1980 H ENRY CH A LFA N T
By most historical measures, the New York City of the late 1970s and early 80s represents the golden age of graffiti art. This town did not invent the form, nor can it claim much ownership over the movement that has long since become a global phenomenon. But it was here that the age-old lineage of human mark-making and the ancient tradition of writing one’s name in public space attained a level of creativity and innovation we could call a renaissance. We can take the heyday of New York graffiti and say that it too had an Early Renaissance, with the pioneering developments of its muscular masters, and a Late Renaissance, which, much like its historical precedent, is a kind of Mannerism. Right smack in the middle would be the High Renaissance, the pinnacle, where the greatest artists of the era were making their greatest works; put a date on it, and it would be 1980.
At once one of the darkest and most colorful times, 1980 sits in this exhibition between the snug frame of 1979 and 1981, giving us a view of events on a continuum. On the latter end, we can celebrate 1981 as a landmark year in the sound of the city, with the emergence of such seminal New York City groups as Run DMC, Sonic Youth, and the Beastie Boys. But it is in the final collapse of the 1970s in New York City that 1979 truly set the stage for the massive cultural shifts of 1980. 1979 saw the formation of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa’s preposterous self-promotional pretense of costumed vigilante enforcers; the brutal death of two of New York’s more dubious hometown heroes, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and Thurman Munson of the Yankees; and the sensational and still unsolved disappearance of a young boy named Etan Patz from the streets of Soho, which scandalized and scared the city to its core and debuted a new mode of communication for our age of anxiety: the milk-carton kid.
As the Naked City of yore, there are 8 million stories to be told, but perhaps none more compelling than the epic documentation of subway art produced by Henry Chalfant throughout the 1970s and 80s. His photographs, meticulous portraits of artistically enhanced trains at the brilliant flowering of their most ephemeral lives, provide a stunning narrative of a subculture coalescing into a movement, and a folk vernacular reaching for the heights of creative ambition. They also help tell the story of one of the world’s greatest cities as it stumbled and groped its way through the hardest of times. The art that invites itself unbidden into the public spaces of our cities is always an intuitive response to the conditions of the day. So often the voices typically unheard speak to one another and the unheeding face of authority, like an unofficial newspaper that reports a more subjective and visceral version of reality. As much as Henry’s photographs can tell us about the city during that period, we need to conjure some of those wild and lawless times to fully understand the style and substance of that seemingly impossible graffiti art explosion, which turned our black and white world into a Technicolor fantasy.
Jane Dickson, original animation for The Times Square Show, 1980
Conference Regarding a Transit Strike Contingency Plan, March 24, 1980, New York City Municipal Archives
featured over 100 artists. Many were meeting for the first time, bringing together uptown and downtown, political artists and provocateurs, those with dedicated studio practices, and many who were already becoming known for their work on the streets and subways, including John Fekner, Christy Rupp, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jenny Holzer,
1979 was, by any measure, a remarkably prescient indicator for the social free fall and creative freedom of 1980. In that year more than 250 felonies a week were recorded in the New York City subway system, and as 1980 started, the chairman of the MTA, the city’s mass transit authority, admitted that he would not allow his own 14-year-old son to travel on the subways at night. Right on the cusp of this decade change, a little show organized by a bunch of then unknown local artists would bump up against the bloated, corrupted, and terrified body politic of metropolitan authority, igniting an explosive shift in the cultural landscape. Part exhibition, part occupation, “The Real Estate Show” was a trespass of political resistance against the neglect and inhumanity of the growing housing crisis on the Lower East Side. Artists took over an abandoned building on Delancey Street to exhibit work that directly addressed the economic conditions that made the boarding up, warehousing, and arson of buildings profitably commonplace. Set to open New Year’s Eve 1979, it was already padlocked by police on New Year’s Day 1980, becoming a media cause célèbre that forced the city to give organizers a building of their own, which still exists today as the seminal alternative space ABC No Rio. The organizers, known as Colab (Collaborative Projects), were propelled into renting out an additional abandoned massage parlor on 41st Street to produce the now legendary “Times Square Show.” Democratic, inclusive, and thematically thorny with works about money, greed, sex, drugs, violence, and decay, the “Times Square Show”
Guardian Angels, guardianangels.org
David Hammons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab Five Freddy, and Lee Quinones. From this moment on, graffiti and downtown artists forged an alliance where each would support and inform the other, sharing the same creative venues, energies, and attitudes for years to come. The first signs of this cultural breakthrough appeared by the fall of 1980, on the heels of the summer “Times Square Show” success, with Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy teaming up for a show at White Columns; Crash acting as curator at the South Bronx alternative space Fashion Moda to produce the group show “Graffiti Art Success for
America”; and Henry Chalfant premiering a selection of his subway photos at the esteemed Soho gallery OK Harris. By early 1981 this merging of downtown artists and citywide subway writers would become formalized in two spectacular exhibitions: Diego Cortez’s “New York New Wave” at PS 1, and “Beyond Words,” a collaborative curatorial effort by Keith Haring, Futura 2000, and Fab Five Freddy at the Mudd Club. The galleries, museums, and art market were soon to follow, but it cannot be overstated that none of this would have been vaguely imaginable before 1980. This could not have been born in the polite safety of cultural institutions or the sterile white cube of a gallery. It burst from the streets, rode the trains, and gate crashed the citadel of high culture; it was a smart style with a fresh attitude born not of eloquent discourse but of combative aggressions forged in a time and place of unimaginable danger. Legends tell of how bad conditions were in the New York of the 1970s, punctuated by the unforgettable Daily News headline in regard to the near bankruptcy of the city in 1975: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Two events in 1980 would in time define the manifest failure of New York’s progressive politics and radical spirit. The most tragic was thekilling of John Lennon outside his Dakota apartment on the Upper West Side, which profoundly shook the city, and the world. It even spawned a popular subway piece that transit workers left alone for longer than most in respect to the spirit of mourning.
them all a most unexpected gift in the 11-day transit strike, which fittingly began on April Fools Day 1980. It was only the second such strike in New York’s history, and as 34,000 MTA employees walked off the job, the systemic collapse that had been building over many fiscally strapped years of deferred maintenance culminated in a complete shut down.
