Lee Quiñones–Street Art’s Reigning OG

Lee Quiñones | In episode 74 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks with artist Lee Quiñones about graffiti, success, and growing up in the Lower East Side.

Just a kid, he was already celebrated for his subway artistry and for being the city’s most wanted vandal. Recognized as a grand master of the spray can, Lee talks about surviving on the Lower East Side, riding the graffiti wave to pop culture history as the star of the iconic movie Wild Style and emerging as an artist with work in major museums and private collections.

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 David: [00:00:00] 

Lee Quinones is a Puerto Rican born American artist who grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and became one of the most renowned artists of his time. Now sixty-years-old, he continues to build on his legacy that spans the worlds of graffiti, street art, gallery exhibits, and museum shows. He starred in Charlie Ahearn’s seminal hip hop movie, Wild Style, and appeared along with Fab 5 Freddy, Jean Michelle Basquiat in the video for Blondie’s Rapture, the first number one hit in America to feature rap vocals. An outspoken voice for culture rooted in its opposition to the status quo. He continues to create and produce in all mediums, from social to social sculpture. Welcome, Lee.


Lee: [00:00:52] 

Thank you. Thank you, David. I’m happy to be here.


David: [00:00:56] 

Good to have you. I mention social sculpture because that’s kind of a field that- of interest to me, it’s where people are doing things that aren’t necessarily producing a work of art or an object or a product, but also fit into their practice. So whereas, let’s say, your work in politics, most recently, devoting a lot of your time and energy towards the election that just passed, for example. Do you look at that as part of your practice?


Lee: [00:01:31] 

I look at it as a practice of, keeping… humanity focused on the fundamental so like, you know, art is radical in itself. It’s a radical statement any which way you look at it. But I look at it as art needs an audience, and art needs an exchange of information, in order for it to have its power. People need to have this discourse between each other. And when you have a world that’s upside down and listening to one side you just have to step up, as an artist, because you have to be the voice of society. So in a way, it is- I wouldn’t necessarily look at it as an art statement, but it’s just like a humanity thing. You know? An issue of humanity.


David: [00:02:27] 

When you started at the ripe old age of around fourteen, doing your work, did you think of yourself as an artist? The social world at that time, the city itself was in a terrible state, was that connected with your work? Did the fact that, the city was falling apart, the city was burning, people were poor. It was a very hard time in the history of New York City. Was that part of the connection, in the same way that today, things are pretty shitty as well?


Lee: [00:03:04] 

Shitty moments in our lives always come up, right? They always get re- recasted, into society. And, there’s differences. You know, back then, I didn’t consider myself an artist, even though I’ve been painting and drawing since I was five-years-old. I couldn’t even think like, wow, at five-years-old I was actually thinking of drawing. But I was. And no one really called me an artist, in a consistent way, until they actually started calling me a graffiti artist. And I was like, “Well that’s kind of like contradicting.” Cause graffiti, by definition, is to scrawl and deface and be vile with your placement, and you’re calling me an artist on the tail-end of that. So what am I? Am I a vandal, am I an artist? But then I, as I kept on painting and painting more about society and political issues, even on the subways, I started to think of the power of art is to, again, engage with an audience. And not necessarily dictate, scenarios to them, but just to leave something, food for thought. So then I thought of myself as an artist, in my late-teens. Because I knew by virtue of like what I was- The part of that exchange was people saying, “That is so beautiful.” Or more importantly, “That is so, so powerful.” Or, “It changed my life.” Or, “It changed my perspective on how I look at life. And that’s when I knew that artist and having the power of communication, they go hand in hand. And that’s when I said, “Yes, I am an artist.” Um. But before that, I didn’t even think of it, because New York in itself was upside down. Gerald Ford had just gotten off proclaiming that he was just gonna let us fall into a deficit black hole. And I figured, you know, I have to fend for myself, I have to reinvent myself. And so did fifty thousand other young souls, uh, that took to the cans. Did we say we were artists? No. We proclaimed ourselves as writers because we were writing, but then the writing evolved and it became something bigger than itself. So when I saw it becoming bigger right before my eyes, in the dark, I said, “Wow. This is really beautiful and powerful.” And then I made that connection to what I was hearing outside of myself.


David: [00:05:46] 

Did you have support in your family for what you were doing in those years?


