The hiss of paint, the explosion of color, the rush of writing your name on a public wall: it's an addiction. A religion. A way of life.
Ian (pronounced EYE-an) shakes his dreads out of his face as he paints, carefully spraying the curving lines of a living mural. He smokes a joint as he paints, mentioning his move from Cleveland to Brooklyn last month.
Perched six feet up in the air on a narrow ladder, he quickly outlines a pair of horns, a snout, some curving talons. An hour later, the shape of the creature is clear: a dragon, sitting atop a pile of skulls. Its dark green wings sweep next to its almost lime-green head, complete with a flame-colored mane flowing out behind the long pair of horns attached to its temples. As he fills in the highlights, then the lowlights, the bright yellow belly emerges, and the bubblegum insides of the wings appear.
The 7 train rattles overhead, mingling with strains of old-school '80s hip hop blaring from a van parked around the corner. From the 7 train, passengers can see three abandoned factory buildings coated in ever-changing graffiti, emblazoned with "Five Pointz - The Institute of Higher Burnin'." "DONDI" "IZ the WIZ" "SEN2" and the names of other New York graffiti greats line the top edge of the building at Davis St. and Jackson Ave.
Pieces by Cope2 and WANE at 5 Pointz in Long Island City, Queens
This is the city's legal graffiti mecca - one of the last bastions of graffiti culture. Up-and-coming artists and newcomers rub shoulders with famous graffiti writers from New York and around the world.
Graffiti is now one of the largest underground art movements in the world, but it began in New York and Philadelphia in the late 1960s with young teens who wrote their name and street number - their tags* - on every possible surface. The ultimate goal was "getting up," making sure your name was seen. They called themselves "writers," because it was all about how and where you wrote your name - how distinctive your style was, the shape of the letters and the colors you used.
Gangs have used graffiti to mark their territory for decades, but this new breed of graffiti writers, who didn't want to be involved with gangs, focused on perfecting their hand style and execution. To protect themselves from violent street gangs, writers began organizing into crews, or groups of graffiti writers who go out bombing* together. By the early 1970s, graffiti writing moved to the subways, where name and reputation could travel all over the city on the side of a train. It had evolved into a highly stylized art form with its own slang and social protocols - the graffiti code.
On the other side of Five Pointz, SHARE37, DEAL and BREAK cluster around a wall, piecing* their names in colorful bubble letters. They are an odd trio - BREAK, a tall, hulking Latino with a slow, deep voice, SHARE, a short and slightly chubby Puerto Rican who talks at a manic pace, and DEAL - small, skinny and pale. Now in their early forties, SHARE and BREAK spent their teenage years writing graffiti in the subways during the 1980s. DEAL, who is slightly younger, bombed the streets with a well-known '90s graffiti crew, RFC. The older guys both have children, and with families to support they can't afford to be arrested for illegal graffiti on the street. For now, they do legal walls.
They believe the city killed graffiti with its 30-year-long war on street art. Graffiti is a "quality-of-life" crime, which meant that New York City mayors from John Lindsay through Rudy Giuliani targeted it to make the city look safer. The NYPD operated under the famous "broken windows" theory, which assumed that reducing graffiti would combat more serious crimes - gang activity, drugs, robberies and murders.
"May 12, 1989, the last subway car was buffed clean of graffiti," SHARE37 says. "I remember walking through the 1 line. When the 1 was silver, I thought these n**ers fucking beat us."
Once the MTA cleaned the last train of graffiti, graff writing culture died a slow death - at least according to these men, who were only 17 or 18 at the time.
"The [graffiti] code is dead. These guys, they weren't doing canvasses, they were doing this to make a statement," SHARE adds.
The end of subway graffiti signaled the end of a certain kind of freedom, a childhood innocence some of the subway writers would spend the rest of their lives struggling to reclaim. Many of them still show up at Five Pointz every year for Old Timer's Day, to paint the walls and reminisce about the fights, the dramatic run-ins with the transit police and the time they spent with their friends painting subway cars in the train yards.
As the subway writers of the early '80s matured into their 20s and 30s, they began to fear arrest and prison under Mayor Rudy Giuliani's serious crackdown on graffiti. In the early '90s, graffiti became a felony with up to a year in prison. No one really used to go to prison for graffiti; it was just something the cops always threatened after they beat someone or left them in Central Booking for a few hours. So many of the older writers began to retire, become legal muralists or find other jobs, and lament the current state of graffiti - which had moved from the subway back to the street.
Soon after the MTA's victory over graffiti, legendary graffiti writer Lee Quiñones declared, "If you buff history, you get violence." Graffiti arrests in New York City have climbed 200 percent since Giuliani revived the Anti-Graffiti Task Force in 1995. A quarter-million graffiti hits are still cleaned off subway cars every year, and 3 million feet of graffiti is removed from bridges and highways. Even as more graffiti writers have been arrested, graffiti writing has endured and even flourished.