Less apparent at the time, but in hindsight far more consequential, was the boisterous folly of the Democratic National Convention held that year at Madison Square Garden. It starred a motley cast of the town’s most eccentric characters including former mayor Abe Beame, whose single term had seen the city drift through the worst of its financial collapse and near bankruptcy. Also in attendance were current public fool, Mayor Ed Koch; the hilarious and abrasive loudmouth with a hat, Bella Abzug; and future convict but then Bronx powerhouse, Mario Biaggi. All the hoopla in the world could not have spared the doomed Carter/Mondale presidential ticket and the ushering in of new right fascism with the election of Ronald Reagan that November.
The resulting cost in numbers was colossal: one million dollars in overtime pay, two million dollars in taxes to the city, and 100 million dollars in lost revenue felt by the private sector. We might consider this the greatest municipal arts commission ever. Left to their own devices without anyone to chase them off their task, artists quickly created masterworks, from Dondi’s “Children of the Grave” to Blade’s “Blade Walking.” By simply removing that irrational ounce of prevention, the world reaped a harvest of immeasurable weight. Reaping those seeds of graffiti at the glorious moment of their full fruition, Henry Chalfant and his compatriot Martha Cooper came to document all that time would have otherwise obliterated, preserving and thereby enabling those same seeds to be sowed around the world. But this is just one version of an old story; the rest, as they say, is history.
John Lennon by Lady Pink, Iz the Wiz, and Mare, 1980, Henry Chalfant
Mountains of filth were piling up from the garbage strike that year. In came the crime wave of 1976, the blackout and looting of 1977, and the terror of Son of Sam that same year. 1980 was declared by the New York City Police Department as the worst year in the city’s history, a dubious honor it still holds, with 710,153 reported crimes, 1,814 homicides, and 100,550 robberies. Against such staggering statistics it is no wonder, for all the public handwringing and political posturing, that the war on graffiti was about as pointless as it was hopeless. Graffiti artists faced multiple challenges from the ongoing buff of their work to the electrified third rail, navigating narrow tunnels with trains hurtling through them, competing crews, and myriad criminals of varyingly violent dispositions. Not least was the task of evading the police, who employed the fabled Vandal Squad, formed in 1980 as a weapon to combat this menace. In retrospect, this was a period of great ingenuity and opportunity.
While this touches on some of the conditions under which graffiti germinated and flowered in 1980, a fuller explanation of how a bunch of teenage vandals evolved into some of the most important artists of their generation may be as complex as the city itself. Two events stand out as profoundly consequential to the great aesthetic leap of that year. The first was an unlikely residency that came about when Sam Esses, whose daughter had been hanging out in Central Park with many of the graffiti artists, met the writers Zephyr and Rasta. Impressed by the photos of their work on the trains, Esses invited them to turn his Upper East Side townhouse into a workshop for their friends to try their hand at painting on canvas. With the help of fellow artist Futura, Zephyr assembled the best young writers on the trains at the time, including Dondi, Kel, Rasta, Ali, Seen, Daze, and Crash, most of whom were making the first fine art studio-based paintings of their lives. Then, as Esses’ Studio primed the proverbial canvas for a generation of artists to move from the trains to the galleries, New York City gave
Henry Chalfant: Down by Law
Fab Five Freddy
It was 1980. Lee Quinones and I had done two solo exhibitions in Italy at prestigious galleries that sold well, showing our graffiti-rooted works on canvas. The buzz was rippling through inner city neighborhoods of New York City that two of their own had broken the intercontinental graffiti boundary and others wanted to learn what was up. I was leading the charge to infiltrate the downtown art scene, making my base in the Lower East Side with cheap rent and the camaraderie of other struggling creatives. But the New York contemporary art world was based in Soho.
photos obviously shot with a 35mm camera, the mechanical autowinding quick shutter attachment firing off a burst of photos in seconds. The images had been carefully attached horizontally, creating an ideal way to capture the entire subway car and the graffiti painting
I began to hear through the graffiti writer grapevine that there was an older white guy named Henry Chalfant who let graffiti writers hang out in his Soho studio, and often went out to photograph their trains right after they were painted. It didn’t add up to me because at that time New York City was largely divided along ethnic and racial lines, and young black and Latino street kids were made to seem like we were all marauding criminals by the media. Walking through areas like Soho, you could sense the racial fear some displayed by crossing the streets when you approached or not wanting to ride an elevator with you. And forget about hailing a yellow cab back then.
covering it. Zephyr and I marveled at painted trains we both hadn’t seen. The meticulous presentation and the clearly tedious and loving way he found to present the work was very impressive. I asked myself, “Why is he doing this? A Soho artist taking time to document one of the most scorned activities in New York City at that time, and letting teenage black and latino street kids hang out in his Soho studio?”
