Falling in Love with the Act of Creating: Duel

Written by Cerys Davies

There’s always something about graffiti on a train. As it passes by, eyes linger on the illegal lettering — leaving onlookers with impressions of curiosity, anger or even a deep-rooted appreciation. It’s only a matter of seconds before the train keeps on towards its destination, where it will continue leaving impressions on each passerby. From elaborate pieces to quick throw ups, the public has encountered these characterized train cars ever since graffiti’s origins in New York. As a young kid growing up in New York City, Duel often admired these early works when traveling beyond his own borough of Queens. His eyes may have lingered, but he never thought he take part in the culture.

Duel, now a Los Angeles-based graffiti artist, started off as his friend’s sidekick of sorts. His friend, involved in break-dancing, one of the four elements of hip hop, was looking to get into the practice of graffiti, but not without a partner.

“I didn’t have any intent of doing it [graffiti] at all. Even though I saw it a lot, I was not really interested. I was kind of guilt tripped into doing it,” said Duel.

At the age of 12, he and his friend would look up to graffiti’s originators and often mimic their styles until landing on their own. Within a year, Duel found himself dedicated to the craft while his friend had already given it up. He would spend all his time testing out new styles, new tags and new ways to get up.

“I create my own my own thing. I don’t really know if I have a specific type of style. I write all my stuff in different ways, but the only consistent throw-up I have is my bubble letters. It’s the only thing that I pretty much do the same since 1987,” said Duel.

As he started to expand his horizons as a writer, his taste in graf became more. He soon became known as more than Duel. Some of his tag variations to this day remain Duel Ris, Dueler, Duel One and many more monikers. He continued to make his various names known in New York and began garnering an audience. Eventually he even joined one of the city’s most notorious crews: MCI, Most Criminally Insane. From 1984 to 1990, Duel’s tag could be seen all over New York’s hard to reach places. But around 1994, Duel felt unsatisfied with what he had done with his life thus far.

“I was already in my twenties at this point, and I wasn’t taking school serious. I didn’t really have a job. I was still living with parents. I was going nowhere with myself,” said Duel. “I decided to do something different.”

He soon enlisted in the United States Marines — not without the push of graffiti.

“I really wanted to do it because I wanted to get away from all the beef and all the issues that I had from graffiti,” said Duel. In addition to escaping his qualms with various graf writers, he also hoped the marines would help level up his ability to get up — which he quickly found out wasn’t the case.

He was soon stationed in San Diego. In this new chapter in his life, he never mentioned his past, visited home or even picked up a spray can. For the next decade, Duel, the NYC graf artist, was no longer a vital part of his identity.

“It [the Marines] basically saved my life because who knows where I’d be right now if I didn’t have the marines. I was able to get my life together, learn a lot. I was even put in leadership positions,” said Duel.

“In this new chapter in his life, he never mentioned his past, visited home or even picked up a spray can.”

Around 2006, he remembers getting a call from one of his friends from home. He was in town and had wanted to get together to go painting again — just like the good old days.

“Immediately, I told him no. I don’t do that trash. It was a ‘you need to grow up’ type of moment,” said Duel. “My wife overheard me speaking to him and she told him to come and get me out of the house. So, we went and painted. And for a guy who hadn’t painted in almost 12 years, the piece came out pretty decent.”

As soon as he picked up that spray can, it all came back to him, but something was different this time. Once finishing up the piece, his friend had uploaded a picture of their piece to the internet — an idea that felt foreign to Duel. As someone who wasn’t necessarily tech-savvy, Duel had no idea about the sort of presence graffiti had online. Soon enough, the comment section immediately recognized Duel’s signature style. These online users were excited he was back and hoping this was a step towards his return to the culture.

“These sorts of comments instigated me coming back. It gave me the urge to get out there again,” said Duel.

Just by painting that one piece, it was like no time had passed. All he could think about was the next piece and the piece after that and how he could better his signature bubble letters. And with each piece, he made sure to take photos and began building a community online where he admits to letting his inner narcissist loose in a way he couldn’t before.

“To me, graffiti has always been somewhat like a little drug. Once you get a sample of it, then you’re kinda hooked. I had to carry this burden of you know, being this double life guy, while I was a graf writer in the Marines,” said Duel.

Throughout his time as a graf writer, he always went for the spots that were covered — the kind you couldn’t drive up to and that had a million escape routes — and this was more imperative as ever as he was still serving the country.

“Graffiti has always been somewhat like a little drug. Once you get a sample of it, then you’re kinda hooked.”

“It wasn’t till I got overseas that I really went out of my way [to paint]. I thought, I’m about to retire. I’m gonna go extra wild with myself,” said Duel. “Then I actually got a little caught up because of some nonsense that almost spiraled into something else and that’s what pretty much brought me back [to the U.S.]”

After a 23-year career in Marines, he retired and settled in Los Angeles with his wife where Duel lives on. Despite living in one of the graffiti capitals of the world, it’s rare for him to bomb any Los Angeles streets.

“At my age, I’m not really trying to drive around all day and all night in traffic trying to find that one spot that I can paint and be out in the middle of the night. It messes up my sleep pattern, my workout routine gets messed up, and everything else goes out of whack when I try to do that,” said Duel.

Within various freight train yards throughout the city, Duel returns to his roots, leaving his tag all over the various train cars. Without having to search for the perfect spot, he’s able to express himself within the trainyard. Often testing out new styles and color combinations, the possibilities are endless for the lifelong graf writer.

“When I was younger, graffiti would be more about shot value and act of risk taking, but now I just enjoy graf for the sake of creating and painting,” said Duel.