Art

New York City Graffiti Legend Ghost Prefers to Hide in Plain Sight

Ghost's work is heavily influenced by psychedelia.
Ghost's work is heavily influenced by psychedelia. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Graffit
There’s something to be said of graffiti as an underground art movement rooted in perceived criminality and anonymity. Even as the art form has reached mainstream audiences thanks to artists like Shepard Fairy and Banksy, many artists still choose to remain under the radar for one reason or another.

One such example is New York City legend Ghost.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the art and the name,” Ghost tells New Times. “I am really not that interesting as a person. I let my art speak for itself. The reality is, I want the opportunity to paint illegally if I chose that, but if my identity is known, that can be used against me.”

For Ghost, a big part of the scene is having a name out there, even if people don’t know it’s you.

“I never saw it as anything other than writing your name when I was painting illegally. Having a secret identity is important," he explains. "Even today, there are people in my life that do not know my identity as a graffiti writer. Writing is another world. The names are supposed to be mysterious. You see the name, and you are not supposed to know the individual."

The street artist, who also goes by the pseudonym Cousin Frank, rose to prominence in the 1970s during the heyday of graffiti in New York City, when Ghosts and others bombed the exteriors of subway cars with their work. During this time, he also refined his style of funky, psychedelic lettering inspired by the work of those he idolized and the comics he was reading at the time.

“I’ve always been a fan of comics because it was something I read as a kid. Years later, I realized it all seeped into my brain,” he says. “The inspiration early on was more from artists like Robert Williams and Robert Crumb, who are great American painters, as well as Ralph Steadman, Rick Griffin, and Max Ernst. But the only thing I ever really studied was graffiti. Looking at the trains, that was what I studied — the names and the tags. I never wanted to be a comic artist. I wanted to be a graffiti artist.”

In 2013, Ghost brought his art across the pond, finding a way to paint on European trains while on a trip there.

"Even today, there are people in my life that do not know my identity as a graffiti writer."

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“I didn’t go to Europe to paint trains, but it just happened," he says. "Once I saw my name on the trains running in service, it got me interested in doing it again. I was more into doing throw-ups because I wanted to make my presence known, to make a name for myself there."

It's no surprise Ghost's contemporaries hold him in high regard. For Museum of Graffiti cofounder and fellow street artist Alen Ket, Ghost is an important figure in street art. Ket has known Ghost since the late 1980s, and the artists have collaborated on various projects over the years.

To Ket, one of the things that made Ghost stick out from his contemporaries was his sheer volume of work and the consistency with which he painted. Ket says Ghost's style was very different from other 1980s New York City graffiti artists who perfected the hip-hop style known for its angular letters and rigidity.

"It was not hip-hop; it didn't feel like hip-hop," Ket explains. "It felt more like rock 'n' roll or psychedelic rock the way that he used colors — the way that his letters flowed and bent and moved into each other and around each other was very loose, it was almost a very improvised style."

In 2019, Ket called on Ghost to commission a mural for the museum's exhibition "Style Masters: The Birth of the Graffiti Art Movement."

"It was this immersive room, and it was a big hit. It was a way for us to showcase graffiti artists that painted letters, but also that added cartoon imagery," Ket recounts. "It always stood in the back of my mind that [since] our visitors really responded well to it that one day, we should revisit it and give him an opportunity to showcase more of his work."

The opportunity has arrived with the Museum of Graffiti's latest exhibition, "Bits and Pieces," Ghost's first solo show at the space since the commissioned mural in 2019. The work on display includes graffiti-style painting on canvas, reminiscent of his work on subway trains back in the day. Visitors can expect an explosion of color and imagery melting and forming into Ghost's unique lettering style, which, he says, is reminiscent of an acid trip.

"It's nothing like you would see ever when he paints a wall, or even when you stand in a train, although there's a connection, because some of the elements are there, like letters. It's just so much more in-depth," Ket says. "What he does when he paints canvases, or when you see some of these illustration work, is that he sort of has created this world. It's a bit of this sort of, another dimension, that to me, feels more playful, more outlandish, more psychedelic. Way more dimension and vibrancy than you would ever see in his exterior work."

Ultimately, Ghost wants people to be affected by his work.

“[My work] comes from years of painting and using my imagination to come up with work that I believe will cause people to stop and appreciate the worlds [and] the images that I come up with," Ghost explains. "I want people to see my work and feel as if they are on an acid trip with me and lose themselves for just a moment and fall into my world. My graffiti work is like that: bold, trippy, funky, and my own.”

For Ghost, letting his art speak for itself remains paramount.

“Things happen when they are supposed to happen," he says. "I haven’t sold out. I haven’t compromised any of my principles for fame or for popularity. If I make money or not, I am still painting."

“Ghost: Bits and Pieces." Opens Thursday, May 19, at the Museum of Graffiti, 276 NW 26th St., Miami; 786-580-4678; museumofgraffiti.com. Tickets cost $12 to $16; children under 13 admitted free.
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