"When you push something down, it's going to pop up somewhere else. It's just a natural progression," EWOK, an old-school subway writer, told James and Karla Murray in Broken Windows , a collection of interviews with graffiti writers from the '80s and '90s. In 1989, graffiti didn't perish - it evolved. But the decline of subway graffiti has meant fewer large, open spaces for massive graffiti murals. The subway offered a vast, moving, flat canvas, and the train yards, or layups, allowed some isolation from the cops and the nosy public. Being on the street meant finding new, creative spaces to paint, and working faster - leading to less artistic, detailed work. Now the most elaborate murals are permission walls done on the sides of buildings throughout the outer boroughs - mainly in Williamsburg, Bushwick and the South Bronx. Pieces, or murals, require hours, even days of painting, and graffiti writers simply aren't able to spend that much time on an illegal wall while avoiding arrest.
Some graffiti writers question whether permission walls can even be considered graffiti, because they're legal . Graffiti is fundamentally an act of rebellion. "It's from poverty. You want a voice, you go out there, you write, you deface property. And you don't care," says Avone (A-V-One), a 32-year-old graffiti writer and artist. Destruction and vandalism are part of the rush. Painting during the day, with paint that was legally purchased, not stolen, seems laughably tame by comparison. Illegal graffiti is futile, impermanent, yet powerful. In the words of the graffiti writer LEFT - "It is beautiful and ugly, wrong and right." Part of its beauty, he said, is in its transience - it could be buffed the next day or the next month, or it could remain for decades.
These opposing views split graffiti writers into two groups: "style writing" crews who want to paint colorful legal murals, and "bombing crews," who try to tag as many spots as possible and only concern themselves with illegal graffiti.
The thrill of graffiti never seems to fade, and many writers are so entrenched in the culture that they never want to walk away. After spending one's formative years evading the cops and running around the city in the dead of night, getting a typical office job seems like a depressing entry into adult life.
But writing illegally on walls doesn't pay the rent. So writers are faced with a few options: get a real job, try to make a living as a legal muralist or switch to art on canvas, selling it on the streets and in the galleries. Younger writers often choose the third option, but struggle to find gallery space because they have few connections in the competitive New York art scene. Many find themselves on the lowest rung of the commercial art world: selling their canvases on the streets of Soho. Walk down Prince or Spring Streets on a pleasant Saturday afternoon and you'll find a whole cast of current and former graffiti writers and street artists, hustling to pay their rent or child support.
Optimo, aka WERDS, aka No Sleep, is a shameless, lifelong graffiti writer. He has been arrested for graffiti at least six times, and he will paint the streets until the day he dies.
"I'll be in a wheelchair catching* tags," he says, laughing and lounging on the stoop of a fashion boutique on the corner of Prince and Greene Streets in Soho. "Graffiti is like a drug addiction. The drip of the paint, the smell. I love everything about it."
Like the character in his art, he perpetually wears a black top hat, resting precariously atop a mop of unruly black hair. His hat is a natural extension of his brazen, extroverted personality. Within 20 minutes of meeting him, he's telling me stories about the fight he got into last night with a guy who stole his cab, how he ended up painting a mansion at Art Basel Miami in December and where he found the top hat. Latino, with medium height and an athletic build, Optimo wears the typical graffiti writer uniform of paint-spattered black pants, black hoodie and black work boots.
He began writing graffiti at age 12 in 1989, and he hasn't stopped in the 23 years since. Most graffiti writers are scared straight after multiple arrests and prison time, but Optimo has outlasted many of his contemporaries. Well-known graffiti writer and muralist Lady Pink estimates that the average "shelf life" of a graffiti writer is 2-5 years, before he or she is arrested one too many times or taken away from graffiti by the responsibilities of adult life. Like many graffiti writers who have made it commercially, or "above ground" in the slang of the subway writers, Pink believes that people who continue writing into their 30s, 40s and 50s need to grow up.
Graffiti writing seems to attract those who can't, or won't, work for other people. The independence and fuck-you attitude involved in sneaking around late at night, evading the police and fighting the charges if you do get arrested don't seem to correlate with a respect for authority or hierarchy. Most graffiti writers-turned-street-artists say they would rather be broke doing what they love than slaving day in and day out at a job they hate. Even if they don't become fine artists, graffiti writers often put their skills to work as graphic designers, tattoo artists or clothing designers. Of course, many graffiti writers don't pursue art as a career - some become lawyers, actors, bankers or civil servants. And some older graffiti writers, who painted the trains in the '70s and '80s, work for the MTA because of their lifelong obsession with the subway system.
Optimo has tried working retail, or teaching skateboarding to kids, "But I don't like answering to anyone." Whenever he was really hard up, he would sell drugs - an occupation that landed him in prison for three and a half years.
Like many recovering graffiti writers, he turned up on the streets of Soho, hawking his art to hordes of bewildered tourists. For three years, he's been focusing on his canvas work, showing in the occasional gallery and selling his art on the street whenever he's really broke. His colorful, cartoony canvases, set up on his folding table and the sidewalk, stand out from the crowd with their unique mixture of screen-printing, aerosol and acrylic. He often integrates his top hat character with collage and tags done with marker or acrylic.
"I always felt like I didn't want to make money off of graffiti, because I felt like it was selling out back then. So I was like, 'Fuck that I'm going to sell drugs, I'm going to hustle, I've got my own money so I don't need to make money off of what I do, what I love.' You know? I just love doing it for me... But now I don't think it's selling out, I think it's just being smart and growing up."
