While browsing the National Portrait Gallery this month, visitors initially might think that the museum walls have been defaced. But the four-foot-long graffiti murals that cover the corridors are actually part of “Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture,” marking the Smithsonian’s first commission of the underground street art—still widely regarded as vandalism. “We are not glorifying the illegal activity, but we are acknowledging the larger impact this street tradition has had in contemporary art,” says Frank H. Goodyear III, one of the exhibition’s curators.
When planning the exhibit—which features photography, paintings and videos influenced by hip-hop—curators saw a barren corridor as an opportunity to feature one of hip-hop culture’s most characteristic staples: graffiti writing. Since museum officials were hesitant about artists spraying paint directly onto the gallery walls, the works were instead executed off-site by two local artists, Tim “Con” Conlon, 33, of Washington, D.C. and Dave “Arek” Hupp, 34, from Baltimore, who have both been spray-painting (or “tagging”) trains and bridges since they were teenagers.