The Ford Flex is not your soccer mom’s crossover. Despite its roots in the genteel woody wagons of the past – its antecedent, the 2005 Ford Fairlane concept, was inspired partly by Ralph Lauren – the Flex is street tough and street smart. It cries out for customization the way a bare wall in Brooklyn cries out for paint.
That is why we asked Lee Quiñones, a contemporary artist whose roots are in the subway graffiti movement, to turn a new Ford Flex into a rolling work of art. Traditionally, screwdriver magazines do “project cars.” We wanted to do something much more ambitious: an art car. As longtime fans, we were sure that putting Lee together with the Flex would produce something astonishing.
A graffiti pioneer, Lee rose to international fame in the art world. Today, his work is included in the collection of the Whitney Museum, the Groninger Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.
“A car? Yeah, I can do that,” Lee said when editor-in-chief Jean Jennings approached him. “I’ve done cars.”
The cars he had worked on before were bigger, of course. They were the number 5 cars of the IRT subway in New York, parked in the yards, or “layups,” of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The Flex reminded him of those cars. “It’s a big box. It makes you think of subway cars,” he says. “We used to call them loaves of bread.” He pioneered painting the whole car, creating a complete rolling mural.
“It was great to have an expression that went from one end of the city to the other,” he recalls. The experience gave the teenager a heady sense of the power of art. He knew who his audience was. “Two million people moved in and out of the city every day,” he says, “judging my work from behind their newspapers.”
Lee decided to use the Flex to express the essence and energy of New York City. The Ford would become a rolling record of the street culture of the city, especially from the ’70s and ’80s, a tough and gritty era but also a rich time for music and fashion.
“The Flex is a crossover vehicle,” Lee says, “and I wanted images that showed the crossover of cultures – underground art and the high art world, music and fashion, and so on.”
When the Flex was delivered on September 3 to Area Garage on Delancey Street, not far from where Lee grew up, he did nothing for a while but contemplate it. He had asked for a cinnamon Flex, because it seemed to be the right color for the time. “The spirit of the time is always a color,” he says.
“The Flex has really beautiful lines,” Lee explains. “It lends itself to imagery along the sides and the hood. I wanted people to say, ‘Wow, that is the new Flex.’ I approached the vehicle with that in mind.”
“I studied and thought and sketched. Then I put in eighteen- to twenty-hour days for a month. It took more tape than it took paint.” Since he was working on a car instead of a wall or a canvas, there was no room for redos and no chance for error, so he had to work section by section.
As he worked last fall, times changed. The economic skies darkened. Hard times suddenly returned. The nation’s mood began to remind Lee even more of the inflationary 1970s.
“Some say history repeats itself. I say history rhymes with itself.”
So his concept evolved, and the imagery morphed. A stockbroker, a man in a hat and suit, is somehow on a skateboard, surrounded by taxis, going who knows where? Lee calls him “the broke stockbroker.” A darkened skyscraper evokes the famous New York City blackout of 1977. The Madonna-like figure stands for the juncture of music and fashion. As a reminder of Lee’s youth, there is a subway train and a bit of subway map, along with big yellow taxis. “I think of them as great golden lions,” Lee says. Those familiar with New York’s garment district will spot the landmark button-and-needle sculpture.
On one fender is the checkerboard pattern of city windowpanes. The rear windows are partly painted over. Dynamic, diagonal lines overcome the rectilinear shapes of the vehicle itself and make the box float and move. All these images blend, dreamlike. In the paint on the Flex’s skin, the box dissolves, with dark backgrounds that create a sense of depth. The layers and layers of sprayed paint have been carefully polished and buffed by Ricky Maldonado, Lee’s genius assistant, into a deep, rich surface. Peer into that depth, and you see an abstract silhouetted singer at a mike, who stands for Lee’s musical memories of New York: punk at CBGB, the Talking Heads at the Mudd Club, hip-hop, Debbie Harry.
Angles and vectors and arrows literally cross over in the complex painting to mark the crossing over of cultures. Everyone will spot the Brooklyn Bridge, with its noble stone towers and gothic arches. “But I also love the Williamsburg Bridge, because it is more functional and basic, just steel,” Lee reflects.
The painting extends inside the Flex as well. “They [Ford designers] wanted the interior to be like a living room, and it really is,” Lee says. He filled it with poetry – his poetry, in jagged, city-wall lettering on the door panels. The wheel-and-tire combo continues the themes. Lee’s own, quickly rendered tag, his spray-can signature from back in the subway days, is incised into the tread of the one-off Michelin tires and matching O.Z. wheels from the Tire Rack. If Lee were to burn rubber in the Flex, he could literally emblazon his name on the pavement of New York.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1960, Lee grew up on that pavement, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He started drawing as a kid. “I was always an A-type drawing student,” he says. He and his friends made cars to roll down the block “from old wood and baby carriage wheels.”
Then Lee learned about street painting and was amazed by the democracy of it. “I got really excited when I learned it was done by kids my age.”
He picked up his first paints and, after learning to turn the can upside down to get just the right control, he developed his own method. He would not just tag walls and cars in the big bubble and box letters used by other kids, he decided. No, he would paint entire cars, making them rolling murals.
