Lee Quinoñes

In Graffiti We Trust

Interview by Trina Calderón

In spring 1974, thirteen-year-old Lee Quiñones took his schematic drawings into a tunnel and spray painted “LEE” in gold, white, and black on the small panel of a New York City BMT train. An inspired outlaw with a meticulous design process and precision painting skills, his voice responded to the social and civil unrest of the era and found expression in painting graffiti, an ancient art form that he and many of his peers had to defend in the larger art world. On a clear, crisp morning, we met to talk about his legendary 50 years of painting, which is celebrated in his new book, Lee Quinoñes: Fifty Years of New York Graffiti Art and Beyond, as well as solo shows in Los Angeles and New York City and a feature documentary in production with director Sarah Driver. 

Lee Quinoñes: In Graffiti We Trust
© Lee Quiñones, Howard The Duck, 1978. Spray paint on concrete handball wall at Corlears Junior High School 56, 17 x 26 ft.
Photo by Martha Cooper in 1980.


Trina Calderón: Do you remember that first moment you smelled spray paint?  
Lee Quinoñes: I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s that distinct smell. There are only two other smells that come close. When you get off the subway at Coney Island and you smell that cotton candy or the hot dogs at Nathan’s, those aromas bring you back to a time and place of innocence, or not so much of an innocence but something that you take to heart. Another is the smell of oil paint. It’s something that always excites me when I go into the studio. But spray paints, especially the paint of that time in 1974, were unique because they had a lot more pigment, and some of them still had lead. Some of these cans had sat on shelves for years. They weren’t used, and you would pick them up, ‘borrow them’ as I say, or you reinvent them. You take them on lease. 
I have maybe over 100 cans from 1974 up to 1984. I have actual cans that I misted in 1974 that still work to this day. If I spray them here and there, shake ‘em up, and throw a little spit out of the paint, that smell brings me back to that time and place. Maybe even the temperature of the day—was it a sunny day, or was it a gray, gloomy day? It brings back a lot of memories and sentiment; it even calls me back to politics at the time. It’s almost like I can smell Gerald Ford talking at the podium and Nixon on his way out. 


Lee Quinoñes: In Graffiti We Trust
Stop the Bomb, 1979, Spray paint on steel, 7 x 104 ft. Double whole car, top-to-bottom, end-to-end married couple. 
Photo by Henry Chalfant


Your paintings often incorporate poetic text. How did words become part of your composition?
Visually, going back to the subway era, an entire 52’ long car painted is so out of the box, out of the norm, that when it comes, it takes you hostage in a way. I think people were very much intimidated by that. There were a lot of things in New York that intimidated, frustrated, and frightened people, for good reason, but when you saw this coming around and gobbling you up to take you somewhere uptown, to your job, or wherever, I wanted to make it more of an experience. I wanted to have a reading session with the public. I thought words were always captivating, and they still are. 
Words are power, and when you have words incorporated into a visual, it starts to lower the level of fear in people because there’s an attempt by the person, the practitioner, to make some kind of dialogue happen. I think there was power in that, especially in something on a subway car where you would never expect to see anything written, unless they were trying to sell you on how to correct hair loss or how to pay your unpaid taxes and never get taxed again. Like all the stuff that you’re exposed to on the interior of your car. There’s nothing on the outside that is forgiving, and other than this regimented blue line that goes across, that’s supposed to give you an idea of some civil municipality. It’s frickin’ New York, 1974! Dude, it’s falling apart! You’re trying to tell me that this exterior is now going to make me feel good about everything outside of it? 
I’m going to write because I want to grasp the imagination of every scrap hanger, but I also want to start lending a hand to other talented painters who are painting in this theater of operation and let them know that this is beyond the name. This is beyond your narcissistic approach to yourself, not that there’s anything wrong with trying to preserve yourself by painting your name over and over again. I think there’s something about self-agency and strength in that, but it’s also something that you can get drunk on and not recover from. I felt I needed to add more verbiage and actual language to this so that people cannot be offended at first and not look away but be condemned to look at the writing and then say, “Oh, this young soul, whoever he or she is thinking, is verbalizing those thoughts to me when they don’t have to.” I felt that that was my calling at the time. 
After 1978 [the Howard the Duck handball court mural], that was the strongest statement I remember repeating to myself. If art is a crime, let God forgive us all. Let God forgive me. The reason for that was because we are already saying that art is a crime, and we’re saying graffiti because it’s not in the verbal acceptance dictionary. It’s something strange and thereby should be shunned away because we don’t want to understand it, and we don’t want to understand the circumstances that made it happen in the first place! If you don’t want to understand the underpinnings of something, you obviously aren’t going to understand when it evolves and matures itself into something that is really in front of your face. I think all art is rebellious. When you create art in that context, you’re creating a whole different experience in terms of how you approach your art and how art approaches you.