One day as I was hanging out with noted graffiti writer Zephyr, he mentioned he knew Henry Chalfant and took me to his studio. At that time I didn’t know a single Soho artist and had never actually been in a real artist’s studio. Henry was making sculpture at the time — carving, banging, and chiseling beautiful works out of stone and marble. There was fine white dust covering the floors and work table, and several of Henry’s works were in various stages of completion. Henry was warm, gracious, inviting, and aware of the shows Lee and I recently had in Italy. He asked questions and remarked how important what we had accomplished was, and how all the graffiti writers were talking about it. I remarked to him that our art dealer in Rome had a major sculpture by Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni in his home, and how Henry’s work reminded me of it. Henry smiled and said yes, Boccioni is a favorite of his and how impressed he was that I could see the similarities. Several younger graffiti writers were also in his studio, huddled in a corner pouring through photo albums and excitedly discussing what they were looking at. Henry mentioned to Zephyr that he had some new images of recent work he had captured on the 2 line. Henry handed us a big portfolio and I was immediately struck by what I saw. Each image neatly arrayed was comprised of a series of several
Campbell’s Soup by Fred Brathwai, 1980, Henry Chalfant
an entire car painted end to end with Campbell’s soup cans. Of course I gave Henry a call to alert him, and not long after he let me know that he was able to catch the car and photograph it. I rushed over to his studio to see it and I was elated. While talking with Henry that day I noticed he was standing in a particular way common among street kids at the time. You place your feet in the position of the letter T. One heel is firmly placed against the middle of your other foot, forming a T, and your arms are folded across your chest. Many graff writers at the time illustrated their work with cartoon-looking characters in that pose. Like those secret signals you hear masons use to see if another is also a mason, Henry’s stance said to me, “I’m down with urban street culture.” I didn’t see it as appropriation. To me, coming from an older white man, it said, “I understand and I’m ‘down by law,’”
Henry answered his phone, grabbed a notepad, and began to write something down. I could hear him say, “Okay, it’s on the Lexington Ave line and you guys painted this last night, got it. I’ll try to get out and shoot it first thing tomorrow.” Henry said it was T-Kid on the phone and that he and some cohorts had just painted several hot cars on the Lexington Ave line. It’s safe to say that some of us New York graffiti writers had developed into artists, and in our own ways were becoming more conscious of this ushering in of the term graffiti artist. It wasn’t just about grabbing any old can of spray paint to tag your name wherever you felt it should be, as it had been in the beginning. Increasingly, it grew into acquiring the specific colors to execute intricately detailed subway masterpieces that had been sketched, re-sketched, and carefully thought out in graffiti black (sketch) books. Also, there was the roulette wheel that was the Metropolitan Transit Association (MTA), who could scrub clean a newly painted subway painting the same day or the day after it was painted. Having Henry capture it with his brilliant technique gave it a better chance of being around forever. It should be noted that the average graffiti writer who had a camera likely had a cheap Kodak 110 instamatic, which was used to grab shots while hanging out at the writers bench at the 149th Street station on the Lexington Ave line. Henry and I became friends, and stopping by his studio became a regular occurrence for me to check out his recent graffiti photos, kick it with him, and meet others from the graff scene. I went out one night and painted an homage to Andy Warhol on the Lexington Ave 5 train,
Crazy Legs and Friend, 1982, Henry Chalfant
an expression common at the time in New York City street culture, meaning you are officially a part of something — exactly what Henry was declaring with his b-boy stance in every way to me, that he was a part of this culture. Henry was plugged in and very aware of the moves I was making and the light I was helping focus on this emerging culture. He asked me if I’d be interested in taking part in an event he wanted to have in a space in Soho called Common Ground. Henry knew I could rap a bit, and he’d learned that some of the young aspiring graffiti writers who’d visit his studio were also break dancers in a group called the Rock Steady Crew. He explained that there was another photographer documenting New York City graffiti named Martha Cooper, a former National Geographic photographer. The plan was to do a slideshow of both their graffiti photos, while I wrote and performed a rap about graffiti and the Rock Steady kids brought their break dancing to a crowd of Soho/ downtown cultural gatekeepers for the first time. I loved the idea and said to Henry that it sounded like the “happenings” that Warhol and the pop artists did in the 1960s. Henry agreed and I said let’s do it.
Henry was also working on a coffee table book with Martha Cooper called Subway Art. It displayed their unique photos of spectacularly decorated trains and became an instant classic. The first book of its kind, it not only captured New York’s graffiti, but also showcased the best and most beautiful examples of this new art form. The filmmaker Charlie Ahearn and I also met that year, 1980, at the seminal “Times Square Show” that I took part in. There, I pitched him the idea that would become hip-hop culture’s first narrative film, Wild Style. As we dived into our collaboration, research, pre-production, and production on the film, we learned Henry Chalfant and filmmaker Tony Silver were working on a documentary on New York City subway graffiti titled Style Wars, the most comprehensive and incisive look at New York’s graffiti and the artists making it.
At a rehearsal for the event, a full run-through, we were working out the performance. A few press folks from downtown cultural publications were there, watching in amazement, and it looked like this was going to be a successful affair. Suddenly, one of the Rock Steady Crew, a chubby kid named Take-One, ran up to us with a terrified look on his face and blurted out, “The Ball Busters are outside!” I yelled, “Let’s go handle it,” and ran for the front door expecting the Rock Steady Crew to be behind me. But I looked back to see them scampering for the back door of the venue to get away. Outside near the corner were a bunch of Ball Busters, a Dominican gang from the Upper West Side who hated the Rock Steady Crew. They were fighting T-Kid, who was holding his own against several at once. I ran to help him and landed a few blows, when a woman seeing the brawl screamed loudly, “Someone call the police!” The Ball Busters ran off yelling, “We’ll be back!” It was decided that the event had to be cancelled. However, one of the journalists covering the rehearsal wrote a piece and put a big photo of Frosty Freeze, one of the Rock Steady Crew’s most beloved members, on the cover of the following week’s Village Voice. Frosty Freeze, who has since passed away, was spinning on his head, with the headline “Breaking Is Hard To Do.”
