Graffiti is another example of a popular, anti-authoritarian culture that has been widely co-opted by corporations in order to give their advertisements a raw, authentic look – – one that has an element of much sought-after “street credibility”. The modern era of graffiti began in New York City during the early 1970s, when the introduction of aerosol spray paint in cans combined with a burgeoning hip hop culture to create a critical mass of new artists and aficionados. Centered mainly in the outlying boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx, graffiti artists tended to be self-taught young men with limited access to formal artistic education; their work was often both an outlet for creative expression as well as a form of social protest.
The most famous graffiti works from this pioneering era were painted in the expressionist, free-form mode known as “wildstyle”, and the compositions often covered the entire side of a subway car. The New York City transit system was an intrinsic part of the movement; artists sought to have their images shown to a wide public as the cars traveled throughout the city on elevated tracks. Talented graffiti artists such as Lee Quinones (b. 1960) and Fab Five Freddie (an alias for Fred Brathwaite, b. 1959) actually entered the mainstream art world for a number of years as their work caught the broader public’s imagination. A debate ensued as to whether graffiti represented a legitimate form of art or was merely a kind of vandalism. Eventually, the city government declared graffiti art to be a public nuisance that promoted an image of lawlessness, and by the middle of the 1980s a crackdown had essentially eliminated the presence of graffiti in the transit system.
In the 1990s, graffiti experienced something of a revival, celebrated as a prime example of what is now called “outsider art”. Although graffiti artists had broken into the fine art mainstream in the 1980s, only quite recently have designers expressed interest in graffiti and, just as importantly, so have their clients. Nowadays some companies, in the unending quest for an advertising strategy that will reflect popular culture and appear non-commercial, have hired graffiti artists to produce murals for them. This tactic has sometimes led to popular backlashes, however, as activists have resented being upstaged and co-opted by urban street culture; in an ironic twist, commercial graffiti art masquerading as street art has at times been defaced by activists with more graffiti.
In the design field, recognizable sylistic elements of graffiti, such as its expressive brushstrokes, clever use of symbols, and “allover” style, have been thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream. It is arguable that the chaos and overprinting that characterized the grunge aesthetic, for example, has roots in urban graffiti. Wildstyle graffiti was influential because of its near illegibility, its interlocking, abstract letters flowing chaotically across the compositions. In addition, it is now commonplace to see urban trains and buses festooned with advertisements that cover the entire vehicle, an “allover” strategy that was originally used by street artists to emblazon whole train cars with their graffiti.
(“Graphic Design A New History”, p388, Eskilson)
My earliest memories of graffiti go back to ragged subway trains, scenes from the movie Beat Street, and the graffiti that was up on streets in the early-mid 80s. I also have an older cousin who started writing COMACHO in 1985. He would sometimes take me and our other cousin P-NUT (Chinaman, Canarise Dave RIP) on train rides with him when he was out catching tags. One day we were with him and he caught some inside tags on a clean train. Later that day we were walking through the 59st train station in Brooklyn on the 95st/Coney Island bound side when that same train pulled up alongside us. The tags were still up and when we saw them we started laughing and bugging out. The first time I ever tried to write graffiti myself was with these same cousins, in the back of what is now IS 211 in Canarsie, Brooklyn. I couldn’t figure out what to write and ended up drawing a very basic stick figure man in red spray paint. I remember getting frustrated because the paint dripped.
If I recall correctly, the summer of 85 was also when TRECH BYI and DAPE rocked a fresh burner right on my block, which was also TRECH’s block, but I didn’t know this at the time.
Also at the time, I thought the piece said TRICK and DARE 😳. I never actually figured out for myself what it really said. Instead, I was told by one of the older brothers from the block not too long after I started writing in the early 90s. That was also when, while studying this same wall, I first noticed CHINO BYI tags. Despite all of this, however, I did not have a genuine interest in graffiti as a kid during the 80s. I really liked colorful burners, from simple straight letter pieces to more complex stuff that I couldn’t read, but I had no interest in the artists themselves or the game.
It wasn’t until the fall of 1991 that I developed a real interest in graffiti. I was 13 years old and just started 8th grade. One of my classmates whom I had come up with since 1st grade had started writing and one day while taking a walk around the neighborhood after school, I saw his tag up on the back of a van. That was the moment when I completely disregarded all of the negative things that I’d ever been told about graffiti as a kid. That was the moment I caught the fever. I wanted people to see my tag up and know that it was me, the same way I’d seen my classmate’s tag and knew it was him. From that moment on I started paying more attention to the writing on the wall. I started learning how to read graffiti.
Around this same time, somebody who wrote DRO bombed my vicinity along 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. My earliest memories of seeing DRO tags and floaters was on the Marien-Heim Senior Center on 45th street.