Since Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring began putting art on the street in the early '80s, street art has challenged graffiti for popularity and wall space on the streets and in the galleries. It's almost as if graffiti gave birth to a hipper, more artistic son that grew up, went to art school and made all the money his dad never did. The race to the galleries and riches of the art world has created tension between graffiti writers, most of whom learned their artistic skills on the street, and street artists, who often have gone to art school.
Optimo's Character in Bushwick
"A lot of art school kids do graffiti for a few months or a year, and then they think they know everything, and they try to call themselves street artists... People don't go through steps anymore. You master tags, then throwies*, then burners*. People know how to piece, but not how to tag."
Some graffiti writers have adapted and embraced the media of street art - posters, stickers, stencils - while others, like Optimo, have decided to try fine art on canvas, often incorporating aspects of their graffiti (tags, characters, etc.).
While he acknowledges the conflict between street art and graffiti, Optimo doesn't resent street artists, whom he affectionately calls "art fags." But, he adds, they don't know the rules of the street or the graffiti writers' code, so they're likely to get beaten up or arrested when they first start putting up art on street corners.
"A lot of street artists, they don't know the rules when they get into it. They'll just put a wheatpaste [poster] over something, and get a punch in the face. Some writers will cut you in the face. There's rules to everything, especially when it comes to the streets. Like some kids, they don't even know about the law. They'll get caught and they'll give themselves up right away."
- piecing - creating a graffiti mural
- tagging - writing your name - usually with a marker but can also be with spray paint or acid etch
- bomb - to bomb or hit is to paint many surfaces in an area
- burner - a well-executed throw-up or piece
- throw-up ("throwies") - one-color outline and one layer of fill-color - usually the artist's tag. Designed for quick execution, but not as quick as a tag
- getting up/got up - hitting up anything, anywhere, with any form of graffiti, from a tag all the way up to a large piece
- hollow - throw-up without fill-in paint
- fill-in - a simple piece usually rendered in two colors
In a tiny basement in a corner of Bushwick, every possible surface is covered with graffiti or art supplies: tags, throw-ups, stencils, stickers, posters, books, newspapers, spray paint and plywood. The walls, floor and ceiling are so covered in tags - from writers like KATSU, CASH4 and SMELLS - that everywhere I look is a who's who of up-and-coming, infamous graffiti writers. The chaos is overwhelming and comforting at the same time. The walls used to be white and the floor used to be cement, but you can't really tell now. Avone, a former graffiti writer who is trying to make it in the gallery world under the name "Destroy and Rebuild", waxes philosophical about the difference between graffiti and street art.
He is a short, slight Latino man with a quiet, thoughtful voice. Tattoos creep out from under his collar - under one ear, Van Gogh, and under the other, Zora Neale Hurston. A black woman to balance out a white male, he says. Doodling on a block of wood as he talks, he occasionally walks around and glances at his unfinished art.
Along the far wall, his finished canvases are stacked, ready to be disassembled and flown to Germany for a solo gallery show next week. They have an odd, pop-art feel to them, with their crazy collage of newsprint, silkscreened photos, rust and conflicting colors of paint.
"I don't call myself a street artist. I have never done street art in my life. It's just a label other people gave me."
Graffiti and street art have an uneasy yet symbiotic relationship. He says that street art incorporates elements of graffiti, but the two are very different. The public is intimidated by graffiti, because they don't understand it, but they identify with street art. When the public thinks street art or graffiti, they often think of Banksy, with his stencils of little girls and old ladies protesting war and commercialism.
And the two groups of artists don't exactly live in harmony. Street artists are always pasting their work over graffiti (a highly offensive move in graff culture), and "graffiti doesn't give a fuck about street art." In graff terms, there is always "beef" between them. Once, a graffiti writer even went to a street artist's gallery show, just so he could punch the street artist for going over his throw-ups*.
Avone and CASH4 tags
Avone was arrested for graffiti. Twice. He's cooled on his graffiti, but he still tags buildings from time to time. After spending a year in prison for vandalism, he learned his lesson.
"In the '80s and '90s, graffiti was poverty. Now graffiti is art. But when I'm doing that on the corner with marker, that's vandalism."
Most graffiti writers try to defend graffiti as beautifying the city, as a form of art that most people don't understand because they're not part of the scene. But Avone, who was a hardcore bomber at the height of his graffiti career, is brutally honest about exactly what graffiti is.
"Half of it's not even pretty. What's the definition of graffiti? Are we talking about a full-color presentation? Like those permission walls. But when I think graffiti, I'm thinking bombing, tagging, hollows*, fill-ins*. When we get caught up calling it art, and then you get arrested - oh it's art. It's not fucking art. We gotta make a separation."
Even as he tries to become a successful fine artist, Avone still lives partially in the parallel universe of graffiti writers. The walls of his studio are covered with hundreds of tags, and he keeps close relationships with active graffiti writers, many of whom live in a Peter Pan-like world where they never really have to grow up. Some writers live on the edges of homelessness, sleeping on friends' couches, smoking weed and drinking and then going out bombing every night with their friends. If they need money, they get a part-time job, or sell drugs, or shoplift, or sell their art on the street or in a gallery. They do what they need to survive, because the graffiti is all that matters. That's the life Avone is trying to walk away from - the lifestyle of the active bomber.