Amazingly, his parents were encouraging. And his speed kept him out of trouble in the dark car yards. “You had to work fast,” he says. “I was never caught. I had a system. I was very disciplined. I was number one on the subway police’s ten-most-wanted list. ‘We want to get you because you are an influence,’ they told me. That was the greatest thing they could have said.”
Lee’s painted messages were implicitly political. The colorful cars were a reproach to the city’s neglect of schools and parks. The city was broke. Serial killer Son of Sam was in the news, and one particularly famous headline read “[Gerald] Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Lee loved to see one of his cars side by side with a brand-new, unpainted car. “We would leave a new car alone for the contrast. Those cars showed the visuals that were indoctrinated into people’s everyday lives, of a silver train with a blue line that represented authority.” To Lee, those official cars spoke of an “android” routine, “going to work and going home, going to work and going home.”
“I felt like I was a director,” he recalls. He saw himself orchestrating the emergence of the brightly colored cars from the dark tunnel. He painted with the idea of motion in his mind, as he did when painting the Flex. He would get on the trains he had painted – he knew all their serial numbers – at his local station, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall, and watch the faces of the people riding them.
“I could see that people enjoyed them,” he says. He knew how the system worked. “I didn’t paint the red light and the serial numbers,” he says, “because I knew then they would take the car out of service.”
For most people in those days, however, subway graffiti was simple vandalism, and its practitioners were criminals, not artists. “Most art begins as an outlaw movement,” Lee counters. “Powerful movements of all kinds begin outside the law. Like NASCAR. That was bootleggers running whiskey, and now it’s a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Usually art is an effort for redemption by outsiders.”
Appreciation quietly grew. Norman Mailer wrote a famous long essay for a 1974 book called The Faith of Graffiti. “Then Claes Oldenburg” – the great pop artist – “described our cars as a bouquet of flowers in the dark,” Lee recalls. Graffiti began to get respect in the world of art galleries and museums.
At age nineteen, Lee suddenly found himself taken up by collectors. The first was Claudio Bruni, an Italian who put on a show of work by Lee and his pal Fab 5 Freddy at the Galleria La Medusa in Rome.
New York caught up with Europe in 1980, with an exhibition of street art called “The Times Square Show.” In recent years, the New Museum and the Brooklyn Museum also have honored subway art. Some of the former artists have flourished, but many are dead. A few, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, have become posthumous legends. Lee shared a studio with Basquiat in 1979, and his Lower East Side mega hardball court murals influenced Haring’s infamous street artwork. Others, like Haze and Futura 2000, have survived to achieve artistic and commercial success.
Lee stood out from the group from the beginning. In 1982, he starred in Wild Style, an independent film directed by Charlie Ahearn that was loosely based on his life. Lee was cast as Raymond Zoro, an elusive subway artist. The movie included images and a sound track from groups such as the Cold Crush Brothers and break dancers like the Rock Steady Crew. The film was the first to popularize the idea that rap and graffiti were part of a wider culture that would later become known as hip-hop. In another serendipitous conjunction with Lee’s Flex project, the film is marking its twenty-fifth anniversary and has been given full revival treatment.
Lee has since turned his spray cans to Big Topics: murals on Vietnam and Hurricane Katrina. He summed up his musical legacy in 2007 in a show at P.S. 1, the Museum of Modern Art’s outpost in Long Island City, Queens. Lee showed a dozen paintings depicting the jackets of classic records – like James Brown’s Sex Machine, the Incredible Bongo Band’s Bongo Rock, and Shaft in Africa – in the grasp of his own fingers. You can see the series, which is owned by legendary musician Eric Clapton, at www.leequinones.com.
“Most of my collectors now are younger than I am,” Lee says. “They want something that speaks of their generation.” They could be the children of those who bought his earliest work.
Such cycles of time fascinate him. “New York constantly recycles itself,” he says. “Life leans on art, and art leans back on life.”
That could be the theme of the 2009 Ford Flex Art Car. Its images draw on the past to comment on the present, which is why it will have artistic value well into the future.
A portrait of the artist with his street racer.
Besides painting, Lee’s other obsession during his youth was street racing. “Not the crazy stuff like today,” he says, “but with everything blocked off very carefully and organized. In those days, there were legendary street races for big money.”
He ran lots of cars himself. One was a black Dodge nicknamed Nemesis that he’s had since 1989. He shows a picture: all black, big scoop on the hood. “A 1965 Dodge Coronet two-door sedan,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff in it you can’t see. It has enough skunkwork materials to make Lockheed engineers jealous.”
A painting Lee did of one of those legendary street races hangs on the wall of his Brooklyn studio. A Dodge Dart and a Chevy Camaro are side by side. “I call it Avenue of the Americas,” he says. “Not after the avenue in Manhattan, but because the street is the avenue of achieving American dreams. This is one of the most famous races ever, in Brooklyn in 1971, with lots of money riding on it.”
You can see by the wavy, movie-flashback liquidity of the taillights that the painting depicts a dream of the race. It shows how memory enlarges things, like the oversize tachometer glowing red inside the Dodge: you can clearly see the needle kissing seven grand.
There’s a big window in the studio next to the painting. We stand, looking out over a glum Brooklyn. It’s a rainy day, and you can see nothing but flat roofs for miles.
“A gray day in New York is a sunny day,” Lee says.
“What do you mean?” I ask, genuinely puzzled.
“Well, in New York every day is bright, because there is something new, something just coming at you, just whizzing by. That is the essence of New York.”