It would still be some time, though, until I learned about the legendary All City Crew. This was in the fall of 1991 and during this same period another writer known as SEG DIS hit this same section along 4th avenue right after DRO. Not too long after this, I started noticing tags by LEO DIS and TS1. Shortly thereafter, SEG and LEO started bombing Brooklyn hard and were eventually joined by a brother who writes DASE. In the midst of this, a new crew known as THP sprouted up. I don’t think the THP family would classify as a graff crew but SEG, LEO, TS and DASE were some of the more popular bombers from the neighborhood who started rocking it around the spring-summer of 1992.
As the school year progressed, I continued my observations and studies of the local graffiti scene. Eventually, the work of a brother who wrote MS caught my eye. The first time I remember seeing this man up was on 5th Avenue. He had two fat tags in silver paint – – one was on the Rite Aid building on 53rd street & 5th. The other was a few blocks down, either on 46th street or 51st street, if I recall correctly. One tag was MS DIS and the other was MS CSV. This was my first time hearing of the crew of Crazy Street Vandals from Sunset Park, and my first time seeing someone other than SEG and LEO pushing the Divine in Style crew. As crazy as it sounds, it would still take me a few more months to realize that ACC was another crew from the neighborhood. However, as time went by and I looked back, I noticed that there seemed to be a very strong link between all 3 crews – – ACC, DIS, and CSV.
Throughout 8th grade, I oftentimes heard about a brother known as FRITZ. It was not immediately clear to me that he was a writer, but he did seem to be a pretty popular figure in the neighborhood. While I never met him personally, almost everyone I knew seemed to know him, or had just run into him somewhere in the neighborhood. It took me a little while to realize that a certain tag that I had seen up for quite some time all over the place actually said FRITZ. Up until that time, I had thought the tag was supposed to be some kind of symbol. Same goes for VIN, who bombed often with FRITZ. This was when I first started to learn about the NAK family. I soon noticed that FRITZ bombed hard with TS, REEL, and BCL of the CSV team, and that NAK and CSV were united. While still in 8th grade, I learned about FRAY from Sunset Park and the KILLEM crew, another crew that was closely aligned with NAK. Another crew which seemed to have some kind of connection to the NAKILLEM squad was KYK, but much like THP, I don’t think KYK really thought of themselves as a graff crew. Some time during the winter season 1991/1992, brother TAIN BHK caught a tag on St. Michael Church on 4th ave. That was my first time seeing him up. After further observations, I noticed that some of his earlier work had been done with BOSE FOD, especially along parts of 3rd avenue going into Park Slope from Sunset.
From the beginning of 1992 through the end of the school year in June, MS continued to put in work, and I quickly learned that ACC is the truth. Eventually, I noticed that a lot of older work by MS was done with COBE EWD.
It wasn’t long before I started recognizing the work of RIBS GAK and ASK GLK. The first RIBS tag I ever saw was on 45th street right off of 5th ave and he was pushing DIS and MSD, one of my first times hearing of the MSD crew. KEST GAK ACC was also in the mix and had some work up around the way.
There were some crazy old looking tags on a furniture store located on the southeast corner of 47th street & 5th avenue, including some by NETA and CURSE, pushing ACC and BTW. Those tags looked like they were from the 80s, but I suppose they could have been from very early on in 1990.
NETA also had an old tag on the wall of the stationery shop on 45th & 4th.
These were the oldest NETA tags I had seen until 1994. That was the year I found myself one day on a Coney Island bound F train approaching the 4th Ave station and saw DRO and NETA tags from 1987 on a rooftop in Red Hook or Carroll Gardens. Until that day, I had thought that ACC was a 90s crew. I soon realized that the ACC BTW EWD GAK GLK DIS CSV NAK conglomerate was massive.
Around the spring/summer season of 1992, I saw my first KM DIS tag. It was a marker tag and he had actually rocked NAK. It’s the only time I ever saw him rock a crew other than DIS. He went on to catch mad tags in Brooklyn throughout the 90s. During this summer, mad writers from the neighborhood started rocking another new crew, RNS, which was very closely aligned with ACC. DISASTER RNS started putting in a considerable amount of work during this time and bombed hard with MS, RIBS, ASK, SEG, and LEO.
My walks through Park Slope exposed me to some of the older work of other writers from Sunset and Park Slope such as DUNE, CASIO, PEPSI, CORE, CINIK, MAKE, RB, KOE, OK, and KIDO, and the 182, FUK, and ESA crews. CASIO also happened to be one of the first writers I saw pushing MSD. There was a time when I thought that MSD was a crew from Sunset. Turns out DUNE actually lived on my block back in the 80s but had moved a few blocks up before I got into graffiti on these streets. Park Slope is also where I first remember seeing tags by CHECO CDS, FOGS 501, CEEK 333, and ASTRO WWV. They all had so much ups in that neighborhood that I initially thought they lived in the neighborhood.