When asked, he can't describe exactly what draws him back to graff.
"I don't think I can answer that. It's another world; it's an underworld. It's like saying, 'Hi, I'm still here.' Like little ghosts. Every tag is like a little ghost. It's just infamy. Especially when you put in the effort and the time. I'm a fan, I like watching as much as anything - who's out there, who's around. I'll always be a fan, whether I do it or not."
Avone is disillusioned with the graffiti and the street art scenes, frustrated by what he sees as greed and exploitation. He feels graffiti artists have capitalized on the graffiti/street art gallery craze by putting graffiti on canvas and calling it art.
"I've always been an artist. Always. I'm not a graffiti writer that's saying I'm an artist. It doesn't work that way. There's graffiti art, and then there's graffiti guys who make art... I know a lot of graffiti artists who are great, but when they cross over to art, they're awful... Because it's not pure, it's for a dollar."
Being pure, not "selling out" to the highest bidder - these ideas come straight out of the graffiti code. The graffiti code of ethics is so ingrained in his consciousness that he struggles to explain why commercializing graffiti is impure, or why he is so loyal to graffiti. He is so intent on not making money off graffiti that he refuses to use his graff connections to further his art career.
"Because I love it [graffiti]. The day I came out of jail I did it. I'm loyal to it. But that's my state of mind. I'm loyal by nature. I'm not doing it to get fame. Half the people don't even like me, they cross me out, but I still do it. You gotta have some kind of love, if people are crossing you out and you still do it. I'm not making one dollar off of it, and I'm putting my freedom at risk."
After his second arrest in 2007, he decided to seriously delve into his art on canvas. For five years, he's sold his paintings on the street in Soho every weekend, and then made more paintings in his studio during the week. It has been his only source of income. On the street, he'll sell his smaller paintings for anything from $120 to $350, and his larger pieces for up to $600. Depending on how much he needs the cash, he'll lower his prices. But in the galleries, his pieces have sold for a few thousand dollars.
"I always wanted to take myself seriously, even before I knew what graffiti or street art was. Graffiti was just a stepping stone."
At Pandemic Gallery in South Williamsburg, it's a cold February night and the hipsters are rolling in. Their flannel shirts and just-worn-enough jeans and scuffed leather boots mix with the faded black backpacks, sweatshirts, cargo pants and work boots that all the graffiti writers seem to be wearing. The street art and the graffiti crowds mix in this strange, alcohol-fueled interaction called a gallery opening. The show, "All Talk," cleverly brings together both worlds with artists like Aakash Nihalani, who constructs multidimensional shapes with colored tape on the street, and Jesus Saves, a well-known graffiti writer who's been active since the mid-'90s.
Avone curated the show with Cassius Fouler, his friend and fellow graffiti writer turned fine artist. The pieces on the walls reveal their unique position at the intersection of street art and graffiti. Near the ceiling by the door, a blue cardboard Facebook logo by Poster Boy sports a blue dome, with a security camera peeking out, and next to it hangs one of Cassius' paintings, which is a confusing mix of painted symbols - two blocky, disembodied heads, a red and black train, an upside-down gun. Along the left wall hang Jenna Hicock's watercolor paintings of graffiti writers and street artists, and on the far wall, a rusted out apartment door affixed with a metal graffiti tag by MERK.
The show's self-aware title reminds me of Avone's frustration with street art - that everyone's just trying to make a quick buck, without putting real thought or time into their art.
"Street art is becoming too vain. It's a rat race, everyone's just trying to get quick internet fame. Graffiti and street art - they're just riding each other to the gallery."
The question of whether you're "all talk" is important in the street art world, where everyone is trying to cash in on street cred - whether real or fabricated - to sell their work.
You have to prove yourself with illegal work on the street in order to earn legitimacy in the galleries. In the end, it all comes back to the bravado of the street - were you a real graffiti writer or just a street artist? How many years did you put in on the street before you went legitimate? Your arrest record, the crew you ran with - all of that matters just as much as what galleries you've shown in, or whether famous people are buying your art. When you haven't put in the time, you're just phony, fake - "all talk."
"What, are you a pro now?" Optimo rants on the streets of Soho. "You got locked up and did some community service and now you're an ill street artist? Paint for five years, ten, put some fucking work on the streets. Everyone wants to be famous overnight - that's the problem, man."
For many of these artists, the galleries are not the real world - the street is. As street artist Royce Bannon will later tell me, "A lot of artists, I like their stuff better on the street. It's always better on the street. Galleries are just for making a little scratch."
Walking up Broadway towards the J train afterwards, I spot "CASH4" plastered across the top of a building in six-foot-high, bright white letters - called a "roller" because that's what was used to paint it - and CASH4 tags written on mailboxes, doorways and street corners. If Cassius could make money off his graffiti reputation, he'd be a millionaire.
In a dark bar in Williamsburg, 36-year-old graffiti writer turned street artist turned curator Royce Bannon tries to reconcile the differences between graffiti and street art. He is black, incredibly easy going and talks so quietly that I can barely hear him over the bar's blaring hipster music.
