One Art Space curated this exhibition to showcase how the Graffiti movement has evolved since Taki 183. “Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals,” The New York Times article that helped spawn the movement came out 50 years ago, July 21, 1971, on the same day the exhibition opened to the public. One Art Space gallery director Mei explained, “What sets this exhibition apart is that it includes Taki 183 and many of the artists that followed like JEC*, MIKE 171, SJK 171, JMS171 “THE BOYS FROM THE HEIGHTS”, Vinny, Smith, BL, BC AKA WIN, OLGA, COSE TDS. To have these works on display on a gallery’s wall in Tribeca, NY, says something, when you consider the humble origins of graffiti. We witnessed the curation of Art, with a capital “A”, the genesis of the Graffiti movement and its’ ripple effects. This show pays homage to it.”
Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Washington Heights before New York. Growing up, the Heights always seemed like its own little city within the larger expanse of New York. Every morning I’d watch the sun glint off the side of the 1 train as it rattled the elevated train tracks and made the platform shake at Dyckman Street. I grew up on the border of Inwood and the Heights, and the mishmash of old, new, Manhattan, Bronx, and every culture under the sun made me the person I am today. The neighborhood winds through the streets of Riverside, Haven, Cabrini, Pinehurst, Fort Washington, Overlook, Bennett, Broadway, Wadsworth, St. Nicholas, Audubon, and Amsterdam, from the Hudson River to the Harlem River.. Uptown is a place where you can be yourself, but everyone else will have your back, from the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal to Inwood Hill Park.
No one exemplifies the spirit of uptown more than Mike 171, SJK 171, BC 1 aka WIN, and Taki 183. These intrepid graffiti writers made their names during one of the most explosive periods in the history of New York, and this past week the “boys from the Heights” joined OLGA, VINNY, and COSE TDS, four other iconic New York writers with life experiences from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, at One Art Space.
The selection of artists of varying ages and specialties made for a varied and vibrant panel on Saturday night and a lively, multifaceted gallery experience. But all agreed that graffiti was a way to assert their own identities in a world of violence and neglect that was trying to crush them. BC aka WIN said: “As a youth, graffiti allowed me to receive what I lacked; love, protection, proper attention, a sense of being, belonging, and self worth. The train yard and lay ups were where I found what I needed and also they were where I found peace.” He asserted that “At the time I did not realize and understand it was my visual voice saying ‘Here I Am!’”
“As a youth, graffiti allowed me to receive what I lacked; love, protection, proper attention, a sense of being, belonging, and self worth. The train yard and lay ups were where I found what I needed and also they were where I found peace.”
VINNY, Mike 171, and SJK 171 all mentioned the risky practice of tagging planes at airports, and I can only imagine the sweat of anxiety a New York graffiti writer must have had taken the A down to Howard Beach for nearly an hour and skulking into the pristine floors of JFK. “I had no idea it was a federal offense and they were gonna come after me,” VINNY recounted, laughing. VINNY is a real old New York figure with a raspy laugh and a harsh, consonant-laden accent. “The feds showed up at my house! So, I had to get out of the city and head to Florida.” They never caught up to him.
Among the artists in the show is Smith, who has been involved in the street art scene in New York City for more than 30 years, being driven to paint from the early days under the duo name of Sane & Smith in the 80s’. The Iconic New York’s Sane and Smith Brooklyn Bridge piece led to them being sued by the City of New York for $3 million, the biggest lawsuit to date against graffiti writers. Smith is also married to fellow graffiti legend, Lady Pink. The couple married in 1994, and have been at the forefront of the mural art scene in NYC ever since. Smith’s artworks still resonated with the crowd which resulted with a swarm of Blackbook signing requests like bees to honey.
Mike and SJK remembered being on a plane in Puerto Rico, hopping on before all the other passengers, pulling down all the window shades and tagging as many as they could, then pushing them back up. So much of the graffiti culture of the mid-twentieth century was just the practice of being able to explore. VINNY regaled the panel with countless stories of patrolling the tunnels of the now nonexistent RR line in South Brooklyn and having to find gopher-like entryways into the underground.
Mike used to go up to the train yards on 207th Street and referred to it as the “Ghost Yard,” because at night the only light was the night watchman swinging his lantern, giving the area an eerie glow. I know those train yards well, because I grew up probably six or seven blocks from them and imagining wandering around them in the dead of night certainly gives me the chills.
