What do Graffiti Artists do When They Grow Up?

Ezo showing his work on exhibit at Longwood Art Gallery.

Ezo with his work at the Longwood Art Gallery in the Bronx.

I love to hear artists talk about their work.  Yes, the work should stand on its own. Commentary from the artist should not be necessary.  That’s one school.  But I saw the exhibit Graffiti Spirit of an Age @ 40 x 10 * without it.  And I was really confused.  I got that this was a kind of “where are they now” for these former graffiti writers from the mid-80s.  But the work–metal sculpture, collage, prints, paintings–all together didn’t have a binding theme.  The work I liked the least didn’t resemble any of the other work in that it looked most like graffiti.  And a couple of canvasses looked unfinished.  So we went back for the Artists Talk. Three of the ten showed.  (“Graf artists are shy and don’t like to come out,” Ezo explained.)  They talked honestly and openly. They have a love/hate view of their graffiti period–they recognize it as a vital part of their past, but one they’re not often eager to ‘fess up to.  The afternoon turned into a bit of a love fest. Mainly teenage guys in attendance, a few taking photos. One guy was filming with his point & shoot camera, ran out of space and then started recording with his iPhone. (He’d hacked it. I asked.) Others came with their black sketchbooks asking the old school writers for their tags.

(*The 40 x 10 in the show title refers to the size of a subway car…Thanx Kool Spin for making me sound like I knew all along!)

Here are what Ezo, Klass and Cey had to say about their graffiti artist days:

Ezo's tagEzo today = painter…uses pre-columbian imagery and saints in his paintings, influenced by war and the US involvement in the Middle East, working on a series of canvasses on the Seven Deadly Sins.

Ezo: “Graffiti is vandalism…There should be a way to channel this energy into another art form…keep art school programs…the city politicians should have been taking care of their business…how could they blame 13 and 14 year kids for what was happening in New York?…New York City doesn’t embrace graffiti as art like Europe or even as some other cities in the U.S.”

Cey speaking on his work at Longwood Art Gallery.
Cey speaking on his work at Longwood Art Gallery.

Cey today = graphic artist and art director…influenced by pop art and superheroes, Warhol and Lichtenstein…learned screenprinting from one of Warhol’s Factory printers…uses Diamond Dust (tiny fragments of ground diamonds) on his work.

Cey: “Kids are always going to look for a way to get into trouble…part of doing the graffiti was the thrill of it, falling down, getting cut, sneaking into the train yard–you always had a good story to tell afterward…but today, I try to convince the young guys not to do it.”

Klass in front of his work at the Longwood Art Gallery.
Klass in front of his work at the Longwood Art Gallery.

Klass today — experiments a lot with materials…his pieces are layered and textured and explore a trip to Cuba to explore his heritage…trained to be an art teacher, three times up for the job, each time cancelled due to budget cuts…works as a graphic and commercial artist…

Klass: “Back then there were not a lot choices, you could either do this thing, or do that thing and hang with those kids who got arrested the week before, or hang out with the other kids and paint…my work is therapy, a way of dealing with the internal demons…I’m through with painting letters.  It’s time to move on.”

Juanita Lanzó, Program Coordinator, at Longwood Art Gallery

Juanita Lanzó, Program Coordinator, at Longwood Art Gallery.

Filmmaker Charlie Ahearn in orange parka listening in.

Wildstyle filmmaker, Charlie Ahearn, in orange parka listening in.

Kool Spin tagging a sketch book.

Kool Spin tagging a sketchbook.


The Writers Bench

I thought the Writers Bench was a writers workshop or collective of sorts here in the Bronx. And I was ready to sign up. Silly me. A deeper Google search, however, led me to the truth. The writers bench is yes really a bench — at 149th Street and the Grand Concourse 2 / 5 subway station, but its writers did not use pen and paper. How could I have forgotten The Big Guy asked me?

Writers Bench at 149th & the Grand Concourse
Writers Bench at 149th & the Grand Concourse

My husband had told me about the Writers Bench…where he sat with twenty other boys in the late 70s early 80s. They were graffiti writers and the bench on the 2/5 train platform, the last bench at the back of the train on the uptown side, was their meeting place. Those boys came from all over the city. The Big Guy came up from Brooklyn. They’d cut class, meet up with fellow writers and hang out for hours. This station was the ideal vantage point. It was the intersection of the 2 and 5 train lines.

Arriving 5 Train at 149th & Grand Concourse
Arriving 5 Train at 149th & Grand Concourse

They could catch the trains passing by with their paintings emblazoned all across the sides. The Big Guy was known as Spin back then and I asked him if he took any photos. He took a few but has since lost them. One of his trains, a piece titled “Dump Koch”, has a cameo appearance in Henry Chalfant’s documentary Style Wars when a photo of it is placed in the hands of the mayor himself. Koch looked over the photo and replied, “I guess I must be getting to them.”

C. at the Writers Bench
The Big Guy at the Writers Bench

Here is the bench today and at the top photo. The overpass between the Uptown and the Downtown is gated shut. A cop sits nearby in a tiny booth. (He eyed us suspiciously). And of course the redbird trains no longer fly through.

Recently The Big Guy got lucky. A friend called up and said he’d found a photo of one of his trains.

C.'s Spin Train
The Big Guy's Spin Train