When you think back, and saw what eventually happened to the trains, you feel bad about it, said Taki, who asked that his last name not be used. « I never thought it would be such a big thing. » (…) Now, in an irony that would please city officials, Taki has his own graffiti problem, on his shopfront. « I am a victim, » he said, smiling. « I painted it over and two weeks later it was all written up again. But I guess what goes around, comes around. It’s justice. When TAKI Ruled Magik Kingdom, By Joel Siegel, Daily News, April 9, 1989)
« Deux légendes du graffiti arrêtées par la police » …
Enième illustration de l’irresponsabilité de nos médias que ce titre du Monde annonçant l’arrestation de deux vandales qui ont coûté, sans parler de leurs émules et des nouvelles formes comme le gravage au diamant de vitrier ou à l’acide, plus de 600 000 euros à la seule RATP.
Pourquoi parler en effet d’artistes et de légendes, alors qu’on a affaire à des vandales qui, avec leurs milliers d’imitateurs inspirés par les prétendus exploits qu’orchestrent pour eux des médias irresponsables, coûtent des millions à l’ensemble des contribuables que nous sommes?
Et ainsi reproduire et amplifier un phénomène qui, comme par hasard, trouva sa source dans le même genre de journalisme irresponsable de l’autre côté de l’Atlantique dans les années 70.
Comme ce Charles Don Hogan du NYT qui, dans un tristement célèbre article de juillet 1971 (‘Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals’ – « Taki 183 pond les correspondants » – le 21 juillet 1971) où il interviewait un jeune coursier new-yorkais d’origine grecque (un certain Demetrios, dit Demetraki, du quartier hispanique de Washington Heights, domicilié dans la 183e rue, d’où son graffiti: « Taki 183 »), entraina (avec alors de simples feutres), dans les semaines, années et décennies qui suivirent la catastrophe de vandalisme que l’on sait.
Mais aussi ce monde artistique qui, encensant et récupérant le phénomène, en fit de soi-disant œuvres d’art (rebelote il y a quelques années avec cette voiture brûlée exposée au Musée d’art contemporain du Palais de Tokyo!) jusqu’à ce que la chose soit reprise, dix ans plus tard en France, par les médias et d’innombrables émissions de télé et bien sûr, dans la rue,… les premiers imbéciles venus et leurs milliers d’imitateurs.
« Azyle » et « Vices », deux légendes du graffiti arrêtées par la police
Dans l’univers du graffiti, « Azyle » et « Vices » sont de véritables légendes vivantes. Leurs signatures ont fleuri un peu partout en Ile-de-France, au point que la police les considèrent comme « les deux plus gros tagueurs de ces dernières années », avec quelque 250 tags, parfois gigantesques, identifiés un peu partout, sur des wagons, dans des tunnels ou des murs de la RATP.
Dans la nuit de dimanche 24 à lundi 25 juin, les policiers du service régional des transports les ont interpellés à proximité du dépôt RATP de la porte de La Chapelle, à Paris. Repérés grâce à un long travail de recoupement, notamment des analyses graphologiques, les deux hommes ont fait l’objet de filatures, jusqu’au moment où la police a pu les arrêter en flagrant délit. Lors de perquisitions, la police a ensuite saisi des documents de la RATP, notamment des plans confidentiels des réseaux et voies d’accès.
En garde à vue, les deux hommes, âgés de 32 ans et 28 ans, ont nié être les auteurs de graffitis. Ils risquent jusqu’à cinq ans de prison pour dégradations volontaires, commises en réunion. Selon la police, les deux graffeurs ont occasionné 600 000 euros de dégâts, principalement à la RATP, obligée d’interrompre la circulation des wagons touchés et de procéder à leur nettoyage. Une information judiciaire devrait être ouverte par le parquet de Paris.
Depuis plusieurs années, les deux individus constituaient un des objectifs prioritaires de la cellule antigraffitis au sein de la police des transports. « Ils opèrent en toute connaissance de cause avec un but : obtenir la plus grande notoriété possible en multipliant les signatures, si possible dans des sites difficiles d’accès », explique le commandant Jean-Christophe Merle. Le policier parle de « drogués du tag », capables de passer leurs nuits dans les dépôts ou dans les tunnels du métro. « Azyle », en particulier, s’était fait connaître par un immense tag réalisé sur un Concorde quelques années en arrière – performance toujours saluée dans les forums de discussion spécialisés.
L’artiste avait fait l’objet d’un documentaire diffusé en 2006 sur Canal+. En action depuis le début des années 1990, il expliquait, le visage masqué par une cagoule, son plaisir à « peindre sous adrénaline ». Il regrettait que le tag ne « soit pas considéré à sa juste valeur, comme quelque chose de beau ». Sa carrière vient de subir un brutal coup d’arrêt.
Graffiti in Its Own Words
Old-timers remember the golden age of the art movement that actually moved.