Frosty Freeze at Common Ground, 1981, Henry Chalfant
Through the late 1970s and early 80s, Henry photographed hundreds of the best examples of New York City subway graffiti, and his heroic body of work is now being collected extensively and exhibited widely. His work has entered the canon of one of the world’s most significant and revolutionary global cultural movements. I’m proud to have helped New York graffiti give birth to street art, and Henry’s photos are key in seeing and understanding why this now global movement rages on today.
Why 1980? It was the year of my exhibition at OK Harris. My studio was on Grand Street around the corner from Ivan Karp’s famous gallery. Karp was unusually accessible and friendly to artists, willing to visit their studios and deliver his frank opinion. In the spring of 1980 I invited him to come look at my sculpture. He kindly visited and dubbed me the last classical modernist sculptor in Soho. It was a compliment, I guess. It only occurred to me a couple of months later that I should have also shown him my photos of graffiti trains. I paid him a return visit, my albums in hand, and this time he said, “Okay, I’ll give you the small room for the first week of September.”
see many throw-ups and burners on the side of the parked trains; as we approached Intervale Avenue, the Fabulous 5’s “Merry Christmas” came into view. I wanted that picture badly! I decided to get off at the next stop and see what I could do. As the two cars were parked in between stations, there was only one thing I could do — walk out on the catwalk that workers used for track work.
The opening was attended by many graffiti writers from all five boroughs. They represented a cross section of New York City’s population, a mingling of racial categories and social classes. The writers browsed the exhibition and then deployed themselves around the neighborhood to tag the walls. Karp was not unprepared. From under his tweed jacket the nose of his holstered pistol was discreetly but palpably visible. “Your friends are very cute,” he said, “but do me a favor and tell them to stop writing on my neighbors’ walls.” The show marked the moment I realized that my ongoing documentary project and the movement it portrayed might become something significant. 1980 was the year that the media and the art world began to wake up to the talent thriving in New York City’s streets. Young people were taking advantage of the wreckage left by the deferred maintenance of the transit system and the general decline of the city’s infrastructure. While modernist critics were celebrating “the death of form,” form was blooming in unexpected niches like the NYC transit system.
Intervale Avenue is named for the valley that runs through the neighborhood, so the elevated track lies on a trestle high above the street. I knew that on weekends the trains ran about every ten minutes,
In 1978 there was a severe shortage of graffiti on the subways due to a major cleanup effort on the part of the MTA, and much of the art, both good and bad, had been buffed. Throughout that year, I spent my photography time wandering the Bronx, shooting walls. In 1979,
Merry Christmas Lee Mono Doc, 1977, Henry Chalfant
but there were two lines using this same track, the 2 and the 5, so there was no way of telling how quickly another train might come. Knees shaking, I walked out to where the “Merry Christmas” train by Lee, Mono, and Doc of the Fab 5 was parked. Using a technique I had learned to create a panorama image while siting sculpture, I took about a dozen
Meanwhile, the public schools in the city’s system were cutting all “non-essential” classes such as art and music. Still, there were professional high schools such as Art and Design and Music and Art that, not surprisingly but rather ironically, were attended by many graffiti writers. They gathered each day in the cafeterias, planning their nightly exploits in the yards. My first serious expedition to the Bronx to hunt for trains on the elevated lines took place in the summer of 1977. One weekend I set out on the uptown 2 train from the 96th Street and Broadway station near my home. As the train climbed out of the tunnel at 3rd Avenue and 149th Street in the Bronx, I saw a long string of trains parked for the weekend on the center track. Looking out the window, I could
track. I developed the film at the one-hour photo booth in Grand Central, and, once in my studio, I began to cut and splice each painted subway car. This was the launch of my graffiti collection, which grew to over 800 images of subway art before I stopped shooting seven years later.
Henry Chalfant and Dez at Henry Chalfant’s OK Harris Exhibition Opening, 1980, Charlie Ahearn
overlapping shots of those two cars before running back to the station. My climb back up onto the platform provoked curious and somewhat disdainful stares from the waiting passengers. I lingered at Intervale station that day, applying the shooting technique I had just used to some additional pieces on trains as they stopped on the opposite downtown
things started picking up as the cars were clean and freshly painted, and I caught a lot of wonderful new pieces. I met some of the writers who were responsible for this renaissance for the very first time. My photos impressed these young artists, especially when they saw that I had captured their work. The relationships that grew out of these meetings enhanced my ability to photograph masterpieces and to catch them while they were still fresh. I was happy to give photos to the artists whose work I caught on film. In return, they gave me information and encouragement, as in, “yo, you gotta catch a picture of the piece I did last night on the 3 line.” In April of 1980, there was a transit strike. Graffiti writers took advantage of that moment to paint undisturbed, day and night, for almost two weeks. This was perhaps the only time that writers were able to paint trains as if they were in a studio, with plenty of time to work carefully and make corrections. Dondi painted his famous “Children of the Grave Part 2” during the strike. Other writers took advantage of the moment and created masterpieces and burners, making 1980 a very good year. In any other circumstance, conditions in which artists created these paintings were not favorable — the dirt, darkness, cramped space, police raids, worker assaults, beat-downs, and paint thefts from rival crews — and rendered the whole process more like practicing performance art in a war zone.