Lee: [00:05:51] 

I did. [laughs] I grew up in a, I would say, in a privileged household, because I grew up in the projects but surrounded by chaos and death and despair. This whole dystopian, atmosphere around my neighborhood. And my mother and father, you know, they had their issues. We were splintered, but we were all under one roof. So I could say safely that I came from a good upbringing because I knew my parents loved me. And I loved them. And my siblings as well. But they- understood that I had to have an outlet. And since I’d been a creative person since five-years-old, I think my mother, because of her love of cinema, and she took me to a lot of cinematic, back then I don’t even know if they called them red carpet, you know, debuts or whatever. But, she understood that I needed to have that outlet. I remember telling her this specifically at maybe fourteen, fifteen-years-old. “Mom, please do not attempt to stop me in my tracks.No pun intended. Because if you do, I will do it more. I will- [laughter] In other words, I will find a way around you, and I will make it happen.” So she had enough guts, maybe more than I could ever have as a parent now, to say just come home in one piece and I give you the green light. Maybe hesitantly, but knowing that I was maybe having enough judgement to know that I was, smart and sharp enough to not be stupid in a dangerous situation. Because it was. It was dangerous the minute I walked out my door. But it was actually more safe in the subway yards than it was on the streets. [laughs]


David: [00:08:11] 

So you took refuge in the subway.


Lee: [00:08:14] 

I did. 


David: [00:08:15] 

The trajectory of the artist in the past has been a very slow burn, making it after you die. Your generation changed all that. Haring, Basquiat, Rammellzee et al, obviously they also have one thing in common, they all died young. For those of that era, who continue to create, from Kenny Scharf, to Futura, to Fab 5 Freddy it hasn’t been all that easy to stay hot. Now those blessed with success at an early age have another problem, right? In our culture, fame is fleeting. It’s always the next thing that people are looking for. You’ve been through that process and continue to stretch and explore, not resting on your laurels. What have you learned and what keeps motivating you?


Lee: [00:09:03] 

What keeps motivating me is that I keep my finger on the pulse of society, as I always say. I keep true to myself, and being truth- truthful to yourself, uh, reflects in your work. And you have to have enough confidence that the work comes around. Even if it’s for a hot minute, you know? Back in 1980, you could have lasting fame for as long as, almost like as long as you wanted it to be. Now, fifteen seconds, it’s fifteen microseconds now that you’re hot and then you’re not. I don’t keep my focus on that, because I have to live with myself and my work, and the voice that my work is projecting out. So I feel that my work comes around, and everything that’s worthy, that comes back to me, is just because it was meant to be. So if people give me attention now and embrace me, that can come from either nostalgic reasons, uh, but it could also be that I’ve tapped onto something, um, and knee-jerked people, which I love to do. That’s only because I’ve just been keeping my focus on what really moves me to make work. So the work always reflects life, vice versa. Uh. So that’s the way I look at it. I really try not to get myself in a- a Twitterized moment, like everyone else is, and that’s not a diss to anyone. Because people are living in a very fast paced thing. But my saying is if life is so short, why are we rushing through it? So I slowburn in my own stove, and I feel good with my work, because I have to ultimately live with it as I’m creating it in my studio now. And that process has to have a strong pillar for it to stand the test of time outside of that, whether it’s hot or not.


David: [00:11:32] 

So how do you keep your finger on the pulse now? What is that you- you respond to most and react to that tells you something, that makes you react?


Lee: [00:11:42] 

