For Seen, the worst thing that happened to graffiti was going mainstream in the 80s. That’s when it lost it’s edge.
Right around that time, Seen had already made a name for himself in New York and around the world. The Bronx native had taken to ‘bombing’ entire train cars. At one point, people said there was more art by Seen in NYC than billboards.
But by then, when ‘graf,’ as he calls it, had started its decline, Seen had caught the attention of 20th Century Fox. Seen did a mural on one of their building, got paid “decently,” and caught the attention of another major company. “I asked them if they wanted raw graffiti or commercial graffiti,” Seen said in an interview with IGN, “And they tell me the want the real thing. I knew they wanted commercial graffiti but I give them the raw graffiti.” This distinction between “raw” and “commercial” graf is important for Seen, and one of the reasons he ended up leaving street art mostly behind.
Seen started in the mid 70s with a group collectively called United Artists (UA). Together, they started tagging trains, becoming increasingly ambitious in their graffiti pieces. Soon, entire trains were being bombed, from top to bottom, and UA became known throughout the city, especially anyone taking the 2, 5, or 6 lines. Seen and his crew were regularly bombing trains well into the 80s, but by then Seen had noticed changes in the industry.
When Seen started in the late 70s, graffiti was illegal. Bombing wasn’t allowed in any capacity and artists had think about how they were going to get their art up and not get caught. As graffiti became more mainstream, however, it simultaneously got harder and easier. Permissive spaces started popping up, places where you could paint without fear of fines or jail. But permissive spaces also meant tightening restrictions on other spaces. Graf, an artistic style created by people who couldn’t get into the fine art galleries—and so made their own—was both accepted and rejected, easier and more difficult.
So Seen headed out of graf, into tattoos and, ironically enough, art galleries. Starting in the early 80s, he held gallery openings of his art with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and fellow graffiti artists DONDI, and Lee Quiñones. He also opened Tattoo SEEN, which quickly became one of the most successful studios in the world. His most recent work uses the iconic images of superheroes that remind some of Lichtenstein, but with a decisive graffiti element. His other work incorporates complex and repetitive patterns for larger pieces.
For graf artists these days, thinking about an audience is arguably more integral than Seen’s trains in the late 70s. After all, commercial graf is an important part of our world, comes in many forms, and can be used to advertise and sell products while adding to an artistic space. The distinction between raw and commercial these days, like in so many other industries, is too blurry to be so decisive.