In that same spring of 1980, a business executive named Sam Esses brought together the top writers of the moment, funding a workshop for them to paint canvases. I read War and Peace while waiting for trains on the Intervale Avenue station platform. “Graffiti Art Success for America” opened at Fashion Moda in the South Bronx, the whiff of burning buildings in the air.
Mare at New Lots, 1981, Henry Chalfant
Min at New Lots, 1981, Henry Chalfant
My exhibition came in September of 1980, and the year was nicely rounded out with the Village Voice publication of my photos in the centerfold and an article by Richard Goldstein titled “In Praise of Graffiti.” Lee and Fab Five Freddy exhibited their paintings at the White Columns gallery in Soho. 1980 was the crest of the wave of graffiti in New York, for both the evolution of style and the sheer abundance of pieces. This coincided with unprecedented press coverage and interest from art-world people, laying the foundation for the international movement we know today.
Henry Chalfant NYC, November 2016
The Great Divide
“Rapper’s Delight” ushered in the 1980s to a beat that I despised. In 1979, I enrolled in Manhattan College, a second-rate school where you went to become a beer major. After school I worked behind the deli counter at the Daitch Shopwell supermarket down the block, where I endured the constant kvetching of old ladies who demanded I slice their lox thinner.
I left graffiti unfulfilled. But looking at the state of the trains in 1979 didn’t connect me to the world I’d been removed from.
I spent my high school years (1974-76) trying to become the king of the Broadway line, spray painting my alias, Terror 161, on enough trains to garner the respect of my peers, but no crown. In 1975, I founded THE MOB, an acronym for The Masters of Broadway. Collectively, we took over the line. By my senior year, as I approached my 18th birthday, my drug abuse that had begun with weed in tenth grade had escalated to mescaline, acid, and barbiturates. My undoing came from a purchase of crystal meth that I mistook for crystal THC (a drug that didn’t even exist in 1976). After a two-week binge, I became emaciated, delusional, and psychotic. My family-appointed shrink recommended my immediate placement in a controlled environment.
Gradually, pieces began to appear that drew inspiration from LSDinspired rock posters from the late 1960s. Viewing the wild, psychedelic colors and images culled from underground comics made me feel reconnected. Even their signatures showed an attention to their aerosol ancestors. One tag stood out among the rest: Zephyr. The execution of his signature combined elements of letters modified
hearing rumors that Stay High 149, the greatest tagger of all time, was 23-years-old when we were all 15. Most writers quit when they turned 16 and could be charged as adults for committing a kiddie crime. Graffiti brought me back from the dead and I chose a new tag to trumpet my resurrection. Thus, in the winter of 1980, I christened myself J.SON. Through a friend of my brother’s and a small-world coincidence I found Zephyr. My purpose for contacting him was to score some four
Seen Json, 1982, Henry Chalfant
Things changed when a new stock boy started working in my supermarket. We eyeballed each other with an unknown sense of familiarity. He swore he knew me, but I couldn’t recall him. “What’s your name, man?” “Wesley,” he said. The name rang a bell, but I hadn’t seen him since 1975, and 20-year-old Wesley looked far different than 15-year-old Ammo. “Oh shit, you’re Ammo.” “Yup.” He knew nothing of the demons I battled. Writing on trains, a juveniledelinquency phase we outgrew, provided the impetus for a more adult-oriented, rekindled friendship. The 1 train ran across the elevation directly outside my classroom window and I made sure to grab the seat with the best view of the train. My classmates and the teacher stared at me wondering what I searched for every day in the great beyond. I futilely searched for any remnants of the pieces my friends and I painted in 1976, or those of writers I’d known who still pushed on. But I found no links to the past.
Stop the Bomb, 1979, Henry Chalfant
from past legends enhanced with calligraphic precision. Other members of the crew Zephyr belonged to, the Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW), included Crunch, who used a scrunched up letter style with a rainbow fill-in that turned the outside of a train into a blacklight poster, Revolt, Rasta, NE, Mackie, Bilrock, and Vandal. I imagined them skateboarding on acid at the Central Park bandshell. When I spied a SIE 1 piece with the RTW gang in 1980, my suspicions proved correct. SIE 1 belonged to a mid-1970s crew of Upper West Side writers who populated the bandshell when it was the East Coast’s major acid distribution point. One night, after drinking a few 40s of Bud, Wesley and I grabbed a few cans of spray paint on a whim and drove to the 1 yard. We wrote our names on the corrugated steel fence that separated the train yard from Gaelic Park, the Irish soccer stadium adjacent to it. Seeing our horribly rendered names in the following day’s sunlight felt great. Nobody suspected grown men of engaging in such childish antics. In graffiti’s early years, we used to shake our heads upon
way Blue Roses acid for an upcoming Grateful Dead show in Amherst, Massachusetts. By the time I got him on the phone the acid had sold out. The subject quickly turned to graffiti. He knew a lot about history, mine included. I invited him up to the 1 yard for a bombing mission. He agreed and brought his partner Mackie. Something went awry and we never got to write together, but an alliance was forged, and my ancient crew gained two modern members. Ammo and I continued to destroy the 1 yard throughout 1980 and 1981. We didn’t have much talent, but our tags and throw-ups could hang with anybody’s. We met other writers in the yard—little kids with names like Hester, Solar, Lunatic, Repo, and Baby Rock. We felt old and embarrassed, like they belonged there, but our years dictated more maturity. Ammo and I knew the lay of the land by the time the transit strike hit in the spring of 1980. I convinced Use 2, who retired in 1977 after kinging the 1 line, to return, a big event for those who knew their history. Hitting the yard during the strike proved a little bit anti-climactic. Total darkness, with the exception of some sparse moonlight, limited our
visibility and made anything intricate impossible to execute. We pulled off a couple Terror 161/Use 2 panel pieces, and Ammo, an accomplished amateur photographer, caught a great shot of our bad pieces the next day. After the first week I hoped for the MTA to settle because without the adrenaline of a possible chase, trains pulling in and out, and the eerie clatter of the engines, our occupation didn’t feel all that rebellious.
