Retired Writing Teacher Turned Graffiti Aficionado Documents Street Art
HUNTS POINT — Lois Stavsky stepped off a city bus on a recent rainy afternoon and onto a street shadowed by warehouses and hulking 18-wheelers.
A camera dangling from her neck, Stavsky, 63, spotted an obscure tangle of squiggly lines spray-painted on a fence and let out a shriek.
"Oh, look, Tara, is that a Katsu?" she said to Tara Murray, her assistant.
"Yes!" Murray replied, joining Stavsky in snapping photos of the graffiti, as truckers swiveled their heads to stare. "And we don't have that one."
Stavsky, a retired high school writing teacher, may not look the part of graffiti expert, but her credentials and passion paint a different picture. An occasional curator, she has become an authority on global street art and graffiti.
Three years ago, she quit a lucrative education consulting job to devote all of her time to documenting the illicit artwork covering the dumpsters and alleyways of city. She says graffiti writers' influence still goes unacknowledged.
“Graffiti artists were really the first ones to claim the streets as a canvas,” Stavsky said, standing before a bright tag on a warehouse wall. “One of my goals is to get these guys more respect. Because look at it, it’s so good.”
Stavsky, a Queens native who began teaching in 1969, taught creative writing and journalism at large high schools in the Bronx and the Lower East Side until she retired in 2003. She has co-authored three books for young adults and, in 1988, was named Poetry Teacher of the Year.
Stavsky, whose tenure as a teacher coincided with the birth of hip hop, watched her students smuggle elements of hip hop culture into the schools, often in the form of sketchpads, called blackbooks, which graffiti writers cram with ideas for future tags.
“I was fascinated that kids who weren’t engaged in very much else, were suddenly so engaged by what they were doing,” Stavsky said.
After she retired, Stavsky became a writing consultant for the school system. She continued to admire — and encourage — the work of young graffiti artists.
“The kids picked up quickly that this weird lady from the Department of Education likes street art,” Stavsky said. “So they would skip class and bring me their blackbooks.”
In the 2000s, Stavsky also began to curate art exhibitions, starting with a show in a gallery inside a school building. Eventually she moved to other spaces, including a public library, and began to highlight graffiti and street art.
She organized a show in 2008 called “Visual Slang: The Modern Urban Imagination from Tehran to Tel Aviv,” which included the work of a young Iranian street artist known as A1one. Stavsky had met the artist online, then mailed him ink, markers and other supplies in exchange for pieces of his work.
The following year, when Stavsky inherited a significant amount of money, she “took advantage of it to quit all my jobs and roam the streets,” she said.
She had already traveled the world — to Jerusalem, São Paulo, Warsaw, Paris and Bogotá — photographing murals, stickers and tags furtively installed in public spaces. Now, she could explore the graffiti in the birthplace of it all: New York City.
Most graffiti in the city is illegal. But since 2009, Stavsky has photographed thousands of pieces of graffiti and street art and, in most cases, found their creators through online research and on-the-ground reporting.
She concentrates on areas like Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, where Europeans say some of the world's finest graffiti can be found. The American art establishment, however, continues to overlook it, she says.
“In Europe, they take the stuff from these areas so seriously,” Stavsky said. “But in America, it’s still too closely associated with vandalism, poverty, dysfunction.”
Stavsky publishes her street art photos on the blog, Vandalog, as well as on her own Flickr account and blog, called Lois in Wonderland, where she includes her reactions to the graffiti she encounters.
Street artists and partisans from around the world have stumbled across her blog. Recently, an artist from Hamburg, Germany sent her a graffiti-filled sticker with a request to affix it to a New York City wall. She says plans to.
And in October, a British street art enthusiast contacted Stavsky and invited her to become a partner in a commercial venture that involves street art. Stavsky, who had nearly depleted her inheritance funds, signed onto the project.
Though she wouldn’t divulge details of the project, which she said will become public in the coming weeks, Stavsky said she has spent most of the past few months snapping graffiti photos and writing blurbs about artists. Some of these photos are included in a new blog she launched Tuesday, called Street Art NYC.
Meanwhile, she has recruited several young interns to help with the project. Murray, 22, and Lenny Collado, 23, for example, use digital cameras provided by Stavsky to hunt and capture graffiti around the five boroughs.
Before their recent Hunts Point photo excursion, Stavsky and Collado sat at a booth in a McDonald's and considered what inspires graffiti artists to risk arrest — or worse — to tag buildings and bridges with their names.
Collado, who is friends with graffiti writers but is not one himself, described a tagger's mindset: "You put your name on a wall because I want people to know what I’m about."
Stavsky nodded. "It’s your identity,” she said. “‘Here I am. I exist.’”