UPPER WEST SIDE — A local street artist is shedding light on the Upper West Side's role in the birth of hip-hop culture as part of a new graffiti exhibit he hopes will show young people the power of self-expression.
George Morillo, 45, also known as "SEN One," is showcasing his graffiti work from the early days of the hip-hop movement in his new show "A West Side Story" at the Bernie Wohl Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center.
"It feels like coming back home," Morillo said of exhibiting and teaching at the center, where he once spent afternoons as a kid while growing up in the neighborhood.
The show features reproductions of Morillo's graffiti from the early '80s, when the art form exploded throughout New York City, on a series of long horizontal canvases at the community center.
While the Bronx is often considered the birthplace of hip-hop, the Upper West Side played a significant part in spreading and institutionalizing street art's place in the culture because of its central location in Manhattan, Morillo explained.
With more eyes on graffiti-covered buildings and trains in Manhattan, appreciation for the trend spread, he said. He and his Manhattan cohort were known for being flashy, too.
"We were the ones setting the fashion trends," he said of his Upper West Side street art companions.
Morillo first learned to tag at age 12, and soon moved on to more complicated designs, he said. He and his friends would practice tagging at the closed West 91st Street and Broadway train station, which was known as a "ghost station," he recalled.
The New York City he inherited was "abandoned and war-torn," with subways trains aging and rusted, Morillo said. That gave young people license to make their mark by spray painting subway cars and buildings.
In Morillo's eyes, graffiti "was so bold, so in your face, antagonistic towards the system and fearless — it set the trend for what hip-hop could be," he said.
With his years of late-night tagging long over, Morillo is now showing local students who are part of the after-school programs at Goddard Riverside how to master the art through a series of graffiti classes.
But unlike his early days, the students are using canvases to experiment, rather than the surrounding streets.
"I want to give [the kids] a little hope that something could come out of nothing," Morillo said.
"[Graffiti] can lead you to web design, clothing design, T-shirts — any kind of art," he said.
His own work as a graffiti artist sets an example, as Morillo has been commissioned to do numerous private pieces and even worked with designer Rachel Roy to bring his style of street art to the fashion world.
He's now looking to expand into textiles, with the first swatches of his fabric designs already in development, he said.
Morillo hopes his work will also remind visitors of the neighborhood's roots in hip-hop and home to a vibrant youth culture.
Having an exhibit so close to the public places he used to tag is surreal for him, he said.
"It's weird to be where it started," he said, looking wistfully around the rooms of the community. center. "I used to get in so much trouble here."
Morillo will be at a reception at the exhibit on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m. to answer questions and talk with the public about his work.