Well I tend to think that I do, or I have been doing, for all my life, what politicians should and probably will be doing, it’s just simply listening in. Just listening in, and listening to all the micro, subliminal messages that come across your palette, whether it’s visual, emotional, audio. I remember one instance, or two instances, for a painting that I did that I’m very proud of. It’s called Send in the Clowns. Uh. Based on the beautiful song by Stephen Sondheim. And that song stood in my mind for a long time, but it just stood sort of like rotating wheels, maybe not having traction, in the back of my mind. But one night, I saw Debbie Harry. At a club function. In this one moment, where she was just totally by herself and thinking to herself, and that’s what I thought. That’s what I came off with. I walked out of the club that night by myself, took the train home. Got on the train, and there is a young woman sobbing. In the subway car by herself. So I sit across from her, and feeling a little uncomfortable because I’m like, “Should I be sitting on the other side of the car? Should I be maybe… you know, trying to, comfort her in some way, whether just being in proximity or actually ask her something?” But I felt like asking her something would make her feel that she would think that I was finding her in a very vulnerable moment to take advantage of her, especially in an empty car. She was sobbing. Then she walked out two or three stations later. By this time, people have walked in the train. Then I’m sitting there feeling all by myself with people around me. Not sobbing, but thinking to myself, “What was this all about?” So then I go to my studio the next morning, and I turn on the music and the Send in the Clown comes on. And I’m listening to it. And all these things start coming back to me from the night before. Debbie, this young woman which I never had the guts to say, “Are you okay? Can I help?” And the painting that I came up with was a portrait of Madonna, who we all love and know, in a subway car – but not in a vulnerable state – but rather kneeling down with a switchblade in her hand. And just looking at you with this guise of like, “Fuck with me motherfucker and I’ll cut your balls-” You know? And that’s Madonna, right? But it was the reverse of what I felt that night, of these emotions, whether Debbie was thinking of some sobering moment, and this girl, whatever was going through her life at the time, and then what I ultimately felt, came out of that experience. That feeling came out in this painting. Now I have seen Madonna, shuffling around the scene. And I found this clipping in the New York Times Magazine, where this little boy is giving flowers to a girl. And in his thoughts, he’s saying, “I just like you, don’t get any ideas.” But she’s in her thoughts going, “Oh my god! I can’t wait to marry you when I grow up.” [laughs] And it was just this really beautiful moment of love, but also companionship and passion, in a very innocent way. And it was me, not laughing at Madonna or anyone else, but saying, “Here’s the juxtaposed moment of being alone and also being with someone that you have feelings for, whether you’re going to marry them or not.” And I put it as an advertisement in the car. So it’s a very subliminal message the painting is affectionately called, Send in the Clowns, because it’s about finding that lonely space. Are you happy in that moment? You may be. Madonna may be as happy as anyone else. But we live in a city, as you know, David, that we can be within a million people in Times Square and yet feel alone. And that’s what I mean about keeping the pulse on your surroundings and the scenarios that come up to you, and speak to you in volumes, yet it may be a silent moment. And you just have to take that into account.


David: [00:17:40] 

Wow. What a process that, you’re even aware that all these elements are contributing to, what turns out to be a total original piece of art that, if you looked at you wouldn’t make any of those connections.  


Lee: [00:17:56] 



David: [00:17:56] 

I- I love that.


You know, the past is so much a part of our present, right, and on Facebook, for example, there’s so many groups that are talking about, you know, Danceteria, The Mud Club, CBGB’s, “I was here, I was there. I knew so-and-so.” Is it possible, or even necessary, to transcend that and be in the moment without also being nostalgic at the same time?


Lee: [00:18:41] 

As a city or as a society, we go through these highs and lows. It’s funny, when you think about high art, is high art made when there’s a low moment? Or the opposite? Those were moments of our youth. Obviously our youth will always live on in our memories, and we think of where times were crazy, but things were great. At that time, we were celebrating a dark moment in our lives. You know what I mean? We were not that far from the Civil Rights Movement. The Vietnam era. People wanted to go out and just splurge. I only can speak for New York because I didn’t travel so much until I started doing shows abroad. But there was something special happening right in the hornet’s nest, in New York, that we were able to reinvent and reassess, and flip the script. Because we knew that we were being watched. New York always is aware of its moment on center stage. That’s why it’s a twenty-four hour play, right, as I always say. It never ceases to stop and amaze us. But, that was then, and now there’s so many things happening that are just as agitating and maybe even more- more urgent. And going to politics, where I felt, you know, I painted about this lost, faraway land of a Cold War. The concept of the Cold War was always haunting me when I was a child growing through the ’60s and early ’70s, and always hearing this sort of voice in the background of like, “We have to take refuge under tables.” And things of that nature. Not knowing if the next day you was gonna wake up. It always scares me that empires come and go, but the art survives. Right?


David: [00:21:58] 

Mhm. That’s true.


Lee: [00:21:58] 

We could always look back and play the nostalgia card, and we could do that over cigars and drinks and stuff like that, but it shouldn’t be the driving force. It should inform of us of some things that do come back around, because, you know, history does rhyme with itself. 