3rd avenue was another one of my favorite strips in Brooklyn. There was so much old graffiti on both sides of the avenue, it was like a treasure trove of knowledge. Mad tags by writers like STEM (PHAT), TUSK, SHOT, RAS, JEFFS, FREAK, from Sunset, and RA LOVER and R. ROCK of the NWP crew from Park Slope. Back then, to me it looked like all of these guys had been writing since at least 1990. During my first year in high school, RA LOVER started catching ups around the way with SMOOTH and GEE NSB. Those three also bombed from time to time with FRITZ, SEG, and LEO.
In 1992, I got my first summer job, and had to pick up my pay checks at a school on 5th ave in Park Slope. Walking back home along 5th, 6th and 7th avenues was when I first ever saw IE and ZE tags, rocking ACC. I knew these guys weren’t from Sunset but they had my respect. A duo that wrote ONE and SWAN also had a few tags in this area. They didn’t have many ups at all outside of this area that I ever saw, but they did have some interesting hand styles. I would have loved to see more stuff from them but never did.
At some point, I started to recognize the work of older writers who still had ups left over from the 80s. On my block there were old tags by KROOK TFV and SES. This is my first memory of the TFV crew. FED and DEVEN also had tags on my block. I knew of MOD since I was a little kid in the 1980s, but back then I thought of them more as a street gang and I didn’t really know anything about crews or graffiti subculture. It wasn’t until 20 years later, in 2005, when graffiti fever came back to me, and came back to me strong, that I started to learn about the legacy of both these crews, TFV and MOD, in New York graffiti and in Sunset. A legacy built by OGs like ROACH, BET, MAG, CHIP, MR. R., RESE, and LOGO. Both crews still get respect on the streets of Brooklyn, aside from graffiti. On my block was also the first place I ever saw a SANESMITH tag. MESK and ESROC also had mad ups around the way.
When it came time for high school, I went to John Dewey. At the time it seemed like the 5MH crew ran both Dewey and Lafayette High School. It may have had something to do with the fact that the Marlboro Houses are pretty much right in between. I quickly discovered the work of KEL and SUAVE. I don’t know if any of them actually attended Dewey or Lafayette but I was also exposed to other 5MH reps like BL and JOUK. The homie PEPE was pushing 5MH the first time I saw him up. At Dewey, I was befriended by two homies who chilled together and wrote FORZ and MACE and rocked 5MH. Also at Dewey, I met brother JR of the CSV family from Sunset. He put me down with the CSV team.
I learned a lot and met a lot of people over the course of the 92-93 school year. That was my first time seeing tags by my brother EVER, and the homies FUBS and CHAD. All 3 of them had passed through my block at some point that year and caught a tag on the same door, about 3 doors down from my crib.
My mom worked in the city during this period, and I would sometimes take trips out there to meet her when she got out of work. My walks through the city exposed me to more EVER tags. He had so much ups out there that I used to think he was from Manhattan. I’m pretty sure it was also in the city where I first saw tags by JOZ and EASY.
To get to school at John Dewey, I would most often catch the B train (1992) from 36th street. To get home, I’d sometimes take the B, but some days I would ride out to Stillwell Ave and from there I would take the N. While riding along those lines and exploring some of the surrounding neighborhoods, I started to get familiar with writers like DATE, TEZ, RUSH, DECO, SPIN, NEEK, and FATE. These guys caught my attention not only because they had put in work but also because they rocked ACC in addition to their own crews, RTB, 3D, ACID, TOK, TQS, and TDF.
One night while catching a few marker tags on the block after a jam at St. Michael School in Sunset, I got a chance to meet DM DIS. Not too long after that encounter, DM introduced me to REACT DIS, BOSE FOD, TREM DT, BARC ACC, and another brother who wrote NV. One day after school, while chilling with TREM, BARC and NV, we bumped heads with TIZ and BADE, 2 good dudes who repped the NAK crew.
