Street Stars Emerge
The blackout was the tipping point. It was a stepping-stone to graffiti becoming a worldwide phenomenon. That was a chapter that ended when people said to themselves they can jump right in and develop themselves as artists in a new context.
We changed the whole world in ’77. After the blackout, they started using roll-down gates on stores because all the windows were busted from the looting. When the gates came down, they looked dark and weird, so we painted them to make them look beautiful. At the height of all the insanity, I went to a party where the governor and mayor were, and I actually sat down and had dinner with them. And they asked me, “Who are you?” I said, “Security.” Then the Secret Service came up and grabbed me.
The strongest memory I have is 1978, coming across all these handball courts north of the Brooklyn Bridge by Lee Quiñones [a.k.a. LEE]. They were exploding with color. They had a lot of control. They had a great deal of comic sensibility. I would ask the kids, “Who made these?” And they would look at me incredulously, like, “LEE, you stupid ass! LEE is the most famous artist in the world!”
Glenn O’Brien, author,
There was a great moment around 1978 when all of these stars were emerging—LEE, Futura 2000, SAMO [Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti pseudonym] and Keith [Haring], Lady Pink and Zephyr—and you would go out and see stuff that was really unique.
By the summer of 1980, competition had reached a fever pitch. You’d see a whole car by Futura, a whole car by SEEN, a whole car by LEE, a whole car by MITCH—they were just popping up on a daily basis. These were massive, huge pieces. You could watch a train emerging aboveground, and you might see three or four fresh whole cars done in the last couple of days.
I wanted to make sure you could see a train from five blocks away and you could read it. COMET 1 and myself invented the blockbuster in 1980: very large, square words, but very legible. We painted over 5,000 trains each, over the span of those years.
The mural that was done on the train after John Lennon was killed, a masterpiece that covered two whole cars—that was a real milestone to me.
The Hip-Hop Connection
In the summer of 1980, I was making an art show in an abandoned massage parlor in Times Square. Fab 5 Freddy started talking to me about making a movie about graffiti and rap music. So I got Fab and Lee to do a piece on the front of the building that said fab 5. Can you imagine that? Right there in the middle of Times Square.
Fab 5 Freddy, hip-hop impresario
You have to remember that in those days your prowess—being stealthy, sneaking into the train yards, breaking the law in a crazily insane manner, not getting busted—was a big part of the energy. I helped explain to people that graffiti was part of hip-hop. It was always something I saw as one cultural movement.
I was listening to jazz, Latin jazz, and rock. This was before hip-hop was created. Anybody that does their homework would know graffiti came first.
It’s like, what’s the connection between jazz and Abstract Expressionism? They weren’t the same people doing hip-hop and graffiti, but there was a cultural, mental, and spiritual connection. The only one who did both was Fab 5 Freddy, and that’s because he was in such a hurry to become famous. And Futura did a record—I guess it was rap.
There is still a raging debate, especially amongst older graffiti writers, as to whether hip-hop and graffiti are linked. But once hip-hop was presented with graffiti in movies such as Wild Style and Style Wars, history took a different turn. And clearly, the art of hip-hop now—whether we’re talking graphic design, fashion, painting, conceptual art, and even sculpture—has thoroughly been shaped by the language of graffiti.
The reason graffiti didn’t cash in the way rap music did is that it was illegal, and it didn’t have the misogyny and violence that so appeal to white teenagers.