The Soul Artists

The Soul Artists were a crew, and eventually a lot more than that, started by Marc André Edmonds aka ALI and others in the early 1970’s. In 1979, the Soul Artists evolved from a crew to a group of signpainting writers and artists when they set up shop in a storefront 107th Street and Columbus Avenue. Edmonds had a vision for what graffiti could be, and he wanted to shepherd his friends along that path. At the Soul Artists’ workshop, artists led by Edmonds began trying to take graffiti to the level of a legitimate and established art form. Of course, graffiti had been indoors before (including a Soul Artists show 5 years before the studio space started up), but only infrequently, and there had been other groups like the Nation of Graffiti Artists who were comparable to the Soul Artists in some ways, but the connections made at Soul Artists directly contributed to graffiti history right at a critical point as artists were transitioning from trains to paid jobs and working in galleries.

While the Soul Artists’ storefront was used by day for painting signs as part of a legal city beautification project, every Monday night the group would have meetings open to other writers to help develop that community and paint. Thanks to those meetings, the storefront/studio became a hub for writers. Even for Jay “J.SON” Edlin, who wasn’t entirely comfortable with the direction that graffiti was headed, the Soul Artists’ studio was a way to meet people. There were stars there from the graffiti world as well as the larger art world and the occasional photographer like Martha Cooper. Major writers like IZ The Wiz, Eric Haze and Leonard McGurr aka Futura were regulars at the studio. Major and minor writers alike could meet up there to trade info about spots to paint. Even journalists, curators and artists who were not coming from the graffiti world, like Keith Haring, stopped by. The connection to “downtown” artists like Haring was thanks to Fred Brathwaite aka Fab 5 Freddy, whom Haze, an early member of the Soul Artists, describes as “a key link to the downtown art world.” Brathwaite also brought to the Soul Artists a unique reputation (Brathwaite and his friend Lee Quiñones were perhaps the only graffiti writers to have exhibited their work in a gallery overseas at that point), art world knowledge and an intense drive much like Edmonds’ to figure out graffiti writers could operate in the mainstream art world. Through their regular Monday night meetings and outreach to the top graffiti writers, Edmonds and the Soul Artists were consciously creating a place where the best of the graffiti community could connect with one another as well as figures in the larger art world.

In the winter of 1980/1981, the connections being made at the Soul Artists studio began to pay off in big ways for a core group of artists. Some of them, including Haze, Quiñones, McGurr, Lady Pink, Zephyr and Brathwaite showed at the Mudd Club and PS1, and were featured in a cover article in The Village Voice about graffiti. Without the Soul Artists, many of those opportunities might not have arisen.

But by 1983, the Soul Artists were no more. The experiment was influential but short-lived. As writers moved on from the clubhouse, many moved up in the art and design worlds, and they will forever have the Soul Artists to thank for that.

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