Royce straddles the line between graffiti writers and street artists. While growing up in West Harlem, he fell in love with the downtown graffiti and street art scene in the Lower East Side and the Village. In the early '90s, he discovered street art through the work of Faile and Shepard Fairey while developing his graffiti.
He tags with markers, but he also uses posters and stickers - usually of his little round, green monsters with pointy teeth and three eyes. Most of his friends are rising stars in the street art scene who also maintain their graffiti writer identities. People turn to street art, he says, because it offers a freedom and openness that graffiti does not.
"With street art, you can do characters, or you can do wheatpastes. You can do all these different things. You can use any medium. But with graffiti, if you don't do a tag, don't do a throw-up, don't use spray paint, don't use markers, then you're not doing graffiti. It definitely stemmed off of people who didn't want to get arrested or beat up because there's a lot of drama with graffiti."
Street Art: Mural by Gaia in Bushwick
Street art allows the public to engage with the city space in a new way. They see the sidewalk, wall or subway platform in an entirely new light when street art appears on its surface.
"I think the walls of cities should be a public sounding board, a sort of visual commons," said renowned street artist Swoon in Street Art Cookbook . "The boundary between public bulletin board and private real estate investment is thrown wide with a gesture as tiny as a marker tag. It's almost like a magic trick."
When street art makes the move to galleries, it often loses the edge and spontaneity it had on the streets. It's less free-flowing, more contained. Canvases constrain the vision of street artists and graffiti writers, who are used to having the soaring walls of 15-story buildings or the sides of bridges as their canvas.
"Some art, like wheatpasting, when you go back a few weeks later, it might have deteriorated, but that adds to the piece. That can't happen in a gallery, on a canvas. It is what it is when you buy it, when you hang it on the wall. I like the whole wear and tear of how things age, it just adds so much character."
Royce works as wholesale manager at Mishka, a streetwear clothing company, and he simply doesn't have the time and energy to "go hard" - tag and sticker heavily - on a regular basis. Although he makes money from working at Mishka and selling his work in galleries, he can't walk away from the graffiti scene. The egotistical allure of seeing his name and work on a public wall always draws him back.
"When somebody's like, 'I saw your name on the street,' it feels good. I don't have an ego but yes, I do have an ego. To hear somebody not say that, who's a graffiti or street artist, they're bugging."
Or as young graffiti writer Cay 161 said to Norman Mailer in the early 1970s, "The name is the faith of graffiti."
There's a rush of adrenaline from putting your name on a wall yet remaining completely anonymous. "I just like the act of being up*. It's such a secret club," Royce says. The best graffiti writers are the hardest to catch, because no one knows who they are.
"Even with all the fame you can get from art, you always want that infamous fame that graffiti writers have when they take over New York," said Avone. "It's all about infamy. And ego."
That desire for infamy - to have your art and your name in a public space - has drawn graffiti writers and street artists together. Avone seems to like that word, "infamy," because it epitomizes graffiti culture in a way few other words can. Infamy, along with its more innocuous counterpart, famous, both come from the Latin word fama , which means "rumor," "infamy" or simply "fame." The Roman poet Vergil portrays Fama as having hundreds of eyes and tongues, and living in a house with a 1000 windows through which to watch the world. Graffiti writers want to be infamous . They want everyone to know their name, but not who they are. They simply want to be silent ghosts in the night who leave their name on every wall, subway platform, train and building. They want to be famous on the streets, not in the galleries. Their names should be visible in all 1000 windows - from the tip of Manhattan to the roar of the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx to the remotest rail yards in Queens and Brooklyn.
In The Faith of Graffiti , a seminal 1973 book on the early years of graffiti, Norman Mailer wrote:
"Maybe it was a movement which never dreamed of painting over the blank and empty modern world, but the authority of the city reacted as if the city itself might be in greater peril from graffiti than from junk, and a war had gone on, more and more implacable on the side of the authority with every legal and psychological weed killer on full employ until the graffiti of New York was defoliated, cicatrized, Vietnamized."
Interaction with the police has defined a large part of graffiti culture. Old-school graffiti writers call them the "Five-Oh," in reference to the classic TV show, and younger graffiti guys simply refer to them with a litany of unprintable names.
The paranoia that pervades graffiti culture in the U.S. and much of the world comes from fear of the police and their reach. Here in New York City, a special division of the NYPD created in 1980 tracks and arrests graffiti writers - the Vandal Squad. While the best illegal graffiti writers like to act like they've never been caught, everyone gets arrested eventually. The Vandal Squad uses a variety of methods to catch writers, including stakeouts, raids, informants and undercover work.
"We'd pose as reporters, bait them to talk, play their game to draw them in, and get to know where they would paint," said Officer Theodore Rotun, a retired member of the Vandal Squad interviewed in the book Graffiti New York . "We would also use them as informers against each other."
Most of the experienced writers have been arrested several times and know how to avoid jail time for vandalism, no matter how large a file the Vandal Squad has on them. "How do you know this tag is mine?" some writers ask when they're arrested, because the police can't really prove a tag is yours unless they catch you in the act of writing it.
