This film tells the unknown story of a hidden painting, and the history of 1980s downtown New York it unfurls.

The artist Martin Wong bridged the graffiti, poetry, and gallery scenes; his drawings and paintings depict the streets and characters around him on the Lower East Side of New York City, where he moved in 1978. It was a period of creative liberation but also financial struggle and the rise of the AIDS epidemic. Wong was a magnetic figure on the underground scene: openly gay, generous, and wildly creative. Whenever he sold work, he put the money back into supporting other artists, building an enormous graffiti art collection (what he called “aerosol hieroglyphics”), which he showcased in his short-lived Museum of American Graffiti.

Wong’s Houston Street (1986), currently on view in Gallery 202: In the Shadow of the American Dream at MoMA, is a major work. At eight by 13 feet and hung to touch the ground, it forms an eerie trompe l’oeil double of the rolling gates that secure shops at night along the block that it is named for. When the painting recently entered MoMA’s collection, its stretcher had to be replaced and conservators and curators had a chance to study something they only had an inkling of: a painting on the back. In 1983, Wong painted the 13-foot length of the back of the canvas in his signature brick-by-brick, and then asked his friends, graffiti artists Sharp and Delta 2, to spray paint over it, tagging it like a real wall. At the bottom, he signed it as a collaborative work by all three artists, making explicit his passion for supporting graffiti art, as under-recognized as it was then and is still to this day. The double-sided canvas isn’t unique in his career, when means and space were often scarce, but it’s a monumental discovery. As Michelle Kuo, MoMA’s chief curator at large and publisher, says, “Even if it’s not totally intentional, the idea that you would look at the front of the painting, this blocked metal wall, and then this secret on the other side is this whole other universe.”

This documentary charts that universe. We invited Sharp (Aaron Goodstone) to the conservation lab to see the painting for the first time since it was shown in 1983. He and filmmaker Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style) share their personal memories of Wong, the impact of his friendship and art, and this intense period in New York. “His work was an aspect of New York archival history, because some of those buildings are gone.” Sharp explains, “So it’s like a portrait of the city that doesn’t exist.” While conducting research in the Martin Wong Papers at New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections, I also uncovered a key document of this story (revealed in the video) that had not been seen before. Conversations with conservators, photographs and research discoveries from Wong’s archives, and Ahearn’s video footage of Wong painting in his cramped apartment studio combine to unearth the hidden and moving story of Wong’s Houston Street.