Fab Five Freddy (Fred Brathwaite) was born in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1969. As a teen in the 1970s, he became a member of graffiti crew “The Fabulous 5” and got his name after consistently spray painting his name on the number 5 train on the IRT subway.
Origin: Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY
Style/Claim to Fame:
- Known amongst his peers for “bombing” trains with multi-colored graffiti murals. His most famous work featured Campbell’s soup cans inspired by Andy Warhol.
- Also known for vivid mixed-media works on canvas – some figurative iconography and others an abstract exploration of his graffiti experience.
- Developed a modified pointillism technique using hand-laid crystals to explore and deepen the viewer’s relationship with his work. This process of embellishing the form, one grain of color at a time, is also a delicate and personal celebration of his subject.
After having an epiphany in the Medgar Evers College library, Fab Five Freddy realized that graffiti style was being heavily influenced by artists like Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. He remembers thinking, “‘Graffiti art in many instances was on a par with any work in any museum of modern art’. I began pouring over art history books zigzagging through the entire history of man making art, from those wall paintings in pre-historic caves, which are a lot like graffiti to me, to Caravaggio, Duchamp, Dali, Rothko and Johns. Yes, I went in deep!” This led to the creation of one of his most well-known pieces – a 1980 train mural featuring Campell’s soup cans that paid indefinite homage to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art of the 1960s.
Fab Five Freddy gained media exposure and a new audience when he and another graffiti artist Lee Quinones were featured in the Village Voice. After the article was printed along with his phone number, he received a call from an Italian art dealer named Claudio Bruni who offered him and Lee a two person show at his gallery in Rome in 1979. Instead of seeing his name tagged on local walls and subways, his art graced gallery walls throughout the city and overseas along with artists Keith Haring, Futura 2000, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rammellzee. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry from the rock group Blondie bought his first work on canvas and commissioned him and Quinones to create artwork for their music video sets. He was also mentioned in their 1981 song “Rapture” with Debbie Harry’s lyric, “Fab Five Freddy told me everybody’s fly” and made a cameo in the video.
He felt the need to express himself through a medium besides graffiti and was asked to be a part of a film about fellow graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled New York Beat (now known as Downtown 81). He also starred in and produced 1983’s Wild Style while also composing instrumentals for the Hip Hop documentary on New York graffiti. He directed music videos for Nas and Brand Nubian and also became the host of 1988’s YO! MTV Raps which helped expose the nation to Hip Hop culture and became MTV’s highest rated show at the time.
Fab Five Freddy has also published articles and essays for Vibe, XXL and TheNew York Times Magazine and he penned the first dictionary of Hip Hop slang called Fresh Fly Flavor. He appeared in films like 2007’s American Gangster with Denzel Washington and 2008’s Rachel Getting Married. A mural featuring his work along with Futura and Basquiat’s tags was found on the wall of a soon-to-be constructed condo site in Soho later that year. His legacy lives on through art exhibits like Los Angeles’ “Art in the Streets” at MOCA and Gallery 151’s “New York: New Work” which was displayed in the summer of 2011.