"You don't fucking give yourself up, you don't tell them shit," says Optimo. "If you caught me red-handed, if you caught me on film, then fuck it yo, I'm caught. But I'm not going to admit to everything I did. And don't be crazy about it when you get caught... just know your rights. They can say whatever they want, but the more you talk, the more trouble you get in. The only person you need to talk to is your lawyer... That's why people need to get schooled before they go out and do shit."
Even graffiti writers who have become legal muralists and fine artists are subject to police surveillance and arrest. Lady Pink recalls having her home raided in 2003.
"We went through a spell when the vandal squad was making up phony shit, getting warrants and then raiding people's houses. They got into my house and took 10,000 photos. Cops went through my stuff all day long. I was in Central Booking, I couldn't stop them. And then they went downstairs and arrested my downstairs neighbor, CYCLE, after a four-hour interrogation. The city can just break down your door, take all your shit, keep it for a year and not bring up any charges and it's all perfectly legal."
Although Lady Pink hasn't painted illegal graffiti in nearly 20 years, the Vandal Squad still sees her as a potential role model for future graffiti writers.
"The Vandal Squad has a problem with us, and they've told us this in front of our murals. They say these murals are real nice and all but you inspire young people and we want you to stop. They told me to keep to my galleries indoors and quit coming out and doing murals because I inspire people to pick up spray paint and do vandalism."
Legal muralists working with spray paint often wrestle with the cops, especially if they don't have permission papers from the building owner on them. BIO from TATS CRU remembers being arrested near the Big Punisher memorial wall in the South Bronx, a well-known legal wall that he and his crew have repainted annually since Big Pun, a famous local rapper, died in 2000.
"What they did was they called the landlady and said, 'We caught some kids writing on your building.' We had been painting that wall for ten years before that. But the cops didn't tell her what we were doing or who they arrested. We had news people, camera crews, thousands of people hanging out for two days. But there were too many people hanging around for them to arrest us in front of the wall. So they waited till we left and they arrested us in different locations."
They were kept in holding cells at Central Booking for a night, and "then they grabbed us and took us out a backdoor and let us go - without seeing a judge or anything. What they didn't anticipate was all the pressure they were going to get from the public. It was on the radio, on the news, and there were all these business people coming to the precinct complaining."
After serving prison time for vandalism, Avone seems to exemplify the bitterness many lifelong graffiti writers feel toward the NYPD. "The city doesn't care, it's a crime. They'll ruin your life... New York is a police state now, and you can't even piss in a corner without being arrested. Graffiti is still alive and still strong, but it's shitty because it has to be fast."
Hidden inside the garage of a quaint house in Astoria, one of the nation's most famous female graffiti artists paints on a canvas and yearns for the space of the trains and public walls where she learned to hone her craft as a child.
Lady Pink still has the tough exterior she developed in her teens as one of the few female graffiti writers active in the early 1980s. She had to prove herself as brave as the boys, unafraid to sneak into the rail yards and paint subway trains in the dead of night.
"Graffiti is like boot camp for artists," she says, leaning forward in a grass green, long-sleeve top and pale green cotton pants. "It's not exactly like college, but it does take the place of that. You learn to paint fast, to paint large, do a lot of amazing things that prepare you for the above ground world. But it doesn't teach you too much business sense."
At 47, she has a kind of stern beauty and elegance, a middle-aged grace. Beneath her defensiveness is an almost maternal warmth that pervades her entire studio, which is covered in graffiti memorabilia - photos, stickers, postcards and paintings.
Although she didn't start writing graffiti seriously until age 15 in 1979, she was featured in her first gallery show only a year later at Fashion Moda in the South Bronx. Within a month, she was showing her work at P.S. 1 and the New Museum. She traveled around the world and made thousands selling her paintings long before her 18th birthday.
Meanwhile, she was still painting the trains with her friends, two graffiti crews known as The Cool Five (TC5) and The Public Animals (TPA). She and TC5 became known for their colorful, artistic pieces* that covered entire trains. Living a double life between the streets and the galleries, she began to feel overwhelmed.
"One weekend you're dressed up like a boy in a dark and dirty tunnel in some ghetto part of town and hiding behind some bushes for two hours until the coast is clear, and then the next weekend you're dressed up like a doll in some glitzy apartment or some fancy party with guys going gaga all over you giving you liquor and drugs... It's all very seductive."
Too occupied with her artistic career to bother with school, Pink dropped out of the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and took her GED. In 1983, she appeared opposite fellow graffiti legend Lee Quinones in "Wild Style," Charlie Ahearn's pseudo-documentary film about graffiti and hip-hop culture. She continued painting subway trains until 1985, when she went "above ground" to focus on her artistic career.
Lady Pink's Mural Project with High School Students in Astoria
"It's a lot of pressure, being above ground. You always have to perform well, your stuff is always being scrutinized. Having to be perfect because of money issues. You have to think of that whenever you're painting. It's very difficult to shut that off and say, 'Fuck it I'm going to paint whatever I want. I don't care if anyone likes it, and I don't care if it ever leaves the room, I'm going to paint it because I must.' In some cases you have to shun society completely and do what's in your heart. It's hard not to let money corrupt you, especially in a big city like this."
