NEW YORK (AP) — Spray-painted at night on a Lower East Side handball court, the "Howard the Duck" mural showed the comic book character peeking from behind a trash can with the words: "Graffiti is a art, And if art is a crime, Let God forgive all."
That 1978 work helped propel the illicit graffiti art movement out of the subway and into the mainstream. So it's only fitting that a canvas recreation of that mural (the original was painted over around 1988) is a part of a major exhibition on graffiti art opening Tuesday at the Museum of the City of New York.
"It was the shot heard around the world," said its creator Lee Quinones, also known by his tag LEE. "This was a movement that needed a visual manifesto. . I wanted to bring that conversation that was so elusive in the subways above ground, to a context almost similar to a museum."
Only 18 at the time, Quinones became known among his generation for covering a 10-car subway train. He and an artist named Fab 5 Freddy were among the first to earn gallery recognition with a 1979 exhibition in Rome.
What makes the New York "City as Canvas" exhibition unique is that it focuses only on works from the city that were collected over the years by East Village artist Martin Wong, who befriended and mentored many of the graffiti artists, including Quinones, and promoted their once-renegade art form. Wong's collection of more than 300 such works was donated to the Museum of the City of New York before his death in 1999.
About 150 are in the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 24. In addition to the "Howard the Duck" oil canvas, which Quinones made for Wong, other highlights include a compilation of ink-drawn tags collected by Wicked Gary, founder of the first graffiti writing club, the Ex-Vandals, and a member of a collective of writers called the United Graffiti Artists who were the first to exhibit their work in a gallery setting.
Graffiti exploded in New York in the 1970s because of the subway — an expansive canvas for the young renegade artists. The seminal 1983 documentary "Style Wars" and other media attention contributed to its spread beyond New York.
But only a handful of the largely teenage graffiti artists were "doing what we would call masterpieces, blanketing whole sides of trains," said the exhibit's curator, Sean Corcoran. They included DAZE (Chris Ellis), CRASH (John Matos), FUTURA 2000 (Leonard Hilton McGurr) and LEE — all successful artists today — who succeeded in connecting the subculture to a broader audience by virtue of their artistic talent.
Wong "had the foresight to scoop all this stuff up when no one else in New York was thinking about it seriously," said Sacha Jenkins, a writer and filmmaker who has written extensively on the graffiti movement.
As evidence of graffiti's growing credibility as an art form, Corcoran pointed to the public interest in the elusive British street artist Banksy and the outcry over the recent white-wash of a New York City's mecca to aerosol art known as 5Pointz.
"Graffiti-influenced art is on the verge of a new breakthrough," Quinones said. "We're on the crest of the wave . there's a number of artists, and not necessarily those who painted on subways" who are embracing the style and being signed by blue-chip galleries.