NOGA, the Nation of Graffiti Artists, was an artist’s workshop located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and later on, in the Bronx. It was the utopian vision of Jack Pelsinger, who begged the city for a studio where kids of all talent levels could further their interests in the arts. The 1970s were a time in New York’s history where a request like this could be accommodated, the city leased the group a run-down storefront for $1 dollar a month in 1974. Like moths drawn to a light, the kids showed up, hundreds of them.
A ragtag bunch of teenagers helped him clear garbage from the space and build it out (while covering it in tags and pieces, of course). For some of them, it was the first time holding a brush or spray can. Some had painted a few trains before, and soon some of the biggest names of the era became regulars (SCORPIO, BLOOD TEA, ALI, STAN 153, SAL 161and CLIFF 159).
Photojournalist Michael Lawrence documented the experiment from 1974 to 1979. NOGA’s focus was teaching neighborhood kids how to paint, blending the boundaries between workshop and radical politics thinktank as kids were taught to bring their artwork to local protests, sell their canvases in street fairs, and exhibit murals on buildings. It was a lesson in creative capitalism but for most of the participants, the true payoff was in finding their voice.
NOGA couldn’t exist in today’s world, but Michael Lawrence’s photos serve as an excavation of hidden history, allowing us to step back in time to when New York was still rough around the edges, and better for it. Here the story of the experience is told by the workshop’s surviving members and through Lawrence’s extraordinary images.