BC recounted one memory from that same Ghost Yard: “Me, Hektad, Delta 2 and Moet were in the Ghost Yard doing a “window down, whole car, married couple, (the bottom of the window down, from end to end on two cars that are permanently fixed to one another) when we were raided. Delta 2 and I split up, and hid in an unlit car. The only way out I knew was the only way in I knew. I put on my work bum transit worker vest and took the lead. We [Delta 2 and I] walked past the watchtower, peeked in a door that was open at the tower and walked into the tunnel that opens up into the yard, bombed the entire stretch to 200 Street and went home. We all got away, but we didn’t complete our pieces.”
This is just one of the riveting stories one gets from talking to the greats of graffiti from uptown. According to Mike 171, Washington Heights was “The Mecca of graffiti,” and though he and his friends were based out of uptown, the tags on the buses that went down 181st to Soundview and Parkchester helped create a link between the Heights graffiti scene and the tagging in the Bronx.
COSE TDS and OLGA both grew up in the Bronx, and made their names tagging the 4 and 6 lines and local walls. Since the two of them were most active during the 80s and 90s, they already had a solid foundation of figures to look up to. “SEEN UA, one of the artists who inspired me, really beautified the 6 line. I have to say beautified because it really was beautiful,” COSE recalled. COSE found it comforting to be around the tags of so many larger-than-life figures and to get to be a part of their story.
Though both are from the Bronx, OLGA, a woman of short stature with a booming voice and raucous laugh, experienced life differently as a teenage girl with a strict family. “I went out during the day, because I had a curfew, and I started trying to tag the trains, but I couldn’t reach the top. I thought, nah, this isn’t for me.” When OLGA signed my catalog, I noticed her tag built up vertically rather than horizontally, unlike the tags of the other artists. “I just wanted to do something different,” she said. “And when I paint with the fellas, they give me the smallest space anyways! I’d might as well make the most of it!’
When OLGA signed my catalog, I noticed her tag built up vertically rather than horizontally, unlike the tags of the other artists. “I just wanted to do something different,” she said. “And when I paint with the fellas, they give me the smallest space anyways! I’d might as well make the most of it!”
BC 1, aka WIN, is something of a graffiti chameleon, who uses both the tags BC and WIN, as well as the acronym “NBA” on many of his tags. BC said his favorite places to paint were the Ghost Yard at 207th St in Inwood, the 3 yard at 148th in Harlem, the 5 train lay-up at 110th St on Lexington Ave, the 1 train at 231st St in Riverdale, and the 175th A train layout—all places that I’ve visited and been to countless times. BC has an indelible sense of humor; his “NBA” tag, according to him, while it primarily means “Nothing But Art,” could also stand for Nothing But Action, Never Been Arrested (though he eventually was), Nasty But Artistic, National Bombing Association, or a whole host of other things.
These four artists on the One Art Space panel shared how graffiti, beyond being an aesthetic or a gimmick, is a philosophy and ritual of an almost spiritual level. During the panel, COSE said “Graffiti has been around since the dawn of time. It was given to us by the powers that be. In those prehistoric caves, some people just call those etchings cave drawings, I call it graffiti.” Mike was adamant that he did not consider himself an artist, but rather a graffiti writer as its own discipline. “I worked in construction all my life, so as a graf writer, I’m all about not letting anything go to waste,” he declared.
“Graffiti has been around since the dawn of time. It was given to us by the powers that be. In those prehistoric caves, some people just call those etchings cave drawings, I call it graffiti.”
SJK 171 similarly expressed that “We weren’t interested in the money part. I actually refused to sell a canvas, it’s been shown all around the world now but it’s not for sale. We just liked what we did. We did it for the love of art. We started painting and expressing ourselves. We went through a lot to get where we were, so we weren’t gonna sell ourselves that easy.” The authenticity of those words was clear and sharp, and “Arts in Transit” kept that spirit going throughout the entire evening.
The show, curated by One Art Space with the panel moderated by Mei “Amazing Mei” Fung, was an exciting and meaningful experience. Many of he photos of this piece were taken by photographer and multimedia artist Joseph Dalton. One Art Space is revolutionizing the gallery scene with their emphasis on accessibility and nuance in art. We are blessed to be in a cultural moment where we as viewers can see the graffiti that before might have been in dark subway tunnels. Fung opened the panel with the quote from Simon & Garfunkel: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.” Talking to these writers and bombers, I have no doubt that that is true. The show closed on the 27th, but you can find the artists’ work on their social media, or if you’re lucky, you might catch it on a wall near you.