis for a lot of Western thought,” he says. “I just wanted to create a visual for that.” Three canvases exploring these connections are joined by three earlier works that riff on pop art: in one, the base of red-and-white spray paint cans recalls Warhol’s Campbell Soup canvases. It’s a theme he’s explored before: In 1980, Fab covered an entire subway car with his own Krylon-happy take on the iconic soup cans.
The influence of Warhol — also a writer and filmmaker — extended beyond painting; his example showed that an artist’s work could take multiple forms. “Jean [Basquiat] made films and music too. And Keith Haring was interested in animating his work,” Fab says. “We up on all this shit.”
Gabriel Florenz, the director of Pioneer Works, grew up in California idolizing Fab 5 Freddy and the street art movement. As a young artist, he would sit with his friends and spend hours watching Wild Style on repeat. “It was like my History Channel for New York City,” he says. A few months ago, Florenz went to visit Fab’s Harlem studio, where he was struck by the pieces he saw and by the narrative that inspired them. “We wanted to create a dialogue around the cultural significance of street art in New York City,” says Florenz, who tabbed the artist for Pioneer Works’ first show dedicated to the form. “Fab is a history book. He incorporates that into his work and into the space.”
A natural oral historian, Fab can tell you about the myriad ways New York City has transformed, about the people and movements that acted as catalysts for that change. He can take you on a journey through the names, dates, streets, and hideouts that defined the world of his Eighties crew. Decades later, Fab 5 Freddy is one of the few remaining artists from that scene still practicing the craft, and still keeping things fly.
Fab 5 Freddy: ‘Afro-Greco’
159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn
Through April 23