Graffiti great George ‘Sen-One’ Morillo does TA

New York street art hits Israeli gallery with an exhibition by renowned US graffiti artist Morillo.

MAD MUGSY 370 (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
The streets of New York have come to Tel Aviv with an exhibition of works by renowned American graffiti artist George “Sen-One” Morillo.
The show at the Irit Hadani Gallery brings prints of his latest canvas pieces, merchandise such as pillows, and even the opportunity for visitors to commission originals.
Gallery owner and painter Irit Hadani is also participating with a display of her New York-themed artwork, and her daughter Anat is making her photography debut with shots taken around the Big Apple.
“This is the first time we’ve opened the gallery up to a themed exhibition,” says Sharon Dayan, the gallery’s PR director. She tells how Hadani – who also happens to be her mother – met Morillo at an art expo in New York, after which things kind of took on a life of their own.
“A few booths from me was George, exhibiting his trains,” Hadani remembers.
She complimented him on his pieces. “I told him, ‘You have wonderful work, it’s beautiful, you can do a lot of things here.’ [He said,] ‘Yes,’ and I said to him, ‘I have a lot of experience with my own work as an artist.
I’ve made pillows and coasters and placemats.
I have different things, and I’ve been doing it for 10 years. I have my own suppliers, and if you give me the okay, I will show you what you can do with your work.”
The rest, as they say, is a partnership made in art-merchandising heaven.
Morillo’s train works on canvas, which can also be purchased in merchandised form at the Hadani exhibition, show old-style New York City subway cars covered in graffiti.
They include the trains he refers to as the “red bird” and the “white elephant.”
“It’s a cultural thing,” he explains, recounting the early days of New York street graffiti – days when he and his “crew” mates would search out the perfect wall or train for their colorful works.
“We used to call the white train the ‘white elephant’ because it was a rare train – those were the ones [the city] wanted clean. You could hardly find a white train cause they’d wipe them up, it was like a white elephant – a trophy. Then there was the red train – we called it the ‘red bird.’ So these were the names back in the ’80s,” he says. “We’d say, ‘I bombed the red bird,’ and people would know what you’re talking about, or ‘I got a white elephant’ – ‘A white elephant? Wow!’” Back in the early ’80s, George Morillo was a young man living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, brother of then-noted skateboarder and graffiti artist Ricky “SIA” Mujica, and son of a single mother from the Dominican Republic. It was a time when the graffiti subculture was gradually intertwining with that of a burgeoning hip-hop scene, and an age before the mainstream had appropriated the elements of street art into its commercial aspirations.
“By this time, there was such an abundance of kids [involved in] the subculture of New York,” he explains. “You was either part of this or you wasn’t, and it was really important to be a part of it.”
Being a part of it gained Morillo attention, and at the age of 15, he was commissioned by acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon to do work for a live art show and canvas.
Graffiti had, according to Morillo, become an “advertisement” for the hip-hop subculture.
“With these trains running through [on] all these lines, everybody would come to New York and they’d see these trains and they would be amazed [by the graffiti]. So this began to give us what today people do as advertisement – this was our advertisement.”
Graffiti, he says, represented the “break dancers and fashion and styles.” It brought a new form of expression to the forefront, one that finally spoke for a previously voiceless generation.
“Everything in there was a form of not just representing us, but people. ’Cause before hip-hop, there was no music, no clothing, nothing that represented us. Not on TV or anything,” he says.
What happened next, he explains Morillo, was the “explosion of the subculture.” Graffiti was finally gaining notice worldwide.
Today, he has branched out. The teenager who once had his face on a New York City Police Department wanted poster for vandalism is now a teacher of graffiti art to Manhattan’s school children. He is courted by major brands and celebrity designers eager to get him to lend his graffiti style to their creations. Macy’s and Rachel Roy, the New York Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire, a sneaker line for Hip Hop USA, plus exhibitions and installations at well-known galleries, all play a role in the full circle his life has taken.
“It’s twilight zone, it’s weird and I kind of feel like it’s bigger than me,” he says when asked about where his graffiti has led him.
“I’m not representing myself anymore, I’m representing a culture, and the original essence of it doesn’t exist. What we have now has already been transformed in many ways. This [his canvas work] is the original form of it, before it was introduced to the world.”
More than that, he continues, is the realization that when he works on graffiti art, he is representing a generation – including fellow graffiti writers and hip-hoppers – that has for a large part disappeared.
“I represent literally thousands of people that are not here. We had crack epidemics in New York City that wiped out almost an entire hip-hop community. And then along came AIDS. So we have a lot of the childhood friends that I was blessed to grow up with on the Upper West Side, which was like the Mecca of ’80s hip-hop, and the majority of them are not here. So when I’m doing this, it’s an emotional thing for me.”
And what about the young street artists today who say they would never go commercial – that it’s a sell-out? “I never compromise the principles,” the artist explains. And just growing up is a major influence as well: “As you get older, you can’t continue to do what you did, you know, it’s not intelligent. Plus, your mind matures.”
He talks about the adrenaline rush of spraying a wall, and not being able to get the same rush on the second time.
“It’s a way of evolving,” he says. “[The young street artist] says that now, because I said the same thing. But as they get older.... I have a family now that depends on me.
Today, my role isn’t to do the walls – that’s his role, and he should take that position. At that time, I was a voice that I needed to put out; now it’s more of the artwork going out, and the history.”
The “[email protected]” exhibition will run through the end of December at the Irit Hadani Gallery, 8 Herzel Rosenblum Street, Tel Aviv. For more information, including gallery hours, call (03) 741-2966 or visit