Dimitri Ehrlich & Gregor Ehrlich
July 3, 2007
Graffiti today is such an accepted part of youth culture that it’s hard to imagine what New Yorkers experienced in the early seventies, as they watched their city become steadily tattooed with hieroglyphics. Some saw it as vandalism and a symbol of urban decay. But for the writers who risked life, limb, and arrest, and the teenagers, filmmakers, and, eventually, curators who admired them, graffiti was an art form. Galleries and museums caught up to this view in the early eighties, when graffiti was briefly part of the era’s art boom. Now it’s finally ripe for retrospection: On June 30, the Brooklyn Museum features works by many of the artists interviewed here, while from June 29 at the Brecht Forum, the Martinez Gallery mounts a smaller show of movement veterans.
Modern graffiti actually began in Philadelphia in the early sixties, when Cornbread and Cool Earl scrawled their names all over the city. By the late sixties, it was flourishing in Washington Heights, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The New York Times took notice in July 1971, with a small profile of a graffiti artist named TAKI 183. But Julio 204 was using a Magic Marker and spray paint on city walls as early as 1968, and in 1971, writers like JOE 182 began “bombing”—marking as many surfaces as possible.
By the mid-seventies, many subway cars were so completely covered in top-to-bottom paintings (known as “masterpieces”) that it was impossible to see out the window. For writers, this was a golden age, when the most prolific could become known as “kings” by going “all-city”—writing their names in all five boroughs. Mayor Lindsay declared the first war on graffiti in 1972, beginning a long, slow battle that seemed to culminate in May 1989, when the last graffitied train was finally removed from service.
Yet today, graffiti etched with acid can be seen on subway windows, and it’s alive and well on buildings around the city. And thanks in part to the Internet, which teems with graffiti Websites, it is a worldwide phenomenon in every language. What follows is the story of the people who invented graffiti, and those who watched them do it. Names of writers are rendered in the style in which they appeared on the city’s walls and subways (all caps usually indicates an artist from the seventies).
A Graffiti Timeline
Ivor L. Miller, author of Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City
Humans have been writing symbols on walls since time immemorial. But it’s safe to place the origins of a New York style in the late sixties, as a younger generation’s artistic response to the public protests of the Black Power and civil-rights movements. Clearly something new happened with the invention of the spray can, the influence of psychedelic posters, and color TV. The Manhattanville projects just north of 125th Street in West Harlem were the residence of an important writer named TOPCAT 126.
TOPCAT 126 came from Philadelphia in the late sixties, maybe ’68, and he started tagging the streets. [Tagging is writing your name.] And he hooked up with Julio 204 and TAKI 183, and they grabbed the torch.
In the late sixties, I saw the name TAKI 183 in little letters everywhere, and JOE 182 and Julio 204. One day I was playing stickball on 182nd Street and JOE 182 came out. He was one of the hottest graffiti writers then. He said, “Look what came out in the papers!” There was a cartoon of a guy catching someone writing graffiti, and saying, “Are you JOE 182?” And the writer said, “No, I’m his ghost.” Because nobody could catch them. They were just like these mysterious figures.
It began in different neighborhoods. But we all had one thing in common: We wanted to be famous. I started writing in East Flatbush in 1970. Then slowly I met people from the four other boroughs. Everybody went to the writers’ bench at 149th Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx. There was one for Brooklyn writers on Atlantic Avenue. In Washington Heights, it was on 188th Street and Audubon Avenue. We would hang out, see our work, and everyone could get autographs. C.A.T. 87 was from Washington Heights. TRACY 168 was in the first generation. COCO 144 used to live on 144th Street and Broadway, which is what the number 144 meant.
I met so many characters on the 149 bench. It was like a speakeasy, everyone came and traded stories.
I grew up in the Bronx. Me and my friend FJC4 were dropping off some legal papers in Queens—his father was a lawyer—and we just took a marker out. We never thought we’d see the tag again, but on the way back, we caught the same train and it already had some other writing next to it. It was like a communication. At the time, New York was all dark. We had the Vietnam vets coming back, all pumped up. We had the war protesters. And we had the street gangs.
I was in the Savage Nomads. You had the Saints at 137th Street and Broadway, and in the 170s you had the Young Galaxies. But if I was C.A.T. 87 and the guys from other neighborhoods saw my name, instead of trying to beat me up they would ask for autographs.
Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
There were graffiti writers in many gangs, especially the larger ones like the Black Spades, the Savage Skulls, and the Ghetto Brothers. The writers would mark the gangs’ clubhouses and often their turf. At the same time, you had graffiti crews that moved separately from the gangs and could slip in between their territorial restrictions. Eventually, as the gang structures died off, the graffiti writers could be seen as the heralds of a new era.
We didn’t call it graffiti in the early seventies. We would say, “Let’s go writing tonight.” Graffiti is a term that the New York Times coined, and it denigrates the art because it was invented by youth of color. Had it been invented by the children of the rich or the influential, it would have been branded avant-garde Pop Art.
