In 1978, when graffiti was still developing and demonized as a blight on the city, artist Martin Wong was already a fan. He’d just moved to New York and was working Pearl Paint supply store, befriending the teenage writers who were equipping their arsenal at the store. He started collecting their black books and later, canvases and photographs. His collection grew to one of the largest of its kind in the world and in 1994, before dying of AIDS in 1999, Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York. The 150 works and artifacts are currently on view at the museum, celebrated for the movement’s contribution to the overall visual and social culture of New York.

The museum would like to emphasize that the exhibit is perfectly legal and not vandalistic, as graffiti does tend to have the bad rap of being graffiti, despite being sold at major auctions.

On view, are works by DAZE, SHARP, the first female bomber LADY PINK and LEE and many more. Speaking to NY1, LEE addressed the controversy, legitimacy and delayed hype of the culture: “Many movements have been very controversial since day one and then they were embraced 30, 50 years later, and people saw the writing on the wall, the fine print on the wall.”

Other notable artifacts include photographs by Martha Cooper and Jon Naar — some showing just how young and racially diverse these early writers actually were — as well as works by FUTURA and ZEPHYR, 55 black books, more than 300 mixed media paintings on plywood, cardboard, paper, and canvas and Keith Haring’s personal notebooks, complete with Andy Warhol’s home phone number. (It’s now a school. We dialed.)

By now, savvy collectors are salivating for a loot like this, but celebrating the historically illegal art form is still risqué, let alone hosting workshops on teaching how to write graffiti (hosted by DAZE on Mar 9) and selling spray cans with the museum stickers on them. Kudos. See the works on view in our slideshow above. “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection,” Feb 4 – Aug 24, Museum of the City of New York, Manhattan (Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)