Seen introduced me to Billy 167 at that show, possibly the greatest style master the culture ever produced. He represented the golden era (1974–77) brilliantly and prolifically. A humble and somewhat timid guy, he graciously signed our black books.
In 1980 Ammo and I ripped a chewing gum ad from the corner panel of a passenger-filled 1 train, unveiling a 1975 two-toned black-andblue “Voice of the Ghetto” uni-wide tag on the panel behind it. We took the train to the end of the line, waited for the car to empty, and then severed the panel from the train—the graffiti equivalent of a paleontologist discovering a perfectly preserved mastodon encased in a block of ice. I wondered if the voice of the ghetto was alive, dead, or lost in the prison system. As I carried the subway panel home I realized how much I loved not knowing.
Graffiti writers created a clandestine illegal culture and made up rules along the way. Heroes and villains recognized by those within the culture remained a trade secret. Invisible artists striving for fame created the mystique that drew me into the fold. When Zephyr alerted me that an older cat named Henry, who had been taking pictures of trains for a few years, would be having a show at OK Harris gallery in Soho, I had mixed emotions about going. It’s always validating when someone from outside the culture documents your work; however, graffiti must remain underground and illegal to remain pure. But graffiti writers by nature crave attention and recognition. Curiosity won out and Ammo and I drove down to Soho. We arrived early and ran into Zephyr, who introduced us to Henry, a 40ish professional looking guy clearly out of his element. Henry politely introduced us to Lady Pink and her boyfriend Erni, and we all walked into the gallery together. The turnout reminded me of the opening scene from The Warriors, where every gang in the city shows up to hear Cyrus speak in the park.
Mare Zeph, 1981, Henry Chalfant
United Artists, CIA, RTW, The Vamp Squad, ROC STARS, CYA, OTB, other lesser known crews, and unaffiliated writers filled the gallery and both sides of the street outside. Henry’s photos on a gallery wall empowered the featured artists and cemented his relationship with graffiti artists, which persists decades after he hung up his camera. Watching writers comment on photos of their whole cars hanging on a gallery wall seemed surreal. Dondi and Seen joked about their mutual appropriation of “Children of the Grave,” as hoodlums and collectors rubbed elbows with each other while jockeying for a good viewing position.
ignoring superstars. Henry’s 1980s subway photos represent the last vestiges of purity that a largely unknown collective of artists risked life and liberty to produce. Hopefully the stories of Iz the Wiz, Kase 2, Dondi, and others will be studied with the same reverence given to Haring and Basquiat, who drew their inspiration from these comparatively unknown soldiers.
Kel 139, Mare 139, Smiley, Lady Pink, and others outside of Henry Chalfant’s OK Harris Exhibition Opening, 1980, Charlie Ahearn
Several confrontations occurred that day. One escalated when two writers sharing the same name faced off; the weaker of the two lifted his shirt to reveal a pistol tucked into his waistband. Another, a lot closer to home, resulted in Ammo getting sucker-punched in the jaw and robbed by a tandem of writers. He narrowly escaped getting stomped out by a third accomplice. Beef came with the territory. Henry arrived on that day, and his immersion in the culture, as anthropologist and documentarian, changed history. Artists craving his photos would try to outdo each other to get his attention, raising the stylistic bar considerably. Henry’s name also appeared on more trains than any non-writer who wasn’t someone’s girlfriend. As Henry and others helped illuminate a culture that had flourished in darkness, the world began to see things from another perspective. Once only known by names on the trains, Dondi, Futura, Daze, Zephyr, Seen, Blade, Crash, Lady Pink, and others hob-nobbed with Madonna, Keith Haring, Matt Dillon, and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the trendiest clubs. Graffiti got packaged up with hip hop and exported to Europe, where life imitated art. Soon gallerists, filmmakers, street hustlers, and poseurs who couldn’t find a train with a subway map began to put their stamp on a culture they never participated in. A repackaged media version of our history made protagonists out of bit players, while
Voice of the Ghetto, Stay High 149
First and foremost, when I think of 1980, several things and one soul come to mind:
Funny enough, in those days, any Caucasian middle-aged guy in plain clothes seemed to me to be an undercover cop or, at the very worst, an anti-graffiti squad member. Now picture this as I did, my room littered with the evidence of hundreds of spray paint cans (that I could not produce receipts for), the smear of tunnel DNA, and my preparatory full-color drawings on deck for the cars I planned to create. Imagine how naked I felt as Henry extended his handshake to me, dressed in plain clothes, which made him a dead ringer for — you guessed it — a New York City transit authority anti-graffiti squad officer. I remember thinking to myself, “The coyote is in the hen’s coop.” I wondered if the TV cables swaying in the wind 15 stories outside of my window would hold my weight if I attempted a daring escape.
