It’s no accident that the two seminal films about New York graffiti and hip-hop culture in the early 1980s both have the word “style” in their titles (Style Wars and Wild Style). When you’re tagging a subway car with one eye looking out for the police, style is just about the only thing you have time for. No one knows this better than Chris Ellis, the veteran graffiti writer and street-art pioneer whose intricate, angular signature—daze—was a familiar sight in 1970s and 1980s New York. Decades before Banksy and Shepard Fairey became household names and museums started to exhibit street artists’ work, Daze successfully transitioned from tagger to studio artist.
Both “style” movies feature a young Daze in his element at a pivotal moment in graffiti and his career, and he never lost that sense of immediacy as he moved from tags to murals and large-scale paintings, all of which are joined by a sense of place and dynamic movement. A 2012 Daze painting, appropriately titled Life in the Fast Lane, drops the viewer at street level, flanked by a speeding cab and a motion-blurred tourist bus racing down a Manhattan avenue toward a singular dark point in space. Although Daze has shown his work internationally in museums and galleries, New York City remains his inspiration. Despite the fact that New York is hardly the gritty urban scene it was 40 years ago when Daze got his start, he says the city continues to motivate him and his work, both in the gallery and on the street. “I don’t think of myself as a street artist,” Daze insists. “I came above-ground a long time ago. Simply put, I am an artist who likes to paint in public.”
The City Is My Muse, Daze’s most recent exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, runs through May 31; Schiffer Publishing is releasing DAZEWORLD: The Artwork of Chris Daze Ellis this year.