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Paint on the Walls: Interview with Alan Ket, co-founder & curator at the Museum of Graffiti

Co-Founder Alan Ket at Art of Hip Hop SXSW
Co-Founder Alan Ket at Art of Hip Hop SXSW

When graffiti was popping up all over New York City during the 1980s, a Brooklyn teenager going by Alan Ket was at the top of his game. “Like other young boys at the time, I felt the allure of the graffiti world because of its vibrancy, color, beauty and adventure,” recalls the artist, curator, photographer, author, and — as of December in 2019 — the co-founder of the Museum of Graffiti located in the Wynwood Art District of Miami.

“I painted trains and early on, I started to document the artwork of my peers.” While in high school, Ket met photographer Henry Chalfant, who became his de facto role model. It was Chalfant who encouraged Ket and his circle to document their art. “My documentation efforts helped teach me about the history of the art movement and my interest led me to where I am today,” believes Ket.

Eventually, the artist became a recognizable fixture in the rapidly growing graffiti culture. But he also made a name for himself in the world of hip hop by publishing Stress — the magazine credited with introducing artists like Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Eminem, Raekwon, and other emerging talent — which led to the creation of Hip Hop Nation, a Spanish language version of the magazine. Other opportunities followed.

In 2001 Ket joined forces with Marc Ecko to launch Complex, a men’s fashion magazine. A little while later, Ket was brought on as the creative consultant on Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, a video game for Atari designed by Ecko Unlimited. While it was condemned by public officials for offering players the virtual equivalent of creating their own graffiti, the backlash didn’t particularly hurt Ket. But, in 2007, he got into big trouble with the law.

District attorneys in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, charged Ket (birth name Alain Maridueña) with 14 criminal counts. If convicted, he could have had to face decades in prison and pay huge financial penalties. But, after spending a few nights in jail and being arraigned in the three boroughs, he was released when his friends and family posted $65,000 of cumulative bail that was required by three judges.

Though Ket insisted that he had not committed acts of graffiti vandalism since his daughter was born in 1994, he nevertheless agreed to a plea deal; it involved Ket pleading guilty to one felony count of criminal mischief in each of the three boroughs and paying more than $12,000 in fines and restitution. In exchange, prosecutors agreed that he would not have to serve any prison time, though he would still have to serve his community.

Art of Hip Hop SXSW
Art of Hip Hop SXSW

In a nod to those who would argue that graffiti is art, Brooklyn’s District Attorney Charles Hynes, made the artist promise to paint a public mural at a school or other community facility, to be designated by the district attorney’s office. The subject of the mural, under the plea deal, had to be mutually acceptable to both sides, and include no messages either condemning or endorsing graffiti or breaking the law.

By 2009, Ket’s legal troubles were done and dealt with, and he was hired as a consultant to help with the re-launch of Vibe magazine, where he also wore the hats of photography director and producer. While there, he worked with all the top music artists of today, including 50 Cent, Eminem, Justin Beiber, and Erykah Badu. That and he got to promote his love of hip hop culture as well as all that it entails.

Things further aligned from there. He found success as a Creative Director and worked with brands including Slamxhype, Powercoco, Pepsico, Ford, Progressive, Nintendo and the USMC. His photographs have appeared in Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, the London Sunday Telegraph, The Source, and Vibe. “My love for the art forms has led me to organize exhibitions, become an activist, and work with hundreds of artists across the globe,” states Ket.

He’s also authored a number of books, including one that came out this year. The Wide World of Graffiti (2023), with a foreword by Brazilian street artists Osgemeos, digs into the global phenomenon of graffiti and its cultural impact. Noting a "lack of comprehensive documentation on the subject," Ket explores the origins, evolution, and diverse groups of artists involved in this art form, shedding light on its significance in various world cities, including Miami.

The book “required lots of research and lots of communication with artists who normally do not share these images as a result of the illegality of the art form.” Ket analyzes the key aspects of the graffiti movement, including murals, tattoo artists, graphic designers. He particularly emphasized the debt owed to pioneering graffiti artist Lee Quiñones, creator of some of NYC’s most beloved murals in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alan Ket, Co-Founder of Museum of Graffiti & Art of Hip Hop
Alan Ket, Co-Founder of Museum of Graffiti & Art of Hip Hop

Ket seems to truly believe that the art form is meant to be appreciated and experienced by everyone. Not only is this message deeply ingrained in his published work, it is also the mission of The Museum of Graffiti— the only one of its kind in the United States — which “tracks the history of graffiti, from its genesis in 1970’s New York to its ascendance as a respected global art form.” ARTpublika Magazine had a chance to catch up with Alan Ket for a brief exchange.

