Your name is your brand, and writing your name is like printing money. Quality (aesthetic style) and quantity (the number of trains and walls you’ve hit) are the primary ways that the brand gains market share. If you’re the biggest name on a line or in an area, then you’re the king. After the New York Times wrote about TAKI 183 in 1971, there was more competition, which means style changed much more rapidly.
It was a reflection of the great side of capitalism, where everyone wants to have the biggest stock or bond portfolio, or the fastest or most expensive car.
In 1971, I was in the Sheepshead Bay layups one night—that’s the tunnel where trains rest in between rush hours. And we found the names of PAN 144, COCO 144, and ACE 137 on some of the cars. The paint was still wet. That opened our eyes to going all-city.
I lived close to the IRT, and there was a layup between 137th and 145th Street between the stops. We were there every Saturday and Sunday morning, destroying the trains inside and out. My style back then was what we called a hit: just a signature, a single line.
“Hitting” was just about getting up, getting around. The more hits you had, the more famous you became. “Killing” or “bombing” was a little more intense. It means carpeting an area—just hit hundreds of MICO, MICO, MICO, and kill that subway car. Or you could do a masterpiece, a really big piece that was generally planned out in a sketch.
I was the first to use a stencil. It said COCO 144 with a crown on it (page 50). I was trying to develop speed, and I was able to put my name around at a faster pace that way.
The letters got more refined and larger and larger. We were each trying to outdo the other. I was doing social-political work, and unfortunately, I had no competition there. One of the most important moments in my career was when I was voted into United Graffiti Artists.
I started United Graffiti Artists in 1972 as a collective that provided an alternative to the art world. I saw this as the beginning of American painting—everything else before this came from Europe. These kids were rechanneling all of those hippie ideas about freedom, peace, love, and the democratization of culture by redefining the purpose of art. They represented a celebration of the rights of the salt of the earth over private property.
It was the top writers from the different boroughs. You had to be nominated by a member, and if you were good enough, you would be called in for an interview. I had my first art-gallery show in Soho in 1973, at the Razor Gallery. The first canvas that was purchased by a collector was my Puerto Rico flag canvas, for $400. It was an effort to bring the art form from the tunnels into the galleries.
Most writers were more concerned about going out into the elements, not being put together on gallery walls. Young people were interested in making a mark, literally, in their territory. It was seen as heroic.
After Lindsay declared war on graffiti in 1972, it became the focus of political campaigns, and in this sense, its effects lasted much longer than the subway-graffiti era. Since then, every New York City mayor has at some point reaffirmed his commitment to fighting “the war.” You can locate the roots of the “broken windows” campaign in Lindsay’s war on graffiti.
It wasn’t so much that the city did a single crackdown. It came in increments, from the time of Lindsay through Beame to Koch. At one point, Richard Ravitch, the MTA chairman, was in talks with a group of graffiti artists. The offer was that if these guys were given the green light to decorate, could they get the 30,000 other kids to stop? Of course, it went south. But they had a bargaining table and everything.
Especially in the beginning, it was a guerrilla war. We had strategic maps of the subway system, of which yard or layup was hot or cooled off. We gathered intelligence info at the writers’ bench. And if you got chased out at Coney Island that morning, you came to the bench and told everyone it was hot.
I got caught with a friend hitting the buses on 125th Street. As soon as we got there, guards came with weapons. I hid under the bus and my friend jumped into the Hudson. I crawled under the buses to 133rd Street and came out covered in mud and ice. I got home, and my friend showed up all frozen. He swam downtown.