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The Writing's on the Wall for New York's GheHo


Zunachst arbeiteten Graf Fitis Sahne unbe- und unerkannt im UntergruDd der Megapolis New York. Nach und nach trennte sich die Spriih-Spreu vom graffitiosen Weizen. Die Kunst aus der Wei8blechd~se schuf sic~ ihre eigenen gro8en NameD. Aus dem Untergrund wurden sle ans Tageshcht der gro8en Galerien gezerrt, der offiziellen KUDstwelt vorgestellt und vermarktet. Die U-Bahn-Kunst ist als handsignierte, numerierte, limitierte Auflage od er als T-Shirt-Aufdruck gesellschaftsfahig geworden. DJ 10 spotlight


inter, 1982183. One Friday night I left the city's surface and went below. Armed with spray cans ranging from glittery silver to pastel pink and devil's red, Kid Nate guided me through the eerie byways of New York's underworld. I felt like Orpheus guided by Charon. In the dimly lit tunnels of the city's subway system we were heading for the tracks where the trains were parked for the night. Nate turned to me and warned: "If your foot hits that third rail you're gonna light up like a torch." - High Voltage!

We walked ten minutes along the darkened tracks: and suddenly, in front of me, loomed "Donkey Kong". A gigantic gorilla borrowed from a popular computer game. The monster's teeth were bared, as if ready to attack us, and


in its hand it held of all things, a spray can from a subway car. Next to the beast screamed another painting, an abstract, in aggressive pink, yellow, orange, green and turquoise covering half of the car. On close inspection, the design revealed itself to be a complicated composition of letters with elaborate three-dimensional effects, connected by arrows. "Son One," Kid Nate translated for me. The whole fivemeter-long fantasia was nothing more than a signature - a massive tag left by the subway graffitist, the creator of the monstrous masterpiece (painting). There were rumors that night that the anti-graffiti squad was in the tunnels; Nate was listening strenuously into the silence for the footsteps of the cops and decided only to stay long enough for a throw up - a tag sprayed quickly with

just one color. Then we were on our way back. Suddenly I heard a groaning noise in the distance. "Oh shit man, the change in the track," said Nate pulling me as far back as he could from the rails. My heart bumped like a drum as we waited in our hiding-place for the train to pass. I felt the ground beneath me shift slightly with the train's weight; felt its velocity and, felt the wind pushing in front of it through the narrow tunnel. The train passed slowly by. Welcome to the world of the New York graffitist. Summer, 1982 From my window I have a view of the subway "Broadway local" line, which rolls above ground here. Against the backdrop of a Harlem high rise housing project it always reminds me of a col or-

fully painted Marklin train. But when I decided to meet the graffiti artists myself I knew this was not life miniaturized; it was life in New York magnified. At the 125th street station, the summer after I graduated from journalism school, I was hanging out and snapping pictures of painted trains rolling by, hoping to attract a graffiti artist's attention. It didn't take long: within twenty minutes, I had become friends with Kid Nate. He had spotted me from his window; a gangling black teenager with loosely laced sneakers, the sunshield of his cap hanging over his right ear, and some magic markers poking out of his pocket. He showed me his piecebook the graffiti writer's sketchbook - with snapshots of graffiti painted trains, tags, characters from comic strips and compositions he planned to brighten up the [> spotlight II

"number one" line with one day. He became my first guide into the subculture connected with his forbidden art. " In former centuries people conquered new worlds," a friend of his later told me, "but what is there to conquer for us in the slums of New York? We are looking for adventure and experience. We are all talented - and we are all rebellious. That's why we conquered the subway." Graffiti is a life style. A quest for fame and adventure which originated in the ghettos of Harlem and the South Bronx. In the 1960s, teenagers here began to write their names on neighborhood walls, but instead of their given names they chose nicknames, creating a public identity for the streets. Name graffiti initially had a territorial function. Gang members marked their turf and local kids wrote for their friends or for their enemies. . In the early 1970s Taki 183, senger who travelled all over the city ; and had left his tag on almost every s'ubway station was tracked down by a reporter for the New York Times. The newspaper story about Taki 183 strucR a responsive chord in the heart of his coniemporaries. Kids realized that the pride they felt in seeing their name up in the neighborhood could expand a hundredfold if it travelled beyond the narrow confines of the block. The competition for fame and space began on trains and public buildings all over town. It became a vocation. For the city, graffiti writers (as graffiti artists refer to themselves) are criminals. New York spends more than six million dollars annually to protect the trains from spray-can vandalism by attack dogs und five-meter fences topped with barbed wire. They have created a special task force to chase the writers in the tunnels und buff (erase) the spray-paint with some specially designed chemicals. But the symbol of the hopeless battle against graffiti is "the great white fleet": cars painted with a graffiti resistant bright white color that have since become the ultimate challenge for a writer to bomb (to paint or mark with ink) - a trophy. In the slums I experienced graffiti with its aggressive colors, crudeness and anger, its high voltage energy and creativity as an attempt to bring some color into the desperate and gloomy life. Sometimes it felt like an outcry: We still care - in an otherwise hostile or lethar-