David: [00:22:52] 

There was a moment when art jumped a species, from the subways to the galleries, you know, to the walls. What kind of a transition was that for you? Would you still rather be painting trains today? I mean, you and your crew were famous for not only doing whole cars, but whole lines, right? Like ten trains, having them covered top to bottom. You were way out there. The Olympic athlete of the whole graffiti era. But then, came the moment when, you had to jump the species, right, into this other world. Would you rather be back painting trains, or are you still, good where you are? Not just now, but in that transition.


Lee: [00:24:16] 

I feel good in the transition over the years. At first, in all honesty, I, uh, I was a little, knee-jerked about it, because I was undomesticated. I had this very visceral, up close relationship with these inanimate objects we call subway cars. So I was very much attached to that whole scenario, and the process of going through it. For the love of my work. That I knew that my voice had a vessel. Literally, a vessel to travel on and tantalize millions of people. That was a hard act to follow. And to me, when I went onto canvas, without realizing that it had an elasticity way beyond the subways, I was like, “Oh, I’m leaving.” Because… Without sounding corny or anything, I’m a very loyal person to what I attach myself to. And I was like, “No. I’m gonna paint trains forever.” I always thought these trains would be there forever, because the conditions that we were under in New York felt forever. I awoke to life, of blackouts and riots and killings, and all kinds of stuff, all across the board, and I thought that it was a forever moment. So I thought that these trains would be, uh, a voice forever. And, yes, it was still difficult for me. But then I- I found my place and my solace, when I finally was able to speak to myself in the studio environment, and have that real conversation with myself. So I feel very comfortable now, um, where I am. Do I think of those subway years? Yes I am. I’m re- relapsing into that now, cause I’m writing a book about it.


David: [00:27:26] 

Oh, you are? Awesome. Yeah.


Lee: [00:27:28] 

I am. I’m finally really- And I’ve been writing the book since 1979- [laughter] When I was still active on the trains. But, you know, life gets in the way, you put it to the side. Life happens, next thing you know it’s five years later, ten years later. I’m glad it happened, because now I have a lot more of a perspective to dive into. So it’s not just the trains, it’s beyond the trains. Post-trains, post-graffiti. So, um, I am relapsing into that moment, and kind of taking a chuckle to myself. But, you know, I feel like I could go back and say, “Yes.” Because I’m thirty years, forty years passed, so I could look at it closer now than I was then. Because I was too close to the fire then, I was the fire.


David: [00:28:30] 



Lee: [00:28:30] 

You look at it just like any art movement. Art movements come and go, and then people grasp the tail end of that comet when it’s ready to go out into the abyss, and say, “Well, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait.” And that’s why I’m so happy that people are discovering beyond Basquiat, they’re discovering Rammellzee, and A1One, and myself. Rediscovering. Because there’s so much there, so much meat and potatoes, you know?


David: [00:28:58] 

And also still there, still creating. To me, that’s what’s key because we don’t have too many of those originals, who are still with us, who are able to continue to work and produce at the same level, that you are. In terms of your superstardom and Olympic, gold medals that I would give you, like at least five- [laughter] for different things that you’ve accomplished. But among them, being the most wanted person by the Metropolitan, Transit Authority police in New York. Literally on the run.


Back then, the police were chasing you. And I know there’s this great story that I would love for you to tell about how you met Fab 5 Freddy.


Lee: [00:30:03] 

Wow. When you think about two young men in New York at that time. Looking at them from the outside in, you would say, “Oh, these are two real rough cut dudes. Like these dudes have come through the thick of it all.” Fred was weird and grew up in Bed-Stuy, I grew up on the Lower East Side. You know, both places that were in shambles and totally exploding at the seams.


David: [00:30:45] 

Do or die, Bed-Stuy, right?


Lee: [00:30:47] 

Exactly. I just thought about it the other, Dave. I was like, oh my god, we were so frightened for different reasons and different perspectives. Fred was frightened in the subway yards going to paint with me for the first time, because he, I mean, who knows what was running through Fred’s mind-


David: [00:31:13] 

Well tell us how you met him though first.


