Downtown ’81: Interview with Lee quiñones

“New York is my kinda’ town… if you can make it there, you can sell people your unwanted hair…”

By 1980, ‘The Big Apple’ was the nerve centre for avant-garde music, photography and art. It was a city fizzing with restlessness and cultural insurgency; and at the crux of the movement were the wayward and defiant youth. Self-expression was no longer confined to the gallery or the canvas – with people painting on anything and everything, from subways and trains, to billboards and brick walls. Music was sound, and sound was subject to reconfiguration through experimental noise, dissonance and atonality. Through this adventurous spirit came the emergence of hip hop and no wave: the talented yet unruly offspring of punk, funk and free jazz. These subcultures were a direct and largely mutinous reaction to the commercial progression of rock and roll…an emphatic two-fingered salute to the conglomerate music labels holding power at the time.

It was out of the spontaneity and chaos of this mould that Downtown 81 would eventually arise from the dust and rubble of a dilapidated Lower East Side of Manhattan. Swiss fashion photographer Edo Bertoglio and his then-partner, Morrocan-born artist Maripol, had recently teamed up with music columnist Glen O’Brien to document the flourishing art scene that they were witnessing first-hand. Originally titled New York Beat, the film required its own modern-day Lancelot: a freewheeling romantic who wields a clarinet and a spray-can as gallantly as a knight wields a sword. 

That hero turned out to be a young Brooklyn-born graffiti writer and budding musician by the name of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The camera tags along with the 19-year-old Basquiat as he wanders the New York streets with a general purpose for aimlessness…an habitual rover that appears as indifferent to the bourgeois art dealers and gallery folk than he is to the hookers, pushers and strung-out junkies that he encounters along the way. 

The film’s rhythmic and free-flowing style is by no means anchored by its plot; and this is all-the-better considering the story’s overt simplicity. As truth would have it, O’Brien had penciled a rough script only as a means of stringing together the various live performances peppered throughout the film. The majority of the artists in Downtown 81 had already been featured in his popular column, Glen O’Brien’s Beat, in Interview, the magazine founded in the late 60’s by artist Andy Warhol and British journalist John Wilcock. In many ways the casual handling of the plot is a triumph here, as it allows Downtown 81 to wander off the leash and roam where it may, making for a whole new sensory experience. 

A grainy snapshot of a bygone era, much of the outdoor locations we see in Downtown 81 are almost unrecognisable in their contemporary gentrified state. Add to that the twin tragedies of Basquiat’s untimely death at age 27 from a drug overdose, and the fact that the film almost never saw the light of day, having been shelved for almost 2 decades before its release, and it seems only a matter of time before the National Film Registry recognises its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance. 

This year, as Downtown 81 hits its 40-year milestone, I got the chance to sit down with one of the film’s featured artists, legendary NYC graffiti writer Lee Quiñones, who appeared alongside Fred Braithwaite, AKA Fab 5 Freddy. Lee’s appearance in the film would come almost exactly one year prior to his star role in the pioneer hip hop classic Wild Style.

What exactly do you think it was about the cultural melting pot of NYC in the early 1980’s that made it such a hub for creativity and expression?

“Simply said, the city was an empty slate open for reinterpretation. A colorful community arrived with their anxious aspirations in tow and synchronized with an entrenched community of provacators not willing to lay down and self abandon. You have to remember that by 1980, New York city was uncoiling from the deficit ashes of the 70’s and anyone within its creative enclave was ready to let their hair down as a show of defiance. The availability of small and huge spaces whether they were gutted or not, alternative music and pressurized spray cans on store shelves were all in the waiting”.

Would you mind sharing with us your own personal experience being on set for the making of Downtown 81?  

“Downtown ’81 was primarily filmed in my old stomping grounds of the Lower East Side’s notorious ‘AVENUE’ otherwise known as Alphabet city. I actually laid my head down further south closer to an even more notorious Chinatown, but constantly stumbled to the AVENUE by the lure of great DJ music jams in the parks and local graffiti greats.

The scene where Jean walks up to Fred Brathwaite aka Fab 5 Freddy and I while we’re painting the front facade of a club was shot on east 5th Street between Ave D and Ave C. I personally witnessed this city block and many others like it deteriorate brick by brick into a destitute landscape. The scene could not be any more dystopiantly realistic of the real world conditions the three of us were experiencing and transferring over to the canvases and trains. Some of my early works depict this period very vividly and now looking back, I consider them necessary purge statements of the time”.  

Many critics have praised Downtown 81 for its raw authenticity; citing it as a snapshot of the various subcultures existing around Manhattan at the time. What are your thoughts on this?

“Take note of these important series of events. In 1978, I single handedly painted the very first entire handball wall graffiti mural ever. By 1980 and four walls later, the world had taken notice of this surfacing through the pens of the late great Glenn O’Brien in a 6 page article he wrote for HighTimes magazine featuring Fred, Jean Michell Basqiuat and I.   

On the heels of that story and through the underground film lens of Edo Bertoglio along with Charlie Ahearn’s ‘Wild Style’, the films gave off a temperature reading that something unique and reenergized was afoot both on and beneath the streets. Simultaneous movements had merged and such was the sentiment throughout the city of collegial preservation and elevation. Through all of that, it seemed as if Jean was adrift from one island of activity to another like a droplet of oil lubing a machine of many moving cogs”.  

How in your opinion has the cultural landscape changed for graffiti writers and young urban artists in NYC today, in comparison to when you were most active as a graffiti writer? 

“Back then when the battle chose you, you had to choose what you battled with. During that era, the trains were the vehicles and the walls talked. In short, there weren’t many options on the table of contents for you as an artist because the city was trying to stay above the water line, so art as a voice had to radicalize. As a Graffiti artist, invisibility was paramount in order to pull off works that were very visible for the next rush hour. Today, we find ourselves feverishly striving to be visible behind our remote devices and sometimes I feel that we are inundated with information, and don’t realize we’ve been starving for wisdom. We can’t just simply shrink wrap the times, toss it to history and call it a day. The current moment is not so unprecedented, we’ve brewed this pot before but with different seasonings. That’s not to simply say that history repeats itself, but that it rhymes and the creatives have to rise to the exigencies of their times”. 

What motivates and inspires you to continue to push your creativity to new frontiers?

“Simply by keeping my finger on the pulse and vibes of what genuinely informs me which can be very difficult at times. To me, a vibe is different than an idea. I respect a vibe whether it is good or not, it’s just part of a patient process. The idea of an idea sounds too engineered, limiting and perhaps deceiving to me, so I rely on vibes to give me the hives to react”. 

Do you have any final thoughts or additional reflections on Downtown 81 or the legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat that you’d like to share?

“…’81 is an intimate film of a great art movement that was imagined when times were crazy and yet some things were great”.

Find more on the work of artist Lee Quinones here.

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