“They were these sick, sick guys,” recalls Ricky Mujica, 43, a friend of Capiello’s who, like PaPo, would soon become a Zoo Yorker himself. “Fifty percent of the time they’d kill themselves. But every once in a while they’d make it, and there was a big cheer.” When the skaters returned the following day, chances were that the ramp had been torn down by cops, and the routine would repeat itself.
“The further uptown you went, the quieter and more desolate it was,” Kessler says. “And the more you could get away with.” During their heyday, the Soul Artists of Zoo York got away with a lot. The name actually referred to two different but overlapping groups. The Soul Artists were the graffiti crew, first established in 1972 by a soft-spoken 15-year-old artist named Marc Edmunds, who briefly attended Columbia University (he lasted one month as a 16-year-old freshman). Known as “Ali”—the name he tagged onto walls and trains—Edmunds, who was half–Native American and half–African-American and is still spoken of in hushed, reverential tones, is said to have conceived the term “Zoo York.” “He said the place was like a zoo, literally animals,” Kessler recalls, “but in good and bad ways.”\ The skate scene began to coalesce around the same time. Since some of the skaters also tagged and some graffiti writers skated, it was inevitable that their worlds would converge, which they often did at the Central Park band shell and in Edmunds’s apartment on Columbus Avenue between 106th and 107th streets. With Edmunds’s approval, the skaters adopted the name Zoo York for themselves. Emulating what the Dogtown riders did with their logo, Soul Artist writers like Haze, Revolt, and Zephyr drew the words Zoo York in the shape of a cross onto the bottom of the skaters’ boards. They were ready.
Much like the Upper West Side of their childhood, the Zoo York skaters zigzagged across racial and economic lines. Affoumado was a Bronx-born child actor, while Mujica was living on 94th and Amsterdam with a mother who worked as a keypunch operator for IBM—he learned early on where to scrounge for free bread. Manhattan wasn’t known as a skate mecca—it still isn’t—but they didn’t care. All they yearned to do was transform their drooping city into a playground, and to do so with moves primitive by today’s standards: riding on the edge of one wheel on the ramp, grinding their axles on flower planters, or attempting a complete spin, or 360 (which gave Affoumado his nickname, Puppethead, for the way his head looked when he did one). They rode so hard that, according to Zephyr, a.k.a. Andy Witten, “their boards, after I painted them, would last about two hours and be scraped back down to the wood.”
The de facto leader was Kessler, a long-haired, long-nosed urban string bean born in Greece and raised on West 71st Street by a floral-shop-owner dad and gym-teacher mom. Everyone has their choice Kessler story, like the day he refused to move to the back of a crowded bus, telling the driver, “You move to the back. This place is a sardine can. I’ll drive the bus.”
The skaters aimed full speed at the concave wood. “They were these sick, sick guys,” recalls Ricky Mujica. “Fifty percent of the time they’d kill themselves.”
“The next thing we know,” recalls Mujica, “Andy is thrown out by the driver, and his skateboard comes flying out after him. People didn’t like skateboarders back then.” After chasing the bus for four blocks, Kessler smashed the window with his board. Then there was the time Kessler refused to don a helmet at a skate park in New Jersey and was chased by guards trying to force him to wear one. Fights were commonplace. “I was a good skateboarder,” Kessler admits, “but a real prick to most people.”
Eventually, the crew expanded to nearly fifteen strong—larger and more intimidating than skate gangs in the West Village, Riverdale, Brooklyn, and the Upper East Side. In 1979, Edmunds cemented their reputation and cult by publishing a one-off ’zine, Zoo York, that devoted its “Sports” page to a fictional championship match between the skaters and another crew. There were, in fact, never any competitions, but an outlaw legend was born. Although Kessler says they came from “decent families and went to decent schools,” they weren’t above playing the bully and preying on other kids. They even pinched decks from outsiders riding near the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. “Throw their boards in the lake,” recalls Kessler, “and make them do laps until we fished their board out and we’d either give it back to them or divvy it up—somebody would get the wheels, somebody would get the trucks. Primitive carjacking.” The first time Affoumado skated with them, bringing along an expensive new deck, “they traded boards with me, and all of a sudden mine was gone.” Then 12, Puppethead cried all the way home. Mujica obtained one deck during the 1977 blackout, when he and friends helped loot a sporting-goods store. At another shop, Edmunds got his mom a new blender.