The air was thick with paint fumes and laughter as four grizzled veterans cut lines across the panels and doors of the homemade subway car canvas. They were under the gun -the winner of this four-way round would go on to face the reigning champ, REE, in the finals. Crowds of writers, artists, friends and fans filled the warehouse, all jockeying for a better view of the artists hard at work on their twenty-minute masterpieces. The event, produced by Bowery Boogie Uncapped, and sponsored by Scrapyard, World of Dreems, Universe City, and Crime Faces.
A man in a black beret and matching leather jacket with the words “Wall Writers” scrolled across the back announced the one minute-to-go mark to the crowd through what appeared to be a karaoke machine hot-wired to a set of speakers. The venue was Smash Industries; an active industrial lighting factory, generously offered by its owner to serve as the site of the second annual Golden Gauntlet Graffiti Battle (GGGB). Shelves stacked nearly to the ceiling with boxes of equipment provided an apt backdrop to the urban art taking shape on the floor. Barrels and overturned cable spools served as tables to groups of artists exchanging black books; the classic way to share artwork with friends and fellow writers in the graffiti world. In a ritual not unlike the exchange of yearbooks in grade school, crowds of gruff men in their forties and fifties poured over the books, creating stunning signatures in thick-tipped markers and colorful paint pens.
Crowds of writers, artists, friends and fans filled the warehouse, all jockeying for a better view of the artists hard at work on their twenty-minute masterpieces.
Against the back wall of the aptly named “Train Room,” volunteers served bottled beers, mix drink cups, and hot trays filled with chicken, rice, plantains, and Italian pinwheel wraps for $5 or $10 per heaping plate. Tarot card readings (by Thameka) and giant jenga were among the concessions available in the back, surrounded by painted subway maps, shirts, skateboards, and found objects.
In spite of the fact that the front gate was wide open, the thick mass of people surrounding the wooden train car made a powerful buffer against the cold. Inside Smash Industries, the only things to be felt were warmth, love, and the tell-tale head pangs of overexposure to aerosol paint. A clairvoyant few brought masks, and respirators with them, but the majority of attendees simply shrugged off the chemicals. They were having too much fun to worry about minor annoyances.
Inside Smash Industries, the only things to be felt were warmth, love, and the tell-tale head pangs of overexposure to aerosol paint.
Adrian Wilson, aka Plannedalism, a friendly British man in a purple dress shirt covered with sharpie tags and a smart looking bowtie was serving as MC. Wilson helped host the event with Rebel Knowledge, and came up with the idea to erect a boxing ring for the final graffiti duel.
Despite the fact that he was wearing a full boot cast on his right foot, Wilson deftly bobbed in and out of the crowd, calling the play-by-play and occasionally bringing fresh cans of paint to competitors. Someone had written “HOT 110” on his boot. “It’s a joke,” Wilson explained, “Whenever someone wanted to diss an artist, they would draw nine vertical lines over the work, and then someone would come by later and connect the lines so they’d spell out ‘HOT 110’ just to spite the person. It’s worse than being an amateur,” he said with a smile, “it’s ball-busting, plain and simple.”
Wilson explained the criteria for judging what would be roughly unjudgeable to the casual observer. “I’m just like you,” he admitted, adjusting his thick glasses. “To me, it’s impossible to decide, but the OGs look for style, flow, how much paint is dripped into the design, and other intangibles.” Four judges presided over the event, and apart from an occasional cigarette break out on the street, all were zoned in on the competition.
In the world of graffiti, there’s a well-established hierarchy that differentiates the various calibers of artists. At the top of the food chain are train bombers; old-school artists who were on the scene in the late 70’s and 80’s and contributed to the foundations of the graffiti movement. Next comes general bombers; the brave souls who deface walls, cars, and anything they can get their tags on. They take blank slates and empty facades and create loud declarations with little more than their tag and imagination.
At this GGGB, all competitors were OGs or above; definitive names in their respective neighborhoods with a few who’d received wider recognition from the graffiti community around the five boroughs. The light at the end of the tunnel for these challengers was reflected on two blank canvases, resting untouched in the middle of the room. There, the best of the rest would face off against REE. As the reigning champ, he mingled with guests and old friends while he waited to see who he’d face off against.
Nic1, a writer repping the AK crew was announced as the winner of the first round of four. During a brief intermission, the train was painted over to provide a fresh opportunity for the remaining writers. PartOneTDS from Spanish Harlem was the victor of the subsequent round. The “train car” was in fact a wooden replica of an actual MTA subway car, complete with handles for standing passengers, fake transit authority warnings declaring “Writing Graffiti IS a Crime.” Before the train battles began, as well as during the intermission, guests were encouraged to write on the inside of the car, top to bottom. By the end of the evening, there was very little gray left amidst the tapestry of tags.
The “train car” was in fact a wooden replica of an actual MTA subway car, complete with handles for standing passengers, fake transit authority warnings declaring “Writing Graffiti IS a Crime.”
After assessment by the judges, PartOne was declared the semi-final winner, to go onto the final showdown. The beginning of the final round was marked by the formation of the boxing ring. The wooden posts wrapped with twine and set to stand in piles of loose bricks from last year’s battle had been upgraded to metal barricades, giving the match a very Fight Club feel in spite of the friendly nature of the whole event. The karaoke machine switched on once more, this time with tunes that sounded like an introduction to Monday Night Football meets Run DMC.
The final round began, REE vs. PartOne, friends in real life, but competitors within the ring.
With the ring of the bell and a large piece of cardboard with “Round 1” hastily written on it serving as a ring girl, the final duel commenced. As with the previous rounds, the two artists had thirty minutes to create their works with just a handful of colors. However, this time they were required to use the same colors, as not to sway judges’ personal opinions. With yellow, hot pink, and blue, the two men went to war.
After a heated battle, with the crowd shuffling in circles around the arena, it was announced that PartOne had dethroned REE with his magnificent canvas set in a wash of pink with yellow crowns as a base for his bubbly lettering. The two embraced, and hefted the trophy, a set of golden spray cans linked with gold chains, overhead as the crowd cheered. As photos were snapped and cake was enjoyed (in celebration of REE’s and Snake1’s recent birthdays), Gang Starr’s classic, “Above the Clouds”, echoed out into the February air.
After a heated battle, with the crowd shuffling in circles around the arena, it was announced that PartOne had dethroned REE with his magnificent canvas set in a wash of pink with yellow crowns as a base for his bubbly lettering.
So closes another legendary chapter in the history of the graffiti movement.