If modern style graffiti started to emerge as an art form in the 60s and 70s, when did graffiti converge with hip hop culture and why was this union so successful?

The modern style of graffiti that you mention really developed by leaps in bounds in 1973-4 in the Bronx with artists like Phase 2, Riff 170, and Tracy 168. Many of these painters were immersed not only in painting trains and walls but also were part of the club scene as dancers (Phase 2), rappers (Phase 2, Chain 3, Peso 131), deejays (Kool Herc, Phase 2, Flowers Dice, Kay Slay, G-Man, etc.), and as the designers of the club flyers (Lava 1&2, Riff 170, Phase 2, Buddy Esquire, and others).

Their participation and involvement in more than just painting made the link between the elements an organic one. This successful union was most evident in the work of the Universal Zulu Nation that connected all the elements at their meetings, parties, and through their teachings. Ultimately, we are talking about youth joining together in activities that were fun and available to them in their own neighborhoods.

Please pick one large scale mural project that you've worked on and tell us about it.

The Dutty Boukman mural by the Subway Art History project is one that I deeply appreciate. It is done by a collective out of New York that we collaborated with in order to celebrate and teach about two different things:

1. The history of graffiti artists. In this case, Phase 2 and Delta 2 who stylistically were major contributors to the development of the style writing aspect of graffiti.

2. Global history. In this case the mural of Dutty Boukman, who was one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. This revolution and its heroes are seldom spoken about or taught in the United States — and even in Miami, where a large Haitian population exists. The existence of the mural is an attempt to spark dialogue about important people who have made history and should not be forgotten. The mural is that teaching opportunity for the community.

What is the difference between street art and graffiti, if applicable?

Graffiti is an art form focused on the stylistic designing of letters and names while street art is more image driven, not word driven. Graffiti art has a coded and complex language and design aesthetic that the general public might not be able to read nor understand. Street art tends to be more palatable and more about a cool image.

Fugees | Photo by Lisa Leone via Museum of Graffiti
Fugees | Photo by Lisa Leone via Museum of Graffiti

How has the relationship between graffiti and hip hop evolved over the last 50 years, and why is the Art of Hip Hop exhibition in December an important event for your organization and your community?

Graffiti and hip hop are now part of popular culture and the mainstream. Over the decades what was once an urban and inner city art form has crossed over to be in every corner of the globe, with participants from every walk of life. Both graffiti and hip hop have been used and co-opted to sell everything under the sun. At the same time, practitioners of both are able to make a living doing either — this is a new phenomenon that did not exist 30 years ago.

Our exhibit is important because it celebrates the evolution of these art forms by looking at the contributors who have pushed the envelope creatively. Audiences that only know the emcees or the club deejays will now be able to learn about the other makers that are part of the hip hop diaspora.

Which hip hop artists, in your opinion, have had the most significant impact on graffiti art?

The hip hop artists who have had the most significant impact on graffiti, I would say, are KRS-One and Swizz Beatz. KRS has promoted graffiti artists in videos and songs. Swizz Beats owns a significant art collection that includes graffiti artists, like KAWS and Okuda, and has been able to show his peers how to collect.

Who was the first to use graffiti for music promotion?

The first to use graffiti for music promotion was probably Kool Herc, who had Riff 170 design early flyers in the 1970s. During that time period Phase 2 was the king of the party flyer design and created a new design language that is still used today.

What makes graffiti culturally significant and why does that matter socially, economically, and commercially?

Graffiti is a celebration of freedom and expression on the streets that is plainly understood. It is now so popular that corporations will use graffiti and graffiti style to sell just about any product. This is a major win for artists who may have struggled before mainstream adoption and are now able to make good livings as a result of graffiti.

Boombox (1984) | Photo by Ricky Flores
Boombox (1984) | Photo by Ricky Flores

What is the most significant or important lesson that you teach when students come to learn about graffiti and its history to date?

The most important thing is that this was started by youth and has been a youth movement since day one. The implication is that young people have created a culture despite the opposition from adults, teachers, and cities, showing that sometimes even when adults don't understand or are against an issue it doesn't mean that the misunderstood doesn't have value. In this case there is a tremendous amount of value in this art form to date.

Note* All images are provided by the Museum of Graffiti and used with permission.


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