By age 15, Josh Franklin had mastered truth by omission.
The scene unfolded every night around the dinner table in New York, his family’s focal point for catching up. “How was your day, guys?” his mother would ask him and his older brother. “What’d you do today?”
“Oh, nothin’,” the younger sibling would typically mumble — his predictable teen angst masking a secret no one knew, other than the crew who was in on it, too.
“I didn’t even share it with them, with my family,” Franklin, now 53, recalled nearly four decades later from his home in Brooklyn. “It was really for me and for us.”
Little did his mother and brother know, he had worked his way into an underground movement, one that lurked in the shadows, anonymous to the world — defined by breaking and entering, stealing, vandalism and, above all, creating masterpieces.
It was the 1980s revolution of subway graffiti art. And for Franklin — who would go on to become “Stash,” one of the most revered graffiti artists of all time — that meant cutting school to paint trains whenever he possibly could.
“It was scary as f—, I’m not gonna lie,” he said with a laugh. “I was totally freaked out the first few times I went, but then it just became a, ‘Oh, I gotta do this.’ It was an addiction. Once you get over the fear, the hurdle of that, and you use that nervous energy, it was amazing.”
Skyrocketing to stardom, Stash harnessed his talent and pivoted to graphic design and streetwear production, only to finally return to his first love — painting — in the newest show at N°53 Gallery in East Hampton, “Stash: Mapping Memory,” featuring over 25 never-before-seen works on view through November 14.
The exhibition comes after a full summer of programming at the new year-round gallery, which opened in June as part of a wave of New York City-based gallerists migrating out east. Centered on fun and accessibility, N°53 Gallery falls somewhere between contemporary and urban, according to owner and longtime collector David Weiswasser, who said he strives to bring a selection of talent that observes the continuous evolution of art through an edgy, gritty lens.
To date, that has included the likes of Erik Foss, Kaves, Ricky Powell, Paul Sevigny and Wayne White, having never previously shown in the Hamptons.
“We’re excited to be part of the gallery community out east,” Weiswasser said. “I’m really excited to bring artists out there and grow whatever scene is going on. It seems to be a really fun time in art. I think what’s going on politically and socially around the world has really inspired artists, so I feel like the art being produced is really amazing. It’s fun to be part of that.”
The body of work in “Stash: Mapping Memory” was created in 2019 and 2020, the artist explained, and every canvas is abstract — with each reference to his counterculture origin story metaphorical rather than explicit. His memories of a personal and collective past are fragmented, layered and bold, reminiscent of subway cars that were tagged and painted, buffed clean by the transit authority, only to be tagged and painted again.
“So far, the response of what I’ve been hearing — and not just from my mom — has been really good and people are really feeling the new style of work,” he said. “Not knowing a lot about my fine artwork, it’s nice to be able to show the audience that knows me, maybe for my graphic work, what really started my career was being a painter and being a New York City graffiti artist — painting subway cars, painting the city.
“That’s the real origin of my narrative. It’s nice to be able to finally slow my own game down, to take it back to what my passion was that got me started in the first place, which is painting.”
Born in Plainview, Stash spent his formative years discovering his independence by navigating the streets of New York and riding the train to school. Introverted and quite shy, he avoided eye contact with strangers, instead choosing to focus on the graffiti sprayed over the subway map or across the door. Random shapes soon became letters and his curiosity became a fascination.
He started asking about graffiti in school and, before long, his older brother’s friend decided to show him the ropes, bringing him down to the train stops under the cloak of darkness, where he learned how to “write” and how to recognize a graffiti artist without saying a word.
“We knew by the way we look, the way we dress,” he said. “I could be on a subway platform in 1985 and look down the platform and see a young guy or girl, and you could see if there’s a little bit of ink or a paint splat on their shoe, and you could identify other graffiti artists by that alone.
“And there’s a term that graffiti artists coined in how we address each other,” he continued. “Because you would roll up on somebody, or you would stand there and see somebody, and you would simply look at them like, ‘What chu write?’ Boom, that’s it. Three words.”
They were all students under the pioneers of the subway car graffiti movement — familiar names like Zephyr and Futura — who fuelled what Stash came to know as a brotherhood. And despite the 12-year age gap between them, they became his friends.