a mes-

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gic environment; more often it served as a large billboard of colorful names - an advertisement for the sprayer, which is part of being up (work appearing regularly on trains). "I'm not just another face," explains Nate, adding his tag to a wall. "I exist. I was there ." We took the subway to hidden parks and school yards, devastated neighborhoods and streets in the New York's toughest neighborhoods from Harlem to the South Bronx or East New York. Kid Nate is a compulsive writer tagging every wall in his neighborhood since he turned eleven. Like most of his peers he had started graffiti like other teenagers start smoking: The hip older kids on the block did it. And graffiti had brought him in trouble: Nate was on probation, scared to be sent "Upstate" New York - to a reform school and his teacher had just expelled him for vandalizing for a couple of days. . Kid Nate showed me some of New York Cities finest graffitis. Patiently he explained the different styles, raving about the "Kings (best graffitist whose work. appears regularly on trains) of the lines" and wondering how all his heroes Crash und Daze, Son One, Revolt, Seen, Lee, Zephyr and Lady Pink ... could be unknown to me. Early Spring, 1983 Early one morning, Freedom - whose given name i~ Christopher Pape - took me to 'the tunnel. Freedom is white, like many of the writers, ' a high school dropout from a. middle class family and, at 22 years old, a "veteran" of the scene. Through a hole in a fence in Riverside Park we slipped into the dark, and stood there for a minute to wait for our eyes to adjust. I realized that the platform we were standing on was about fi ve meters above ground. Below us we'te train tracks stretching like ribbons out of sight north and south. The tunnel was cool, quiet as a grave, and pitch dark except in places where streaks of light entered through the ventilation ducts and gratings. Freedom had decided to quit bombing the subway with his graffiti. "I am too old," he said. "If the police arrest me as an adult I am in serious trouble." His "final" subway piece and the one he was most proud of, was a hommage to the Sistine Chapel: God's hand reached out to Adam's across the subway door. Water dripped down the cave and our

voices echoed in the cool dark. We finally came to the first of the paintings Freedom had actually sprayed on this now unused and deserted tunnel: "Mona Lisa" whose serene smile I had admired not long ago from the street above, when I was jogging in the park, looking through the darkness of a grate. At eye level her smile was distorted. "I painted the distortion on purpose," Freedom told me. " It's meant to be seen from above." There were other spray paintings in Freedom's gallery, in black, white and silver : portraits of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, James Dean and a breakdancer, his girl friend - even a picture book with poetry that tells about the life of a graffiti writer. " A lot of graffiti writers have said they were doing it for the people," Freedom said. " But it was really a competitive thing. They were doing it for each other. That's why I left the trains," he reflected. " Down here I've gone as far away from tagging as I can." The original spray painters who decorated the subways were all blacks and Puerto Ricans. But their life style was adopted by middle class and suburban kids. If these kids were looking for thrills, they found them; guard dogs, cops, the electrified third rail. Last year, the case of one graffiti writer made headlines ; the judges will have to determine whether his death was an accident or the result of police brutality. The crews (loosely organized groups of graffitists) are often armed with baseball bats and knives, and sometimes even guns, ready to fight any other gang that tries to go over (to cover another graffitist's name with one's own) their work. But hitting (to tag up any surface with paint or magic marker) the trains is also a big party ; with booze and grass, and team efforts by as many as five writers helping to fill in the outline sprayed by the " master" . Late Spring, 1983 "The next morning the train will ride by thousands of New Yorkers. Some will love it. Others will hate it. But nobody can ignore it." Thus speaks Lady Pink, 20, the "Queen of New York's subway". Only a few women - Lady Heart, Lizz and Lady Pink are part of the machooriented graffiti subculture. " It's a rough, dirty business," she continued.


"You're climbing over barbed wire, stepping over rats... chased by the cops . .. Once we discovered a dead body ... Usually at 14 or 15 you outgrow it, but if it gets into your heart and blood you keep doing it ... just to see your name go by one more time." I was surprised when I met Pink. She was gutsy as I imagined but also very eloquent, slender and pretty; a tiny now 20-year-old native Equadorian with long black hair. She would soon become even more famous among her peers by portraying herself as "Lady Bug" in Chariy Abeam's documentary style movie " Wild Style" about the hiphop-Graffiti-break-dance scene in the South Bronx. " Many of us see graffiti as a way to become famous and get out of the ghetto," said Pink, who lives in a workingclass neighborhood in Queens. "We couldn't just go into the galleries and say we are artists and want to have an exhibition. We couldn't bring people to our art, so we brought the art to the people."

