Chinese American artist Martin Wong (1946-1999) was born in Portland, Oregon and grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in art studio in 1968 and participated in the Bay Area’s performance art scene in the 1970s. After moving to New York in the early 1980s, he began focusing almost exclusively on painting.
Wong is best known for his cityscapes of New York’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side, his championing of graffiti art as a legitimate art form, and his incorporation of homoerotic sensibilities into his paintings. His paintings manifest several recurring themes and motifs: firefighters, sign language, constellations, prison, Chinatown, bricks, tenement living, Nuyorican poetry, and Loisaida. His stylistic influences encompass an eclectic combination of pan-Asian art and culture (Tibetan and Chinese in particular), graffiti, comic books, tattoos, and the bold arcs and color-blocking of indigenous art. In addition to painting, Wong experimented with poetry and prose, which he recorded on long paper scrolls. One of his most significant artistic collaborations was that shared with poet and playwright Miguel Piñero.
Artistically, Wong was also interested in the nascent graffiti art scene of downtown New York and amassed a considerable cache of graffiti material. He befriended such graffiti artists as “Daze” (Chris Ellis), “Lee” (Lee Quiñones), and “La Roc”/“LA2” (Angel Ortiz), and made efforts to publicize their works in exhibitions and through a working relationship with the grassroots Museum of American Graffiti.
His collection contains over 100 sketches and drawings, more than 30 sketchbooks, correspondence, poetry and prose, biographical documents, source material, audio and videocassette recordings, photographs, graffiti tag-books, and books from his personal library. It is an indispensable body of research material for anyone interested in New York’s renegade graffiti scene and New York’s downtown arts scene in the 1980s and 1990s. Wong is closely associated with the downtown galleries Semaphore, Exit Art, and PPOW; however, his works were also shown in the Metropolitan Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the New York Historical Society. An openly gay artist, Wong died of an AIDS-related illness in 1999. Critical acclaim of his work has continued after his death and his works can be found in collections around the world.
To learn more about the contents of the Martin Wong Papers, located at the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections, view the collection’s finding aid.