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Graffiti in Its Own Words

Photo at left, the United Graffiti Artists in 1973. From left, first row: COCO 144 and Hugo Martinez; second row: Rican 619, LEE 163, and Nova 1; third row: Rick 2, Ray-B 954, Cano 1, SJK 171, Snake 1, and Stay-High 149; fourth row (standing): Stitch I, Phase 2, Charmin 65, Bug 170. Photo at right, a LEE mural from 1982.  

All-City Kings

It elaborated from a signature, to a basic piece, to lettering, to stylized lettering, to cartoon characters, to doing whole subway cars.

Ivor L. Miller
The movement really grew and blossomed on the trains, since it interacted with the city’s population, not just other writers. Writing is meant to be an “art in motion.” The form was developed with movement and the space of the train car in mind.

C.A.T. 87
The trains and the buses were like international routes.

When Lindsay was mayor, each train you painted would actually run for years. It was beautiful. It was like thousands of rolling billboards. Beame painted all the subway trains brand-new in 1975, and then everyone started doing everything big, with paint rollers. In the mid-seventies, you couldn’t see out the windows of the trains anymore.

Jeff Chang
The MTA’s attempts to whitewash the trains only further intensified the process of stylistic change, because there were many more potential targets, and they’re all clean canvases.

Adam Mansbach, author of Angry Black White Boy
If you watch Death Wish, the Charles Bronson movie from 1974, he lives in a graffiti-saturated world, and it pushes him to the tipping point. Middle-class commuters from Jersey or Long Island got increasingly alienated, because not only is there a conversation going on that they are not a part of, they can’t even read what is being written. And I think it got worse as wild style evolved.

Charles Ahearn, writer and director of the classic graffiti movie Wild Style
Wild style is an indecipherable, highly abstract, Cubist style of letters that have a kind of motion to them.

I started wild style. Wild means untamed, and style means I have class. So I was like an animal but with respect. And they used that word for the hip-hop movie. They thought it was a saying that was all over the street, but it was just the way we lived.

When wild style came around in the mid-seventies, it was sculpture in motion. They broke down the alphabet and turned it into a three-dimensional thing. I thought it was riveting, but I wanted people to understand and not be confused. On a moving train, the art is coming at you, so it shouldn’t be antagonizing, it should be tantalizing. It should open up your pores and seep in.

Hugo Martinez
Another important development was CASE 2 coming up with computer letters.

You can see my name on the door of the train if you watch the opening of Welcome Back, Kotter. I wrote GOD BLESS AMERICA for the bicentennial. I did three pieces in red, white, and blue, and it was so beautiful that the MTA immediately painted over it. They couldn’t let anyone know that we loved America.