Lee: [00:31:16] 

Well Fred came by some source, some resource that he mined at that time, and found me at my GED program in the Lower East Side, where I was trying to get some kind of education, being that I missed a lot of education years painting subways. So he- he came into the classroom, trench coat and all, dark sunglasses, classic MO, you know, Fred. And reached over to the teacher, who was also surprised, like, “Who’s this gentleman?” You know, he looked older. He looked like an older gentleman in his mid-twenties or beyond. And sort of whispers into his ear- And everyone is watching him. Whispers into his ear, and the teacher goes- summons me. He says, “Mr. Quinones.” And you know when they call you by your last name, you know you’re probably in trouble. [laughter]


David: [00:32:10] 



Lee: [00:32:12] 

Said, “Mr. Quinones, this gentleman would like to have a conversation with you after class.” And I came to the conclusion right there and then, “Oh my god. They finally got me. They know who I am. They know where I-” Well they knew where I lived. But they know all my moving parts.


David: [00:32:30] 

You thought he was a cop.


Lee: [00:32:31] 

Yeah. I swore he was a cop. He looked like a cop, a detective. He might have even looked like one of the cops that was sent in to try to apprehend me back in the mid-70s, but wasn’t fast enough because, to this day, Dave, at sixty-years-old, I can outrun some teenagers. [laughter] I give them trouble. I’m- I’m out. I’m out of there. So I was like, “This guy’s gotta be that guy, a new addition to the group.” And I come out of my classroom, I don’t see anyone. The halls are dark. And out of the dark, righthand side- Right behind the door. And, “Yo, Lee!” I was still apprehensive. I was like, “Oh, he’s trying to play a fan. He’s trying to play like some dude that really is looking for my best interest. And he just wants, you know, me to sign his black book, or whatever. This guy’s a cop.” And I was very, very reluctant to even say anything first to him. He’s like, “Yo, I’ve been looking for you.” He gave me the whole spiel. “I’ve been looking for you, cause I’ve been following your work. And I really think that we can do some great things together.” And I’m looking at him up and down like, “This guy’s a cop.” Where’s his shield? Where’s the other cops? [laughter] He’s got the backup. They’re waiting downstairs. So anyway, you know, he talks to me. I walk him out of the building, there’s no cops outside. I think we walked down the block or so, and I said, “Yeah. I’ll see you around.” I was always that elusive. “I’ll see you around.” But he came around. He kept on coming around and seeking me out, and then we started talking more. I was like, “This guy’s really either putting a really good wool over my eyes or he’s really for truth.” But then what is this truth? What do you mean we can make this into… and saying to myself, “Wow. I had arrived as an artist.” It was back in 1978, when I created the first handball court, top to bottom, full scale mural. In the Spring of 1978.


David: [00:35:14] 

Exactly. Another Olympic medal for that.


Lee: [00:35:17] 

[laughter] And to this day, I still say-


David: [00:35:19] 

But the first, right? I mean, it created this whole mural thing that’s like huge out there right now.


Lee: [00:35:25] 

Yes. Arguably, probably the first street art painting of its kind. No one had ever experimented with something so big, because it took an amount of time to create that. So that amount of time made you a vulnerable target. But I took the chance. I took the leap of faith, based on me knowing that I was an artist. How could they arrest an artist? How could they apprehend an artist? I am painting the town red, literally, but I am not painting it with the color of blood, like many of my peers had before and throughout that time. I’m here painting this, and I didn’t think that it was going to capture and, maybe in some way, take hostage the imaginations of people, artists alike. So I knew I had arrived as an artist, because I already had exhausted everything I could do on a subway at that point. So I was putting myself, pretty much priming myself for the art world in a way, without knowing it or even considering it, by creating a wall that now people had to walk up to and approach, as opposed to the opposite of a train going in and out of your sight. So I was now putting myself on a platform that people could get access to me. “Oh, we know who that guy is. Oh, we know where he lives. We know his prox-” 


David: [00:37:30] 



Lee: [00:37:31] 

You know, shot across the bow, whatever you want to call it, of the art world. Like this is not just kids, this is not even children. These are young minds that want to, and can, change the status quo, um, both inside and outside the art world. It was the genius of us having these discussions with each other, coming up with ideas for the subway cars and handball court. “Yeah, Lee, we can create murals at five dollars a square foot.” And we-


David: [00:38:23] 

Wait- Just to say, what was that mural? It was Howard the Duck, right?


Lee: [00:38:29] 

It was Howard the Duck, yes.


