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Graffiti in Its Own Words


Graffiti, the early years: Clockwise from right, a COCO 144 stencil, 1971; JOE 182, 1970; and CAY 161, 1971.  

The Beginning

Ivor L. Miller, author of Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City
Humans have been writing symbols on walls since time immemorial. But it’s safe to place the origins of a New York style in the late sixties, as a younger generation’s artistic response to the public protests of the Black Power and civil-rights movements. Clearly something new happened with the invention of the spray can, the influence of psychedelic posters, and color TV. The Manhattanville projects just north of 125th Street in West Harlem were the residence of an important writer named TOPCAT 126.

TOPCAT 126 came from Philadelphia in the late sixties, maybe ’68, and he started tagging the streets. [Tagging is writing your name.] And he hooked up with Julio 204 and TAKI 183, and they grabbed the torch.

C.A.T. 87
In the late sixties, I saw the name TAKI 183 in little letters everywhere, and JOE 182 and Julio 204. One day I was playing stickball on 182nd Street and JOE 182 came out. He was one of the hottest graffiti writers then. He said, “Look what came out in the papers!” There was a cartoon of a guy catching someone writing graffiti, and saying, “Are you JOE 182?” And the writer said, “No, I’m his ghost.” Because nobody could catch them. They were just like these mysterious figures.

It began in different neighborhoods. But we all had one thing in common: We wanted to be famous. I started writing in East Flatbush in 1970. Then slowly I met people from the four other boroughs. Everybody went to the writers’ bench at 149th Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx. There was one for Brooklyn writers on Atlantic Avenue. In Washington Heights, it was on 188th Street and Audubon Avenue. We would hang out, see our work, and everyone could get autographs. C.A.T. 87 was from Washington Heights. TRACY 168 was in the first generation. COCO 144 used to live on 144th Street and Broadway, which is what the number 144 meant.

I met so many characters on the 149 bench. It was like a speakeasy, everyone came and traded stories.

I grew up in the Bronx. Me and my friend FJC4 were dropping off some legal papers in Queens—his father was a lawyer—and we just took a marker out. We never thought we’d see the tag again, but on the way back, we caught the same train and it already had some other writing next to it. It was like a communication. At the time, New York was all dark. We had the Vietnam vets coming back, all pumped up. We had the war protesters. And we had the street gangs.

C.A.T. 87
I was in the Savage Nomads. You had the Saints at 137th Street and Broadway, and in the 170s you had the Young Galaxies. But if I was C.A.T. 87 and the guys from other neighborhoods saw my name, instead of trying to beat me up they would ask for autographs.

Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
There were graffiti writers in many gangs, especially the larger ones like the Black Spades, the Savage Skulls, and the Ghetto Brothers. The writers would mark the gangs’ clubhouses and often their turf. At the same time, you had graffiti crews that moved separately from the gangs and could slip in between their territorial restrictions. Eventually, as the gang structures died off, the graffiti writers could be seen as the heralds of a new era.

We didn’t call it graffiti in the early seventies. We would say, “Let’s go writing tonight.” Graffiti is a term that the New York Times coined, and it denigrates the art because it was invented by youth of color. Had it been invented by the children of the rich or the influential, it would have been branded avant-garde Pop Art.

Hugo Martinez, founder of United Graffiti Artists
In 1971, when CAY 161 and JUNIOR 161 painted the 116th Street station, they painted a top-to-bottom wall there. That’s considered a milestone. And Norman Mailer wrote about it in The Faith of Graffiti—that was the first book ever about graffiti. Around 1971, CAY 161 also painted the wing on the angel in Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Everybody talked about that. That was when the Puerto Ricans took over Bethesda Fountain.

CAY 161
The biggest and most dangerous place was where your piece was recognized the most. I wrote my name with white spray paint on the wing of the angel in Bethesda Fountain and a lot of people said, “Wow, how did he get up there and do that?” I grabbed one of the wings and climbed up.

Richard Goldstein, author of “The Graffiti ‘Hit’ Parade” feature for New York in March 1973
I loved the idea that graffiti defaced surfaces and re-created them in a different image. It was immensely creative in the way it re-created decrepit space, derelict buildings, and crumbling subways into real centers of energy. It seemed to be immediately something that Latins would do, because the color scheming was very tropical and the surfaces that were being defaced were very Northern European and dark and dour. I found Hugo Martinez, who was a student at that time, and he introduced me to a couple of these kids. They were all from Washington Heights. And I began to look at the social meaning of this. It allowed groups to cohere, forming teams. There was a lot of jargon and rivalry between boroughs.

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