Many graffiti writers don't survive in the above ground world, she added. They sometimes succumb to drugs, homelessness or the pressure to perform as commercial artists.
Like Avone and Optimo, she is frustrated by how the commercialization of graffiti and the popularity of street art have made it easier for "phony" people to capitalize on the culture of the street.
"I think there's a lot of fake and phony people who only do street art for five minutes to market themselves. So they can give themselves street credibility. It's all a matter of learning how to market themselves. And the graffiti writers, the ghetto kids, they don't have these skills, so there's room for a lot of these phonies and fakes to come out and try to market themselves. It's a whole new world of exploiting and money-making and contracts, and it's all such a drag."
But street artists lack the cohesive community and culture that graffiti has. Graffiti has a code of ethics, a social structure and a common language. Street artists are just making it up as they go along.
"They don't have the close-knit community group that we have. In terms of facilitating and supporting your vandalism. We have support all over the world for what we do. It's like being in the [Free]masons. The street artists don't have that kind of support."
And like many other graffiti writers who have become fine artists, she struggles with the labels the art world gives her.
"Street art is a whole different world to us.... Everyone now calls us street artists, and we have no control over labels. Even though I do work in the street, no, I'm not really a street artist. I'm a subway graffiti writer."
Making the transition to fine art was dull after the adrenaline and danger of graffiti. Painting during the daytime, with as much paint as you need, just ends up seeming like work. "It's like being in the wild jungle versus being in the nice, tame zoo."
She met her husband, fellow graffiti writer SMITH, when she began painting freight trains in 1993. SMITH happens to be at the center of one of New York's great graffiti stories. He and his brother, SANE, were among the most prolific subway bombers of the late mid- to late 1980s, when MTA security was high and the Vandal Squad was constantly arresting graffiti writers.
"He [SMITH] was from the generation after me; he was one of the last die-hard writers to continue painting the subways until '89, because the subways were clean in '89. He traumatized two mayors - Giuliani and Koch. Him and his brother SANE, who killed himself in 1990. Those two boys destroyed and took out as much of the city as they could. The city made its first civil lawsuit against these two boys, and their mother, a million dollar lawsuit."
The city brought the lawsuit after the two brothers famously bombed one side of the Brooklyn Bridge. The suit was dropped after SANE's suicide, but the entire affair reinforced graffiti writers' feelings that they were being victimized by the police and the city government. It also symbolized the true end to the subway graffiti movement, catalyzing the transition from the tunnels to the streets.
SMITH has become a self-styled graffiti historian, cataloguing photos and blackbook pages from old-school graffiti writers. And Pink found her calling as a mentor and teacher to budding artists. An older generation of successful writers nurtured and protected her during the early years of her art world fame, and now she tries to educate young artists in the same way.
"There was a lot of pressure to commercialize our stuff by taking our fine art paintings and mass-producing it on something. But we were taught early on by older artists not to do that. Don't sell out that way, or you'll cheapen your fine art so it won't be worth much. LEE, DONDI, DAZE, CRASH [well-known writers from the late 1970s] - they took me under their wing, so as not to fall into that same trap."
She encourages young artists, particularly graffiti writers, to know their worth and their legal rights. Artists, she says, need to be constantly vigilant when working for large companies, who often underpay artists or use their work without permission. She rarely mentions her graffiti background to commercial clients, because she knows they will just use that as an excuse to pay her less.
With a grant from the Martin Wong Foundation, she runs art classes and large-scale mural workshops at the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts in Astoria.
"I try to teach kids how to have fun with art again, try to take that institutional boringness and seriousness out of it. Just try to have fun with art, because art is fun! When kids are painting and they're laughing and giggling and having a good time, that's what it's about. Art for art's sake, no money involved."
In a barren corner of Hunts Point, there are just a few splashes of color among the monochromatic, industrial grays and browns. A mural unfurls on the corner of Manida Street and Garrison Avenue - "The Point: Where Community and Creativity Connect." Continuing along Garrison, there's a playful mural of Mario and Donkey Kong, running along little red platforms from somebody's 1980's childhood. "BG183" reads the video-game-style block letter signature in the corner. Further along, an angel with incredible wingspan hovers over a mother embracing her two children, set against the backdrop of a city burning and tanks rolling in the streets. At the building's corner, the Mr. Clean Scrubbing Bubbles share space with a green lizard creature wearing a pink overcoat and smoking a cigarette - courtesy of BIO.
Mural on the front of TATS CRU's Offices in Hunts Point, Bronx
Inside the entrance on Barretto Street, the front of the mural-adorned building on Garrison Ave is shockingly plain brick. Once a bagel factory, the space now houses the tiny office space of some of New York's most prolific professional muralists - TATS CRU. Across the narrow courtyard is The Point - a community center that hosts youth programs for local kids. Every other available space - the walls of the courtyard, the front of The Point - is covered in murals.
"We were traveling back and forth between Queens and the Bronx, and I started seeing these trains that looked like comic books," says NICER, one of TATS CRU's founding members. "On the cover of the comic book, the hero's name is always really pronounced, and then the hero is next to it. It was like the piece [graffiti mural] version of a comic book. And I started asking around about who did this, where do I learn it?"