David: [00:38:30] 

Why was it Howard the Duck? What did that represent to you?


Lee: [00:38:35] 

Well it represented me always looking outside the perimeters that people set for themselves. We were very much influenced by the superheroes that we saw on TV and in films. Whether it was a kung fu character or a Superman, a Batman, or Spiderman. All of them always having an alias. There were good doers in society or the average journalist, right? But then at night they became these superheroes, not only for their cities, but for themselves, inside themselves. Finding a place of comfort. That I can change my identity, become this whole other alternative, and be feeling really good, without even letting yourself be known. Like we all do now, right? We all wanna be Instagram stars. So, then, I was like, “Everyone thinks about Daffy Duck or Donald Duck. But no one ever thinks about Howard the Duck. This scruffy, yet very kind of punky looking character that comes, he’s dressed in late-80s fashionista, ghetto fabulous. You know, jacket but with sneakers and maybe a hat here and there, or maybe some shades. You know, some Gazelles, he’s like wearing stuff that no one else dares, because Daffy and Donald, and all the other ducks, are just ducks. They’re-


David: [00:40:25] 

They’re Disney. They’re Disney. [laughs]


Lee: [00:40:27] 

They’re Disney. They’ve got these thero- theoretical limitations to themselves. I’m like, “No, no, no.”You want to put on those like sneakers without socks, or roll up your socks, I always thought of him as the guy that represented my character more than any other character. I knew I was the Spiderman that can cross- go across that subway car without a ladder. You know,I can clamp onto that car. But that was that. But now, I’m above ground, more exposed, and Howard the Duck is this almost like an extraterrestrial, shadowy figure that makes his statement, and then walks away and comes back differently. I feel that that’s what makes a true artist. Not to go by what the status quo makes you famous for, but to question yourself and always challenge yourself. So that wall was a challenge, not only logistically for like, “Oh, man. I can get caught, because I’m gonna be at this wall for ten hours in the open for everyone to see.” But I pulled it off under the cover of darkness. And the next day, the whole world exploded, including this- the- the school that was adjacent to the wall, which I was trying to attend. But I couldn’t. And I think that wall basically blew Fab 5 Freddy away. He was like, “Wow. This dude is really on a mission.” And I was. I was on a mission. Was this my last hurrah? Um. Basically saying, I could have done that, should have done that. But no, I was continuing to do that by creating that wall. Um.


David: [00:42:30] 

You also took another Olympic gold for becoming an actor. What made you think that you could possibly star in a film, which you did, Wild Style, which has since become, the seminal movie of that era. Which tells the story about a graffiti artist, played by you, someone who doesn’t want to be recognized, who’s afraid of being arrested. Who, as the art world discovers what’s happening there, wants to bring this graffiti work into the art gallery system, right, with Patti Astor, who went on to find, the Fun Gallery. Freddy. You know, so it’s like a movie that people quote by heart at this point. So what made you think that you could be an actor?