* Krylon spray paints * A Nikon camera * Foresight * Henry Chalfant I’m not sure of the exact timing, but my coincidental introduction to Henry Chalfant was a result of a breach of contract. You heard right.
I was reluctant as I took a second look at this man, but I extended my hand to meet his while imagining how Crash or Erni would have dinner with some of my Goodfellas friends. LOL. At first we talked about process, where I understandably might have mislead him with junk info, but then we talked about his upcoming OK Harris show, and that was inviting enough being that Fab Five Freddy and I had a show coming up at White Columns.
Henry Chalfant, 1982, ©Martha Cooper
To understand our first meeting, you have to first slip yourself into my shoes leading up to 1980. You see, I was a covert introverted subway painter who had a heavy price on my head for most of the late 1970s, the peak of the subway whole car era. At that point, my work had graced the surfaces of close to 100 entire subway cars citywide. Municipal headhunters ground their teeth on how to stop my influence on other graffiti writers in the making, and for that, I kept my cards close to my chest during this very exhilarating yet frantic era. As for the breach that brought Henry and me together: it came from both relaxing my own seize-phobia and a young John “Crash” Matos, who, unbeknownst to me, had befriended Henry sometime in 1978 at his Soho sculpture studio. Through hearsay Crash found out where I lived, and as happenstance would have it, he asked me for a chance meeting with Henry at my home. At first I declined out of suspicion, but then caved into the nudging at my lucky shoulder shortly after. I believe Henry finally made his way to my home escorted by either Crash or another young artist, Erni “Paze” Vales.
Something was abrewing. The year 1980 might be remembered by many far and in between as a pivotal flash point, both good and bad, for many cultural platforms above and below ground. Above: New York in particular was popping on all cylinders from the expulsions of champagne at Studio 54 to gunshots on the boulevard. The city was still reeling in from being cast out for dead by Gerald Ford, the Bronx was still burning, we had just lost Lennon to a shot
legs up front and center with what would become the zenith moment of the alpha letter practice of Wild Style. Krylon paints, anchored in Columbus, Ohio, was one of the three major players in the spray bomb wars, and had just released an exciting series of tone colors. These paints could not have arrived at a better time and place for the New York subway artists, particularly for the Wildstylers whom had already exhausted their color palettes. I remember these young artists attending Henry’s opening at OK Harris having a distinctly gleeful exchange of ideas, their reset buttons buzzing over these new colors. Something was abrewing. Little did I know that day that Henry extended more than just his hand,
Crash Nod, 1980, Henry Chalfant
his lens, his studio, and the distraction from his sculpture works. 1980 would contribute more to the progression of the arts than the Cold War nuclear exchange that I spent most of my youth fearing. The lights came on simultaneously in the subway yards, within the art world, and for the new kids on the block. Henry was there waiting, as wide eyed as we were, big game hunting with his Nikon, finger on the trigger. He pulled that trigger and effectively opened the aperture of life for the movement.
My sincere honor to give notice. Lee Quinones. 2016
Hell Express Lee, 1980, Henry Chalfant
heard around the world, and the public transit strike was in full bloom. Below: The New York City subway art movement was just getting its
Blade Dolores, 1979
Sie QK, 1981
Mad PJ, 1980
Hard Part Panic, 1980
Crash Nod, â€‰1980
TNB Tkid NE, 1980
PASSION by Zephyr, 1980
Shy Joe, 1980
Bilroc Regal, 1980
Fuck the Buff, 1980
Pjay, KM177, Seen, 1980
Dust Sin, 1980
Mare Zeph, 1981
Kid TKA, 1980
Die Polo, 1980
Zephyr Revolt, 1980
Pano Tue Med, 1980
Kel Amor Deli, 1980
Mr Seen Mad One, 1980
Shy 147 Kel, 1980
Blade Explosion, 1980
Dondi- Children of the Grave Return Part 2, 1980
Energy From My Soul, 1980
Hand of Doom, 1980
John Lennon by Lady Pink, Iz the Wiz, and Mare, 1980
Kell Futura, 1980
Lee Stop The Bomb, 1979
Style Wars by Noc 167, 1981
Some photos have appeared in Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London 1984; Subway Art, 25th Anniversary Edition, by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London 2008; Subway Art, by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London, 2015. I’d like to acknowledge Max Hergenrother who stitched the photos digitally over a period of 10 years. Some text in Henry’s Artist Statement is excerpted from Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now, by Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins, Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London 2014. Special thanks to all the writers who expressed themselves with such amazing skill on the Subways and taught me everything I know about the art. —Henry Chalfant
Nac Daze 1981 12 x 60 in Edition 8 of 9
PASSION by Zephyr 1980 10.6 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen PJ 1980 11.5 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Pjay, KM177, Seen 1980 13.27 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Noc is Back 1982 12.38 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Bus Boy (Dondi and Noc) 1981 10.62 x 60 in Edition 6 of 9
Blade Comet 1980 18.9 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mad Seen Mickey Mouse 1980 11.31 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Beam Phade 1980 11 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kel Nac Art 1980 13.6 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Blade Explosion 1980 11.93 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Randie Pino Dome 1980 11.93 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Style Wars by Noc 167 1981 12.3 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Skeme Noc Pain 1979 11.43 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Rel Rash Wreck 1980 11.35 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Blade aka Blade Walking 1980 12.47 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Bee Mare Rite 1980 12.67 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Dealt Tech Base 80 1980 11.18 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kell Futura 1980 12.1 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Pot59 Cape Nod 1980 12.02 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Blade 1980 12.69 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mare Seen Kurl 1980 12.48 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Peser Tkid Skeme 1980 14.04 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Blade Dolores 1979 16.1 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
