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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

MIAMI, Florida — Before the galleries, upscale restaurants and high-end condos moved in, the Wynwood neighborhood west of downtown Miami was known as Little San Juan.

With a concentration of Indigenous Taino people who came from Puerto Rico and cities in the northeast in the 1950s, the neighborhood was home to many Puerto Rican-owned restaurants, shops, markets and other businesses until the mid-2000s.

Then the murals went up, artists and trendsetters came in, and the immigrant community was largely pushed out.

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Now Wynwood’s Museum of Graffiti, devoted to the history and style of tagger artists, has expanded into new space with a special exhibit called “Estillo Boricua (Puerto Rican Style),” aimed at bringing Puerto Rican artwork back to Wynwood.

“Because the Puerto Ricans have strong roots here, our number one goal was to bring this artwork back to this neighborhood,” said Allison Freidin, co-founder and curator of the museum during a preview walkthrough of the new space, which opened March 4.

“As a theme or commonality in the work, there's feathers and beads, and it's very tribal, with tropical issues, and very colorful,” Freidin said. “You could interpret some of the images as the ocean, but still it's ringing true to the graffiti style by having forms that are similar to what you would find in graffiti letters.”

A display in the Museum of Graffiti in Miami, Florida, shows the different tagging styles used by graffiti artists. An expansion of the  museum opened March 4, 2022 with a new exhibition on Indigenous Taino graffiti artists. (Photo courtesy of Museum of Graffiti)

A range of styles

The Estillo Boricua exhibit will highlight the works of nine graffiti artists: Bill Blast, Bluster, Don Rimx, ISH, Manuel Acevedo, Part One, Sen2, Ske, and Sonic.

For Sandro Figueroa Garcia, artistically known as Sen2 Figueroa, a fascination with graffiti’s color and letter forms took him to the streets of New York in the 1980s. He met and joined the famous graffiti crew Tats Cru, and traveled throughout Europe. He eventually found himself creating art for music videos for Jennifer Lopez, Nas, and Missy Elliot.

Artist David “Don Rimx” Sepulveda was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the Nemesio R. Canales public housing development, which had a high crime rate. He escaped by enrolling in weekend art classes, eventually dedicating himself to incorporating the various techniques of classic art into urban art, with a specialization in murals.

Eliezer Pagan, known as Ske, is one of the pioneers of urban art in Puerto Rico; his work has been exhibited on streets in several countries, galleries and museums.

Artist Manuel Acevedo’s work uses unusual sources, combining projected image, drawing, flipbook animation, and photography. His art transforms flat, static images into 3-D spaces of experimentation.

Another featured artist, Enrique Torres, known as Part One, is one of the early 1970s graffiti-style tagger pioneers who created the art works on New York City’s subway trains. He is a style master in the graffiti world, specializing in his own brand of lettering.

Graphic artist James Alicea, known as Bluster, is believed to have helped graffiti transition from subway work to legal exhibitions during the 1990s.

William Cordero, also known as Bill Blast, was a subway artist who shifted to galleries in the early 1980s.

Artist Jesse Rodriguez, known as Sonic, is credited with developing the so-called ribbon letters style of art in the 1970s.

Ismael Muhammed Nieves, known as ISH, is a veteran known for his murals in Indiana. 

Staying militant

The Museum of Graffiti launched in 2019 as the first institution of its kind.

Once reserved for urban vandal outlaws, graffiti has gone mainstream with a vengeance. The museum aims to show viewers the work of the original graffiti artists who started tagging in the New York City subways in the early 1970s and 1980s.

The museum has now expanded its footprint and moved next door to the entrance of Wynwood Walls – the original open air mural museum. The new location includes a semi-permanent exhibition, “The Wide World of Graffiti,” as well as rotating gallery space that will be updated quarterly.

The Museum of Graffiti in Miami, Florida, features a display of spray paint used for tagging by graffiti artists. An expansion of the museum opened March 4, 2022, with a new exhibition of Indigenous Taino graffiti artists. (Photo courtesy of Museum of Graffiti)

The new space nearly doubles the museum’s capacity and allows the educational and outreach initiatives, cultural programming, and community events to grow.

“It’s wonderful to see how our community, our region, and tourists from across the nation and around the world have embraced the Museum of Graffiti,” Freidin said. “With the number of visitors we welcome, it’s time for us to move to a bigger and better location and make sure more people can access these offerings.”

Wynwood is now one of the most popular art districts in the country, attracting millions of people a year to see the blocks and blocks of murals and street art.

Looking ahead

Even as it expands, however, the museum intends to stay militant about working exclusively with graffiti artists, not to be confused with street artists.

Street artists are those who generally began with studio works and showings in galleries, then expanded the size of their art. Graffiti artists, by comparison, start in the streets with tagging and lettering as their main imagery.

Graffiti artists have largely been men, though the museum is working to include more women.

“Because it was dangerous and physical, the guys would go in groups,” Freidin said. “I can't change history, but what we can do is work towards putting on all-female group exhibitions of the ones that do exist, like Lady Pink.”

The knowledge will expand with the museum, Freidin said.

“There are so many different participants in so many different parts of the world that have their own story and really interesting anecdotes,” Freidin said. “And we're doing our best as a very young institution to collect all of it and organize and archive it.”

For more info
For more information, visit the Museum of Graffiti’s website or follow the museum on Instagram @museumofgraffiti

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