Charlie Ahearn, because Charlie Ahearn – along with Fred to a certain degree, they deserve a medal for dealing with a very secretive self. I was very much an introvert, for obvious reasons. So to be in that film, first, I have always been in love with film, going back to my mother. She loved cinema, because she was in love with certain, incredible, actors of her age. Burt Lancaster, Christopher Lee. I started watching films with her. And still, to this day, I’m a film buff. But I also loved to not only just watch a film but I watch a character. If he or she is convincing, I want to be riding shotgun with that person. So I’ve always been in love with the- the idea of being a character and changing gears. And acting gives you the privilege, especially when there’s a good story behind it. Mind you, Wild Style was too close to me, so it was difficult. I was very reluctant to be a part of the film at first. I was like, “No. I’m not letting out my secrets. I’m not letting the world know how I do this.” Because, again, I thought I was doing this forever. I was gonna be painting subway cars forever. I can not let it out of the bag. Charlie stood the course, he interviewed many known actors and some not, but in- aspiring actors. And then when I finally was, talked into by Lady Pink, the great Lady Pink, because we were an item at that time. And I was- “Oh, wait a minute. That’s my girlfriend. You mean someone’s going to be having a romantic- [laughter] you know, seduce- Oh. Whoa, whoa, whoa.” You know, we were young at the time. We’re, you know, stupid and wet behind the ears. I was like, “Okay. I’ll take the role.” And it could have been the most, brightest moment for Charlie, because then he had locked it down. He had gotten the seminal, the last piece of the puzzle to tell the story, loosely based on my story. Because, going back with Fred and I, with the hundreds of conversations we had when we first met, I had mentioned to Fred, “Fred, I’ve been thinking about this idea of a film based on this whole scenario that I’ve been through since 1974 leading up to this moment now.” And it was based on my love and, still to this day, though there are very few of these days, my love for cinema scores. The scores of cinema, the- the incredible films, either b-rated or not. The greatest scores were done in the ’60s and ’70s, from James Bond to Shaft to Isaac Hayes. All these incredible songs that I just, still to this day, play, and also the love of piano. And what- You know, listening to, yeah, Elton John, and listening to Billy Joel, and a number of other great musicians. And my film was centering around that. So those little conversations we had in my mother’s apartment, which I call the dressing room in the sky, because it was on the fifteenth floor of the Alfred E. Smith projects. [sneezes] The, uh, dressing room in the sky, we would have these discussions, and I think that was a lightbulb moment for Fred to then connect, you know, by chance, by happenstance with Charlie Ahearn at the, Times Square show, and start talking this idea of, “Yeah, let’s make this film. This is happening around us, and this is for us. We’re the ones that can really, you know, put this together.” So Charlie, really fascinated with the, um, the mystery that I had created around myself, and also the actual – aside from the mystery – but the fact that this- this- this very visual art was a result of that. It was my walls and my trains. And the train stations of what I had done the night before. He was just so amazed by what I had created under this mysterious cloak of darkness, secretive ninja. It just fascinated him. And it fascinates everyone. Everyone wants to know, where’s the alley cat? Everybody wants to know, who is he? I mean, Banksy is living off of that now.


David: [00:48:50] 



Lee: [00:48:50] 

Uh. So, um… And rightfully so. It was a great idea at the right time by the right people, that became a cult classic. And it has changed the course of history and lives around the globe, and I’m proud to have been part of that.


David: [00:49:41] 



Lee: [00:49:41] 

Well, y’all were punks. Did-


David: [00:49:43] 

Where you, bro, for like six months ago when I needed you?


Lee: [00:49:46] 

Exactly. Where you were when the lights were out? [laughs]


David: [00:49:49] 

Yeah. Well, we’re very lucky, Lee, to have had you on our show, I’m happy to award you many more Olympic medals going forward. Cause I know you’re gonna keep doing it. You’re not gonna stop. We’re gonna see your work, and, uh, you know, I’m looking forward to more and more of that.


Lee: [00:50:08] 

Well, you know, at the moment, you’ll see a really incredible compilation of all these talents, not just myself, but of Rammellzee, and A1One, and Basquiat, and- and Fab, and, uh, and Futura, at the MFA Show in Boston. Which was an incredible feat for both Liz Munsell and Greg Tate. They did a phenomenal job of putting together a great story that was never told, which is, aside from Basquiat, this constellation of artists that continue, the ones that are alive to- to create new ideas. And even some of us that are not, because Rammellzee, if you look at him, he may be physically gone but his work is creating so many new conversations. And A1One, you know, and cats like that that are yet to be discovered in a big way. So, um, I’m happy that I’m part of that and a number of shows coming up in 2021 and 2022. I got a really long awaited, anticipated, in my own mind, show to knock out all my shows in ’22, and am working on it now for ’22.


Lee: [00:51:21] 

So, um, I’m looking forward to that. Yeah.


David: [00:51:23] 

Yeah. Me too. I can’t wait.


Lee: [00:51:24] 

Thank you.


David: [00:51:24] 

I saw that show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, actually. It’s- it’s very special. It’s a very- it’s very focused. You know, it’s not sprawling, but it’s excellent. It’s got really great stuff and, as you said, it highlights a lot of the work of the people who we haven’t heard that much about, um, necessarily.


Lee: [00:51:45] 



David: [00:51:45] 

You know, unless you’re really a- a specialist in the field. Uh. And your work, of course, stands out. Ram is- is big. Fab, Futura, and, uh, that’s all there. So it’s great. I recommend it to everyone. Thank you so much, Lee Quinones, for being on my show today.


Lee: [00:51:58] 

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, David. Thank you for having me.





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