PUSH ART by Shy and Crash 1980 12.09 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Med Ject Cape 1980 12 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Colt 1980 12.2 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Jam Bad 1980 12.28 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Sade Karado Phade 1979 14.46 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Ken, Harm 187, Tracy 168, Duel 1980 11.87 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Bil Revolt 1980 11.63 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Daze Bus Zeph 1980 11.13 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Energy From My Soul 1980 12.03 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Killer56 TKA 1980 12.51 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Nak Cos 1980 12 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Rasta Revolt 1980 13.34 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mad Seen UArt 1980 12.11 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen PJay 1980 13.86 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen PJay 1980 13.16 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Brim MI 1980 12.5 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Dondi - Children of the Grave Return Part 2 1980 11.03 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Shy Joe 1980 11.99 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Hell Express Lee 1980 12.2 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Rush TMT 1979 11.85 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Shy 147 Kel 1980 13.37 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Merlin Drake 1980 11.45 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mitch 1980 11.65 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Parn Scorch Part 1980 12.06 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kase 2 El Kay 1981 11.88 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Atra Easy 1980 12.02 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Ask Deal tds 1980 12.12 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mad Pj 1980 13.3 x 50 in Edition 1 of 9
Mad (by Seen) 1980 12.66 x 60 in Edition 4 of 9
Kell Krash Are The Mad Bombers 1980 9.5 x 96 in Edition 1 of 7
Mad PJ 1980 12.57 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kel Kos Shy 1980 12.73 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Teen TMT 1979 12.28 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Comet Blade 1980 12.2 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Hard Part Panic 1980 13.96 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Lee Stop The Bomb 1979 8.5 x 96 in Edition 1 of 7
Mad Seen 1980 12.35 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Nod Tech Daze 1980 12 x 60 in Edition 2 of 9
Train Leo Fed 1979 12.72 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Pano Tue Med 1980 12.2 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Lee 1979 12 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
John Lennon by Lady Pink, Iz the Wiz, and Mare 1980 8.5 x 60 in Edition 1 of 7
Henry Pad Badge 1980 13.18 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Dealt Kel 80 1980 11.6 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Pel2 Kell39 Ohells 1980 13.31 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Hito Sub 1980 11.91 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Deone Robert Shy 1981 13.63 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen sir161 roc 1981 11.25 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kid TKA 1980 14.78 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen Pj Kel 1980 12.34 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Crash Nak The Way of the World 1980 13.2 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
I Love Zoo York by ALI 1981 18 x 64.75 in Edition HC
Mare Zeph 1981 19.5 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Hand of Doom 1980 12.26 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
2many Kel 1980 11.65 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Duro Lovin Dondi 1980 12.91 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
2Nasty Lionel 1980 12.9 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Slave Lee 1981 10 x 96 in Edition 1 of 7 Pel Shy Pal Chill Keith 1980 10 x 96 in Edition 1 of 7 Kel Amor Deli 1980 13.21 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Duro 1980 13.69 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Campbellâ€™s Soup by Fred Brathwaite 1980 12.5 x 61 in Edition HC
Kel Krash 1979 12.15 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Duro CIA 1980 12 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Airborn Saw Spade 1981 11.11 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Duro Kist Pre 1981 13.97 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Rasta CIA 1981 12 x 60 in Edition 8 of 9
Gli Slave 1980 14.34 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Die Polo 1980 12.55 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Shy Aze Cos 1980 12.76 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Honeyb Revolt 1980 10.77 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mitch 77 1981 10.15 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Lee Slave 1980 13.1 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen 1980 13.73 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Lee - Open The Pig 1980 25.86 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Duro Dondi CIA 1980 12.29 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Dr Bad (tkid), peser, rase, dust 1980 12.41 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Lee 1979 12.37 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
BYB Sin Dust 1981 13.72 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Skeme Blazer 1981 13.02 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Wind2 Nax One 1980 11.72 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
TNB Tkid NE 1980 11.99 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Pel Shy Pal 1980 13.06 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Blade 1980 19.56 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen Del 1980 9.61 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Sie QK 1981 13.47 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
CIA Pose Duro Top 1981 11.85 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Master Blaster Mad Seen 1981 12.19 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Slave Fabulous Five 1980 13.66 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Jake Rasta 1980 12.26 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Crash Nod 1980 12.3 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Crash Kel CIA 1980 8.89 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Rasko Pee10 1980 12.56 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mad Seen 1980 12.97 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kel Seen 1980 12.37 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Dust Sin 1980 12.63 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Rot Med 1980 15.3 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Sonic Bad 1980 12.81 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Tex 2 Shark 1979 13.02 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Zephyr Revolt 1980 9.87 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Bilroc Regal 1980 12.71 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Stop The Bomb 1979 11.5 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kel Med Tue 1980 13.09 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
CIA Dealt Kel Henry 1980 11.19 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Blu 3rd Rail Zeph 1980 12.37 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Pose Deal 1979 12.5 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Vamp Squad Kel Shock Rin 1981 11.77 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Mr Seen Mad One 1980 14.25 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Kel BS119 Tkid 1980 13.65 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Seen Dust 1980 13.84 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9
Bus Eric (Dondi and Deal) 1980 11.72 x 60 in Edition 5 of 9
Fuck the Buff 1980 14.07 x 60 in Edition 1 of 9