Lee Quinoñes: In Graffiti We Trust
© Lee Quiñones, Year of the Dragon, 1979. Spray paint on steel, 7 x 52 ft.
Whole car, top-to-bottom, end-to-end mural on Lexington Avenue IRT Express #5 subway train. Courtesy of artist. 


Art is civil disobedience.
Yes, and it’s very subjective. Art and self are very controversial, and thank God it is because then we’d all be painting by numbers.
That would be boring!
Yeah, and that’s what brings us to this new book. I’ve been saying that it’s art, and people have said it's not, but I think they’re all starting to come around now. Again, I’m the guy who always admired the hole in the fence because someone made a hole in the fence. Because to get into the playground of life, they observe you and your behavior and expect you to go around the groomed lawn and the walkway and go through the entrance and the gates on the other side of the block. Somebody made a hole in that fence and said, “Fuck that; we want to get into that playground.” Sometimes you have to break into the playground. I’m saying that only because I feel that this is a book to get people to start thinking the way I thought back then. 
What’s it like exploring different styles and materials over 50 years?
Curiosity didn’t kill this cat, that’s for sure. I’ve always been curious about all the materials that are used and the practices of the masters, Renaissance painters, abstract painters, and the minimalists. Trying to sort of dive into their mindset at the time, I could never pinpoint any given artist’s reason for doing what they do. I could say that mine had come from serendipitous ways. Some of my best works have been created over moods or vibes in the room. Some of it private, some painful, because it’s a lonely place to be in your own mind to try to navigate, trace over what life throws at you, express that, and purge it because it’s detrimental if it stays inside. I always say that the world is crazy, and that’s why there are artists.
I think artists make sense of things. They put it in front of you to either get inspired, or to react to or to remember, or to realize something and say, “Wow, I was wrong all this time.” To see the explosion of the celebration of artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, Mickalene Thomas, Jenny Holzer, Teresita Fernandez, William Cordova, and Judy Chicago, it’s amazing how the aperture has opened for the art world. I think they’re doing themselves a great service because art that was considered irrelevant and maybe in some ways illegitimate, or maybe unarticulated, is now looking so clear.


Lee Quinoñes: In Graffiti We Trust
© Lee Quiñones, Honest George, 2009. Acrylic, oil paint, spray paint, charcoal, pastel pencil, and printed matter on linen, 132 x 109 in. Photo by Jason Mandella. 


Graffiti artists have been called futurists because their art imagines the possibilities. Do you see yourself in that way?
It seems that the expressionists of the time are rightfully put in that time to create a window for people to put into context. To put that time and arrest it, at least keep it in the books. But we ultimately return to something that’s familiar and similar. It’s almost like the same smell coming back. Can I smell Red Devil spray paint right now or Rustoleum vintage spray paint and say I’m back to the Vietnam era and the civil rights movement? Uhh! Isn’t it funny that we’re going through this whole race thing now? And global wars? And secret wars? It’s like, oh shit, here we are again. What happened? What happened is what. What is a weird word. I have a saying, the world is round, and so is karma. It really is! It’s like we’re on a round planet for a reason, and there’s no edges to it, and we try to make edges. We make squares for ourselves; we make square tables; we never want to make round tables. Let’s mimic the world for a change, make a round table, and maybe we’ll come to some kind of chaotic peace, whatever you want to call it.

I like looking at these pictures in the book. I love the peppering of the history of the subways and the decrepit walkways across a bridge, just to give a little temperature reading of the urgency of the moment and how I appropriated the moment, took it up a notch, and went through that hole in the fence. I like to look at it that way and surprise myself. Oh wow, what was I thinking when I did that? Or whoa, I still think that way; that’s still relevant. There’s some works that speak volumes across that whole arc of a lifetime, and I love that. 


Lee Quinoñes: In Graffiti We Trust
Lee Quiñones: Fifty Years of New York Graffiti Art and Beyond, book cover, 2024, published by Damiani Books


What ideas are you bringing into your painting today?
Self-reflection through the family tree. I’m creating a body of work, paintings, having to do with growing up in my mother’s apartment, sort of a pre-subway era analysis of investigating the immense guilt, shame, and paralysis within the Puerta Rican communities, my family included. Talking about why we pretend to stay sort of stuck in those tar pits of not having enough power to wake up in the morning and smile, of being very theatrical about everything and not really looking at life as a possible changing of the guard, changing of the record. Let’s play side B for a change. It’s all those issues I saw in my family growing up and affecting their decisions, including mine, even to this day. It’s very dear to me to talk about that because it’s not just about my family; it’s about many families that tend to get marooned in these desert islands that make them accept what’s given, the crumbs, and not create and invent something for themselves or life in general. I feel that I’ve given a lot to many young souls by saying, I’m not taking what you’re giving me, what society’s giving to me. I’m giving to society. 
Lee Quinoñes: Fifty Years of New York Graffiti Art and Beyond will be published by Damiani Books in Spring 2024. This interview was originally published in our SPRING 2024 Quarterly