NICER recalls New York City's fiscal crisis of the late 1970s, when the city was tapping into union wages and retirement funds just to make payroll for city jobs, like the police, fire and sanitation departments. In 1975, Mayor Abe Beame begged President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout to rescue the city, which was careering toward bankruptcy, and Ford's refusal prompted the famous Daily News headline "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."
The city was so mired in debt that there was little help for the poorest neighborhoods, where the welfare rolls were growing and unemployment among young black and Latino men was high. Waves of arson began to sweep across the outer boroughs, as property owners in Bushwick and the South Bronx began setting their own buildings on fire to collect on the insurance. During Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, a fire started at Public School 3, an abandoned school a few blocks west of Yankee Stadium. As ABC cut to its camera in a helicopter for an aerial shot, announcer Howard Cosell declared, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."
Growing up on the streets of the Bronx, the members of TATS CRU discovered graffiti, which offered a creative outlet and a distraction from the harsh environment of the projects. What all the graffiti writers had in common was poverty and the restless energy of teenagers.
"Where we grew up, you didn't have programs for kids or places where kids would go to nurture their thirst for art and sports," NICER continues in a professorial fashion, looking down through his glasses. "We found our entertainments running through abandoned buildings and inventing our own street games. There was this energy - we always wanted to play in the streets."
In the early 1980s, BIO, NICER and BG183 were drawn together in high school by their love of graffiti and art. As a child, BIO used to copy the comics from the Sunday papers and play with the letters.
"When I started asking around in the neighborhood, they said you gotta get a name. You gotta get up," adds BIO. "Getting up" was the first phase of establishing your reputation on the street.
They spent the remainder of their teenage years bombing and piecing on the sides of the trains - the 2, 5 and 6 lines were their favorite. They hopped the trains, racked up - stole paint - and fought turf wars with other graffiti crews.
"The whole day you would spend hopping the subway to go steal the paint, and then hopping the subway back with stolen paint on you, to go paint trains at night. And even the supplies, the markers, everything was stolen. You would go to the art supply store and steal them - they were called Designers at the time. You would travel the whole day around the whole city with no money. Even food, you would go and steal stuff for lunch. It was just part of the whole lifestyle. You robbed, and you got robbed."
In the early '90s, when they were still painting illegally, people began asking them to do memorial walls - to commemorate deaths - and shop gates. In 1994, they started their professional mural business. For their first job, they stole paint. They refused to put their phone number on their murals.
"People knowing what you look like or who you are was a little different for us... Occasionally we'd do a few street tags here and there. One day one of my clients was like I saw your name on the highway or something. And we were like maybe we should chill out, if clients are saying we saw your name in the street. We realized that after we got our offices raided here, years back, that it's kind of over. That we can't write our names in the street illegally anymore."
But the addiction to illegal graffiti never seems to disappear. Even after three decades of writing graffiti, BIO still loves the adrenaline of tagging his name.
"Even to this day, as a 45-year-old man, I don't see it as a crime. I know it is a crime, but I enjoy that shit. The rush of writing your name on something and tagging something - I don't know how to explain it if you've never done it. But 31 years later I'm still doing it, in a different way."
HOW & NOSM/TATS CRU in Hunts Point
After a few years, they embraced their legitimate, legal business and took on more commercial work. In 1997, two twins from Germany, HOW and NOSM, joined their team and brought a distinctive, modern mural style to the crew. Since then, they've painted everything from Snapple ads to community art projects.
"We started seeing that corporations were using graffiti to market products, but they were bringing in graphic designers from the Midwest who would do graffiti-style stuff. They were emulating a culture they knew nothing about. So instead of complaining about it, we got involved."
Some graffiti writers accuse them of selling out, because they've worked for so many major corporations, from McDonald's to Sony to Coca-Cola. Graffiti started out as a rebellion against wealth and consumerism, and becoming part of the "corporate machine" seems antithetical to graffiti's illegal beginnings.
"It was happening anyway, whether we jumped in or not. It was either sit back and watch it happen, or jump in and make money on something you've done your whole life. Why should someone who put in no sweat and blood profit off of it? At least you can maintain some of the integrity of the art. Even though it's going to be censored or toned down a bit."
The illegal graffiti scene is "alive but not well," says BIO. Many of the active graffiti writers are out-of-towners, and New York graffiti has lost the artistic flair it had during its subway graffiti days.
"Somewhere along the line, New York lost its motivation or its impact on what's going on. Even the younger generation, they stopped trying to do piecing. Now it's more tagging and bombing... And the movement is not as strong as it once was."
Like Lady Pink, BIO doesn't entirely understand the development of street art and young graffiti writers using street art techniques, such as stencils, stickers and wheatpasting.
"There are no rules. Back then, people wouldn't use stencils - you wouldn't use chalk, tape, none that stuff. It was seen as you have no skills if you're doing that. Nowadays, that doesn't apply. Graffiti isn't solely based on letters anymore. They have these kids who have gone to art school, who are using spray paint and creating these huge murals. Which I'm not against, but is it still graffiti? They're using a spraycan, but the ideas are not the same."