Summer, 1983 Limousines were double parked in front of Patti Astor's " Fun Gallery" in New York's newly fashionable art and punk district, the East Village. Dozens of kids from uptown and the boroughs had commuted by subway and mixed quite naturally with the sophisticated wine and cheese crowd, talking about what they know best: graffiti. A hip eleven-year-old black kid, wearing dark shades pulled me aside: "You are a reporter? I'm 'Kid Son'. Have a look at my piecebook," he said looking up to me self-assured: "The next time I gonna have a piece of mine in the gallery too. You want to write an article about me?" Winter, 1983/84 In a few short months, graffiti had travelled beyond the subway, even beyond SoHo and the East Village. It had surfaced on the chaste white walls of prestigious galleries, even museums and was exhibited in Europe and Japan . . At the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan's 57th Street, Manhattan's "art mile," the very same gallery where pop art had had its first major show almost twenty years ago, Pink, Crash, Daze and more than ten other writers were exhibited in a handsome show called " PostGraffiti Artists". - They were finally ac-

cepted by the artworld; prices on the works ranged from $ 3,000 to $ 10,000. "This is a unique movement in many ways," said Dolores Newman, curator of "Post-Graffiti". "It's the broadest social expression ever to emerge as an alternative to academic training. It is also the youngest. Most~rtists of the 60s and 70s might have been in their twenties when they began to attract attention. But some of these kids are under 18. I think people who find this work offensive ought to take a look at art history."

Spring, 1985 And what happened to my graffiti friends? Most of the writers I met three years ago have since left the darkness of the tunnel, and gone back there only sporadically to promote themselves or for the thrill of seeing their name go by just once more. For some of them the risk was worth taking. Lady Pink got a scholarship at an art college and shares a downtown loft where she works on canvas, spraying "against the bomb and America's involvement in Central America". "Even my parents respect my art nowadays," she said, adding that a gallery owner had recently called her an "impressionist spray-painter". Crash has made so much money from selling his art that he has bought a house for himself and his parents in the South Bronx and drives a car instead of using the subway. White curators claim that it is the first time blacks and Puerto Ricans have had an economic foot in the door right from the beginning of a new artform. But only in theory: In reality white artists with an academic training like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf are the leading exponents of the artistic graffiti scene with earnings well into six figures. But in New York there are still thousands of kids making the1r mark on the trains or other people's walls dreaming the American dream: to become rich and famous, and spray themselves from the ghettos in the South Bronx and Harlem into the money-spending art scene. Their hopes may never be fulfilled, but the raw, nervous, concentrated energy of kids like Nate or Kid Son have created an urban folk art which, along with the agile acrobatics of breakdancing, has spread all over the world under the name, hip hop. • Susanne Lingemann

Recommended reading: Martha Cooper & Henry Chalfant: "Subway art," Thames & Hudson, London/New York 1984, with 239 fantastic fulI-color illustrations.

backdrop - Hintergrund barbed wire - Stacheldraht bat - Schliiger billboard - Reklametafel booze - Alkohol chaste [tfeist)- keusch competition - Wettbewerb compulsive - zwanghaft confines - Grenzen contemporary - Zeitgenosse, -genossin crudeness - Derbheit, Grobheit devastated - verwiistet distorted - verzerrt, see Language Notes duct - Leitung, Rohr eerie ['i3ri)- unheimlich, schaurig elaborate [i 'Ireb3r3t)- kunstvoll, kompliziert eloquent ['eI3kwent)- beredt, gewandt environment - Umgebung, Umwelt to expel- ausweisen, verweisen gangling - schlaksig, hochaufgeschossen grass - Marihuana grating - Gitter groaning - stOhnend, iichzend gutsy - hart, mutig, see Language Notes high rise - Hochhaus high voltage - Hochspannung hip - informiert, mit Durchblick to lace - schniiren to loom - auftauchen, aufragen magnified - vergroBert mark, to make one's mark - sich einen Namen machen, Spuren hinterlassen, see Language Notes nickname - Spitzname offensive - anstOBig to originate - entstehen, ausgehen von peers, his peers - seinesgleichen pitch dark - stockdunkel probation - Bewiihrung quest - Suche, Streben to ra ve about - schwiirmen von to reveal- enthiillen rumor - Geriicht scholarship - Stipendium self-assured - selbstsicher serene [s3'ri:n)- he iter, ruhig shades - (US) Sonnenbrille squad - Kommando strenuously - angestrengt subway- U-Bahn task force - Sonder-, Spezialeinheit to track do wn - aufspiiren, ausfindig machen turquoise ['t3:kwo:z)- tiirkis tUlf- Revier velocity [v3'i:>siti)- Geschwindigkeit

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"The Writing's on the Wall for New York's Ghetto Gallery" - Spotlight Magazin (1985)  

"The Writing's on the Wall for New York's Ghetto Gallery" | Spotlight Magazin | 1985 | Language: English

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