A few other writers whom I first started noticing over the 92-93 school year are SPESH BTR, FERLE RKS, SPIRO RWS, MOET DIS, STAR DIS, KELO BDS, ZORE NAK, GR NAK, MEG NAK, EAZ NAK, SNS NAK, ALBS NAK, LT NAK, RYMES NAK, SEOE NAK, MITH NAK, NA1 NAK, SLAY NAK, TENSE NAK, ZS NAK, FOKE, RETA CSV, DESE FI, TREZ FI, TEXER FUS, NEZA, MOSE 182, KEST ACC GAK, JUNE ACC, NEWER ACC, SIF ACC, BLANK ACC, FLOAT ACC, SLOW ACC, NATE ACC, OMAR ACC, SEF ACC, PHIX6, FILK, CHU FOA, TICO FOA, MADER RDS, DOVER BF, PRANK XL, SO XL, MUGZ SFK, DUSK TCM, LUIS RAT, MUTZ AA, TEKAY TNR, SPADE FOX, HEART ESP, FIB STM, BUGS AAW, DINK PBS, GUMBY UF, TYKE TFO, LOUIE167 HR, TRAP IF, SLASH FTR, KECH, DESA MTA, DEAL RFC, STEM YNN, and LYTE TFB. Another writer who first caught my attention during this period was KEZ5. He bombed Sunset hard with JOUST KGBD. That was my introduction to the YKK and KGB crews.
Over the summer of 93, I got a chance to meet CURSE ACC and AMO 5MH. I also started seeing new DRO tags here and there throughout the neighborhood. ER ACC and RED ACC were with him on occasion. NETA also started putting in some work again this summer. My first time seeing a RAZE tag was in blue paint on the Citibank on 54th & 5th, and he was with NETA, late in the summer of 93. RA LOVER had also caught some ups around this time, bombing with SMOOTH and GEE NSB on occasion. I noticed that the NWP crew had links to NAK CSV DIS triad.
Trips into the city during the summer of 93, on the N train going over the Manhattan Bridge, gave me my first exposure to the madness of JA XTC, who at the time appeared to be bombing hard with KEZ5. This is also when and how I remember first seeing JO throwies by JONER DAT, who also had a significant amount of work in that area.
Early in 94, I met my good brother MAKE. He introduced me to CINIK, GRAM HCL, EDEM, BEBO, and a few other members of the VAC family.
Around this time was when CINIK started bombing mad hard. I remember him and TREM DT did some damage together, and then he started getting up with RN HC and SPIF. The way I remember it, nine square was also the year that I first noticed GNS throwies popping up all over the place. It was also my first time hearing of the 666 or 36 mob. Big SKUF YKK also passed through my block and caught a tag on the gate of the laundromat on the corner of 44th street, and that was my first time seeing him up. My first time seeing REVS and COST up was around this same time, in the N line ditch. Huge high spot rollers. EKSEL T2B did something similar in the same spot not too long after REVS and COST.
A year or two later was my first time seeing the work of the the homie ACID 36. I remember he had a few tags on some wood panels that were boarding up an empty lot where a house had been razed, on the corner of 39th street & 4th. SABE KST also had some high-spot tags on this block, along with DECI TFB.
As the late 90s approached, the strength of my graffiti fever started to wane a little bit, mostly because a lot of the writers who were bombing hard and who I looked up to when I first got into graff weren’t bombing as much anymore, or had retired or were taken away from us. The fever started to come back strong in 2005, however, when I first stumbled on some of the graff sites on the world wide web. That was the beginning of my reawakening. In the early 90s, I was only interested in my local scene and writers from my neighborhood. This time around, however, I started learning about writers and crews from all over the city. I’m not ashamed to admit that it was at this late stage of the game that I finally discovered veteran graff writers and artists like SASSON ACC, DART GF, NIRO GF, WEBOLEUM, SEEN UA, CES, BABY168 TVS, CS TFK, SONI U5, SLICK U5, AUDI U5, HD U5, SR NBK, PAPO DTF, AZ DTF, BEZ, PAES STK, LUE AOW, VFR WKS, SENTO TFP, MS17, DG NWC, COPE2 KD, RYNO KGB, PG TPA, SLOAN TPA, ASP WTO, JB RIA, SAST, FE TNC, CLARK TN, NEMZ TIS, CABLE KGB, NEAR KGB, ELSE KGB, SAINT TMR, GIZ MTA, TERK RTA, ENCH YKK, TATS CRU, DET RIS, KET MTK, DUEL RIS, GHOST RIS, PM FYM, DR SYB, INKHEAD, DEMER WALLNUTS, CECS, ACNE, HOST18, BRAN, TRES AA, FADE AA, TRIKE GND, BASE GOD, FMD, REBEL NSA, SET KRT, KD NC, AMER, MQ DMS, RD 357, DE3 357, SMASH WGF, DECK WGF, SHAUN RFC, COLO CHK, DOMS KOC, CEES FTR, NOXER DOD, MANE FTH, CENTS, JOVES TDO, DOCK TDO, LEFT XTC, KE WOT, FLAVER GU and so many others. I’ll definitely be adding to this list in the future.