442: Martin Wong, the artist who immortalized New York City

The queer Chinese-Latino American artist painted a city that no longer exists, before the glitzy tourist traps and sterile storefronts appeared

Throughout his career, artist Martin Wong captured New York City that no longer exists.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Jun Chou

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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The New York immortalized in paint by Chinese American artist Martin Wong (July 11, 1946-Aug. 12, 1999) no longer exists. When you walk around the Lower East Side or South Street Seaport, two neighborhoods he called home, you’ll find a glitzy array of tourist traps and sterile storefronts where there used to be dilapidated and oft-burning buildings. It’s funny to imagine Wong—a fast-talking, gay, Chinese-Latino man with a cowboy hat and a Fu Manchu mustache—stomping around those now-sanitized streets.

A painting of a dark-skinned Asian man with long black hair, in a gray cowboy hat and black shirt, against a background of blue faces.

Martin Wong's "Self Portrait."

Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York

Wong’s overt celebration of his identity was radical at a time when anti-queer violence and anti-Chinese sentiment proliferated. Those underserved by society were Wong’s favorite subjects; he often incorporated Asian, Latino, and ASL iconography in his work. But even among those already on the margins, Wong considered himself an outsider. In a 1967 letter to his lifelong friend Gary Ware, Wong described himself as “always the outsider wandering the edges.”

People who knew him have said he was a fabulist, prone to tall tales and gossip. His legacy is mired in myth but illuminated by his energy. “He had this epic sense of experimentation where he couldn’t stay in one place any more as an artist than he could as a human. He had a spontaneous sense of adventure. It was a soap opera with him, inciting riots wherever he went, but it was a barrel of fun,” Puerto Rican artist Lee Quiniones said.

Holland Cotter, the current co-chief art critic at The New York Times, wrote, “Wherever encountered, he was a spark, spilling over with information, talking nonstop. A chance meeting downtown might lead to a high-speed tour of fresh street art, and then of his painting-crammed studio. At the Met, there were tours too, equally avid, of the latest books in stock about classical Chinese art, which he knew and loved with a connoisseur’s hungry eye.”

A painting in a dark red and black palate, featuring a man in black, brick buildings in the background and a brick heart in the top right.

Martin Wong's "Portrait of Mickey Piñero at Ridge Street and Stanton," 1985.

Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York

Whatever surrounded Wong transferred onto his canvas. During his early years on the West Coast, he sold portraits to the public, dubbing himself the “Human Instamatic.” After spending his 20s in California, he moved to New York City in 1978 to pursue art.

He quickly assimilated into the sea of rubble that was the Lower East Side, then known as “Loisaida” by the majority Hispanic residents. It was in this neighborhood of decaying tenements and gated storefronts that his art exploded with inspiration. “Always personal, poetic, and driven by intimate experiences, Martin’s tenements were filled with people he knew by name, and he took care to tell their stories,” Anton Van Dalen, a prominent activist-artist of the Lower East Side, said.

Shortly before his death from AIDS, Wong said, “For 18 years, until I moved back to my parents' house, my bathroom window looked out on this devastated landscape. I always thought it was beautiful. In the afternoon, the bricks were covered in beautiful gold light and that's what I painted. It doesn't look like that anymore. Everything's stuccoed over now.”

A painting of a tall red brick building, with two male firefighters kissing in the foreground.

Martin Wong's "Big Heat."

Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York

One of Wong’s earliest pieces from this era was "Big Heat," painted in 1986, which depicts a brick building backdrop behind two firemen kissing. Despite the destruction around him, Wong never forsook romance.

The big love of his life was the Puerto Rican poet, actor, ex-convict, and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, Miguel Piñero, who Wong met at an art show opening. Within a few weeks of meeting, Piñero had moved into Wong’s Loisaida apartment, where they cohabitated and collaborated for the next year and a half.

An autobiographical poem by Piñero’s creates the top border in Wong’s "Attorney Street," which depicts an empty handball court flanked by chain link fences that glitter like dewdrops on a spiderweb.

A painting with a brick apartment building in the background and a cement wall with graffiti and hands signing letters in the foreground.

Martin Wong's "Attorney Street: Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Pinero."

Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York

On the wall is a smattering of graffiti, another one of Wong’s great loves. To Wong, graffiti was evidence of art persisting in grit. Although he was not a graffiti artist himself, he collected the then-nascent art form obsessively, eventually opening up a Museum of American Graffiti in 1989. He later donated more than 300 paintings by artists like Keith Haring, Lady Pink, and Basquiat to the Museum of the City of New York.

Wong’s art was kinetic and expansive, just like him. A man of contradictions, Wong was lonely yet surrounded by community; a well-connected outsider; hyper-masculine and homoerotic; multilingual and visual; tender and pernicious; prickly and precious. Wong lived on the fringes because he found them the most fascinating and thus, unearthed grace amid chaos.

Published on June 13, 2024

Words by Jun Chou

Jun Chou (she/they) is a writer based in Brooklyn. During the day, she improves recipe discovery for the NYT Cooking app. Other times you can find her belting karaoke, updating Letterboxd, rock climbing, or drafting her debut novel. Her writing has been featured or upcoming in The New York Times, Electric Literature, Teen Vogue, Ricepaper Mag, and BBC Travel. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @junnotjune.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.