“All these guys, they shared stories. It’s like folklore for young graffiti artists,” he said. “I loved hearing the stories about when they started and the MTA. When they started writing on trains, they didn’t know where or how they were getting in, or what was going on. That’s what I mean by ‘pioneer.’ So here they are, bringing card tables and pizzas down into the subway tunnels because nobody knows, and they can spend the night and do what they do.”
By the time Stash started writing, the pioneers were showing in galleries while he was still trying to figure out how to paint on trains. He had to circumvent fences and dogs and physically break into the train yards — “the same yards the former generation would just walk into,” he said — only to get in and get out as quickly as possible, usually in the early morning hours, late at night or mid-day, when trains were laid up during off-peak times.
“I didn’t get arrested. I was very fortunate in my active career of being an illegal graffiti artist. A lot of friends of mine got in trouble,” he said. “Later on, the way the city combatted it, partially, you saw a change in the train design. They realized, ‘If we change the surface of the train, we can get the graffiti off the train without leaving a mark and that’s the best way to eradicate it,’ because we’ll keep coming back. You erase it, we’ll replace it.”
But with the commoditization of graffiti, many artists came out of the shadows, eager to move their work from train cars to canvas. For some, the work did not translate. For others, like Stash, it did.
“You have these amazing artists who are trained in the craziest ways, unclassical training — breaking into a subway yard, painting in the dark, you’re on a one-and-a-half-foot platform, you can’t step physically back to look at your composition, you’re looking at it side by side, left to right,” he said. “And here we are producing these huge murals and some of these artists, as amazing as they are, couldn’t get the same artwork on a four-foot-by-four-foot canvas.”
This was not the case for Stash, who kickstarted his design career through graphic T-shirts during the birth of streetwear, tearing him between graffiti and a new emerging market, along with the celebrity that came with it. Ultimately, streetwear won out, and he went on to create two clothing brands, own a sneaker shop and work with Burton Snowboards. He even became the first graffiti artist — not to mention, the first non-athlete — to design a shoe with Nike.
“Man, I had no business doing any of that. I’m surprised I got as far as I did and did what I did, but the reason it’s no longer here is because I had to do it my way, and I didn’t adapt and change,” he said. “Would I do it the same way? Probably. When I look at my history, my career, yeah I’d like to tweak and revise things along the way because I’m smarter now, I’m not as angry.
“Let me just tell you, you’re talking to Stash 3.0,” he said with a laugh. “1.0 had a little bug in the operating system, it took a while to figure out. Ego is an awful place to live and I lived there for a minute — unintentional, but you had to butter my head to get me through the doorway at one point, when I look back, because of all the quick success that happened to me.”
Stash, as he is now, comes across as humbled yet energetic, his words often quickening when reminiscing on his glory days and gushing over what he loves. Today, that means his abstract painting — mixing acrylic with spray enamel, layering bold swipes with soft strokes, getting lost in the way his colors speak to one another.
“All that real simple, fundamental stuff I think really plays a big part of what I’m about,” he said. “Because I come from that heyday of that beautiful subway graffiti movement and seeing the transfer of design and the overlaying, I think really that’s what I was fascinated with, without even knowing.”
Admittedly, Stash is relatively removed from the current graffiti world, though he follows it from afar. There is nowhere that it hasn’t been felt, he says as a point of pride, hopeful that its history will be taught to generations yet to come.
“When I look back at the guys I was around, they were so ahead of their time, so next level. People to this day can’t accept it,” he said. “C’mon, a 15-year-old kid goes into the subway tunnel and does a whole car — a 60-foot-wide-by-12-foot-high mural and you can’t say, ‘Wow’? It’s, ‘Well, he shouldn’t have been there, he’s a vandal.’
“No, let’s just talk about the artwork and the fact that he’s 15, huh? How ’bout that?” he contiued. “Or the fact that he had to carry 40 cans of spray paint cleverly into the tunnel.”
Stash sighed, undoubtedly thinking of a younger version of himself, at that age, during that time, and the universe that unfolded because of it.
“It’s not like anything else,” he said. “It’s not like anything else in the world, it’s really not. And I’m so blessed to have been part of that.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express and the Southampton Press