Lee Quiñones (b. 1960, Ponce, Puerto Rico) was raised in New York City’s Lower East Side. One of the early school practitioners of graffiti, Quiñones started painting on New York City’s streets and subway cars in 1974. Over the next decade he would masterly paint more than 100 whole subway cars throughout the MTA system, before shifting to a studio-based practice. Quiñones was instrumental in the course of evolving graffiti into street art by moving it above ground when he created the first full street handball court mural in 1978, thereby arguably labeling him as the originator of street art. He has had numerous solo shows and exhibited internationally, pushing the illicit visual vernacular of the subway graffitist through the lips of contemporary art society. His first exhibition was at Galleria La Medusa in Rome, Italy, in 1979.
In 1980, Quiñones had his first North American show at New York’s White Columns, ushering in an important era of spray paint and making the transition from moving objects to stationary canvas works. His work was included in the critical Times Square Show (1980); Graffiti Art Success for America at Fashion Moda (1980); New York/New Wave (1981) at MoMA PS1; and documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany (1983).
In the past decade or so, his drawings and paintings have been shown in East Village USA: Then and Now – The Art of Graffiti at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (2005); El Museo’s Bienal: The (S) Files 2011 at El Museo del Barrio (2011); Looking at Music 3.0 at the Museum of Modern Art (2011); Art in the Streets at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) (2011); Cross the Streets at MACRO — Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, Italy (2017); Zeitgeist: The Art Scene of Teenage Basquiat at The Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, Lynchburg, Virginia (2018); and Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987, The Bronx Museum of Arts, New York (2019).
He has had solo shows at MoMA PS1; Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati, Fun Gallery, Barbara Gladstone, Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Lisson Gallery, Barbara Farber and Nicole Klagsbrun, among others. In 1983, he starred in Charlie Ahearn’s influential film Wild Style, which served as a blueprint for the emerging hip hop and street art movements. Quiñones also appears in Blondie’s Rapture video, and in the film Downtown 81. His work also appears in Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s 1983 documentary film Style Wars and Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated.
Quiñones’ paintings and drawings are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, the Groninger Museum in Groningen, Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, and recently the Blanton Museum of Art.
Lee Quiñones still lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Lee Quiñones creating one of three guitars for Eric Clapton’s personal collection. Courtesy of the artist.