Hugo Martinez, founder of United Graffiti Artists
In 1971, when CAY 161 and JUNIOR 161 painted the 116th Street station, they painted a top-to-bottom wall there. That’s considered a milestone. And Norman Mailer wrote about it in The Faith of Graffiti—that was the first book ever about graffiti. Around 1971, CAY 161 also painted the wing on the angel in Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Everybody talked about that. That was when the Puerto Ricans took over Bethesda Fountain.
The biggest and most dangerous place was where your piece was recognized the most. I wrote my name with white spray paint on the wing of the angel in Bethesda Fountain and a lot of people said, “Wow, how did he get up there and do that?” I grabbed one of the wings and climbed up.
Richard Goldstein, author of “The Graffiti ‘Hit’ Parade” feature for New York in March 1973
I loved the idea that graffiti defaced surfaces and re-created them in a different image. It was immensely creative in the way it re-created decrepit space, derelict buildings, and crumbling subways into real centers of energy. It seemed to be immediately something that Latins would do, because the color scheming was very tropical and the surfaces that were being defaced were very Northern European and dark and dour. I found Hugo Martinez, who was a student at that time, and he introduced me to a couple of these kids. They were all from Washington Heights. And I began to look at the social meaning of this. It allowed groups to cohere, forming teams. There was a lot of jargon and rivalry between boroughs.
Graffiti in Its Own Words
Your name is your brand, and writing your name is like printing money. Quality (aesthetic style) and quantity (the number of trains and walls you’ve hit) are the primary ways that the brand gains market share. If you’re the biggest name on a line or in an area, then you’re the king. After the New York Times wrote about TAKI 183 in 1971, there was more competition, which means style changed much more rapidly.
It was a reflection of the great side of capitalism, where everyone wants to have the biggest stock or bond portfolio, or the fastest or most expensive car.
In 1971, I was in the Sheepshead Bay layups one night—that’s the tunnel where trains rest in between rush hours. And we found the names of PAN 144, COCO 144, and ACE 137 on some of the cars. The paint was still wet. That opened our eyes to going all-city.
I lived close to the IRT, and there was a layup between 137th and 145th Street between the stops. We were there every Saturday and Sunday morning, destroying the trains inside and out. My style back then was what we called a hit: just a signature, a single line.
“Hitting” was just about getting up, getting around. The more hits you had, the more famous you became. “Killing” or “bombing” was a little more intense. It means carpeting an area—just hit hundreds of MICO, MICO, MICO, and kill that subway car. Or you could do a masterpiece, a really big piece that was generally planned out in a sketch.
I was the first to use a stencil. It said COCO 144 with a crown on it (page 50). I was trying to develop speed, and I was able to put my name around at a faster pace that way.
The letters got more refined and larger and larger. We were each trying to outdo the other. I was doing social-political work, and unfortunately, I had no competition there. One of the most important moments in my career was when I was voted into United Graffiti Artists.
I started United Graffiti Artists in 1972 as a collective that provided an alternative to the art world. I saw this as the beginning of American painting—everything else before this came from Europe. These kids were rechanneling all of those hippie ideas about freedom, peace, love, and the democratization of culture by redefining the purpose of art. They represented a celebration of the rights of the salt of the earth over private property.
It was the top writers from the different boroughs. You had to be nominated by a member, and if you were good enough, you would be called in for an interview. I had my first art-gallery show in Soho in 1973, at the Razor Gallery. The first canvas that was purchased by a collector was my Puerto Rico flag canvas, for $400. It was an effort to bring the art form from the tunnels into the galleries.
Most writers were more concerned about going out into the elements, not being put together on gallery walls. Young people were interested in making a mark, literally, in their territory. It was seen as heroic.
After Lindsay declared war on graffiti in 1972, it became the focus of political campaigns, and in this sense, its effects lasted much longer than the subway-graffiti era. Since then, every New York City mayor has at some point reaffirmed his commitment to fighting “the war.” You can locate the roots of the “broken windows” campaign in Lindsay’s war on graffiti.
It wasn’t so much that the city did a single crackdown. It came in increments, from the time of Lindsay through Beame to Koch. At one point, Richard Ravitch, the MTA chairman, was in talks with a group of graffiti artists. The offer was that if these guys were given the green light to decorate, could they get the 30,000 other kids to stop? Of course, it went south. But they had a bargaining table and everything.
Especially in the beginning, it was a guerrilla war. We had strategic maps of the subway system, of which yard or layup was hot or cooled off. We gathered intelligence info at the writers’ bench. And if you got chased out at Coney Island that morning, you came to the bench and told everyone it was hot.
I got caught with a friend hitting the buses on 125th Street. As soon as we got there, guards came with weapons. I hid under the bus and my friend jumped into the Hudson. I crawled under the buses to 133rd Street and came out covered in mud and ice. I got home, and my friend showed up all frozen. He swam downtown.