Profile | Chris “Daze” Ellis: The City is My Muse

Chris “Daze” Ellis, The Odyssey, 2015, Oil and spray paint on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist

The New York City of Chris “Daze” Ellis’s world is a beautiful, hypnotic siren singing the softest of lullabies or just as quickly drop a beat and rhyme on top of it. She’s demanding, but she gives as good as she gets. She’s the queen befitting a king, and has found herself the subject of Chris “Daze” Ellis: The City is My Muse, on view at the Museum of New York, NY, now through May 1, 2016.

Ellis observes, “This exhibition is a testament to my love affair with New York as my muse. It is an endless source of subject matter and an inspiration for many years. A muse is someone or something that captures your attention and imagination in a way that presents endless possibilities. New York is like that for me.”

Ellis first began to make his name in New York painting trains under the name “Daze” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In 1980, Ellis began to transition to studio art, working at Sam Esses Studio for two months. As graffiti began draw the attention of the art world, Ellis’s paintings found home in museums and galleries around the globe.

Chris “Daze” Ellis, Queensboro Plaza, 2010, Oil, spray paint, and acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist.

Chris “Daze” Ellis, Queensboro Plaza, 2010, Oil, spray paint, and acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist.

His paintings are vivid scenes of a city filled with layers of experience and history. Ellis observes, “A lot of my paintings are inspired by photographers like Helen Levitt, William Klein, and Weegee. Photographers like Helen Levitt, and Bernice Abbott were showing the change in New York. They were considered modern photography masters for portraying social change in those years. I’m also trying to show how New York transitions from one way to another. The figures melting and transparent, they are metaphors for change, for things disappearing. New York is always in transition.”

Indeed it is. No matter what time it is, it’s always New York. Here today, gone tomorrow. In the course of a few decades, New York City has completely reinvented itself. Ellis explains, “I grew up in New York. The early 1970s was very different than the way it is now. It was bankrupt, the crime rate was high, there were negative things but there were also very positing things that were happening. We lived in a do-it-yourself culture. We created our own fun. We didn’t rely on outside support or validation. Now, it’s completely different. To get anything done you need permission and finding. It’s more complicated. And it’s harder to find anything that’s distinctly New York, something you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s much more homogenized now.”

Chris “Daze” Ellis, The 7 Yard, 2011, Oil, spray paint, and acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist.

Chris “Daze” Ellis, The 7 Yard, 2011, Oil, spray paint, and acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist.

Art, as always, offers the antidote for imbalances in the world, deftly rearranging our understanding by offering a new perspective on the old. The City is My Muse is part of a larger story of New York. Ellis was a highlight of the Museum’s 2014 exhibition, City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection. Ellis had been good friends with Wong, each of them exploring the city as artists. Where Wong focused on the Lower East Side, Ellis represents the Bronx. He reveals, “I have a studio there. I’ve been working up there for decades now. It’s always been inspiring for me. I had my first solo show at Fashion Moda. I always see the positive aspect of it. There’s a whole creative community of people and I portray that.”

In The City is My Muse, Ellis take us though the five boroughs, from Times Square to Coney Island, for rides on the Cyclone and the Staten Island Ferry, waiting for the train at Queensboro Plaza or walking on Eastern Parkway. Each painting offers a moment of reflection from a distinctive vantage point, one that offers a multiplicity of ways to engage with the work, coming from a profound sense of understanding and knowledge of New York.

Chris “Daze” Ellis, Reflections on Times Square #2, 2013, Spray paint on wood, Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Chris “Daze” Ellis, Reflections on Times Square #2, 2013, Spray paint on wood, Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

For his recent series on Times Square, Ellis observes, “Originally, I wanted to do a scene from the early ‘80s. I was inspired by films and photographs, but wanted it to have a more contemporary viewpoint. The Times Square of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s was a red light district. It was seedy, crime-ridden, edgier. Now it’s a tourist destination. I looked for the remains of what it was—they weren’t any left. I began looking at if from a tourist point of view. I was inundated with color, sound, lights, motion, speed, and velocity. That’s what I want to convey in that series.”

It is this continuing connection with the essence of the city that never sleeps that makes Ellis’s work extraordinary. His ability to translate the experience of New York in its multi-splendored kaleidoscopic form is one that is as poetic as it is profound.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.