The street art & graffiti world is in a state of immense transition. The bombers and street writers of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s are filling today’s downtown galleries. Streets that were once an open forum for artists are now hyper-surveilled or legitimized. Questions of clout, beef, and where artists lie in the pecking order of NYC’s best are now up for open dispute online and over social media. To keep up with the changes, artists and enthusiasts are increasingly looking for venues to (legitimately) promote their work and settle some of these questions.
On February 8th, 2020, East New York will host the second Golden Gauntlet Graffiti Battle (GGGB): a clash of artists, where a panel of judges and fans will gather to see who can take home the trophy in view of some of the five boroughs’ highest graffiti authorities.
Bowery Boogie Uncapped, now in its fifth year, is hosting the battle at Smash Industries, a historic, family owned lighting factory-turned-community space on Glenmore Ave, with Adrian Wilson, aka Plannedalism, returning as the battle’s Emcee. Last year, REE took home first place. Now fourteen of New York’s notable artists, (Kriz, KC, SNAKE1, and BOTZ to name a few) are all vying for a chance to take on the reigning champ.
Last year, REE took home first place, Now fourteen of New York’s notable artists, (Kriz, KC, SNAKE1, and BOTZ to name a few) are all vying for a chance to take on the reigning champ.
On a snowy afternoon, T.K. and I sat down with REE and Rebel Knowledge (shortened to Rebel here,) both key players in the GGGB event, to talk about the battle. The grayish white sky and freshly powdered streets seemed to make the storefronts pop against their surroundings. Coffee and egg sandwiches in hand, we caught up to see what’s new in New York.
REE, who sometimes bombs as “REE 2”, has been a familiar face in the subway painting scene since the early 70’s. In fact, his work as the leader of the MTA crew and a member of Ex-Vandals, was so influential that Complex’s Chris Pape named REE no. 11 in the 50 most influential New York Graffiti Artists. As a native to the South Bronx, REE was uniquely positioned to rep the borough in what has become known as the golden age of subway graffiti.
Complex’s Chris Pape named REE no. 11 in the 50 most influential New York Graffiti Artists. As a native to the South Bronx, REE was uniquely positioned to rep the borough in what has become known as the golden age of subway graffiti.
Rebel, a lifelong history buff and teenage tagger, has been the resident historian at Bowery Boogie since 2012. Her brainchild is Uncapped: Beneath the Paint, is an interview series within Bowery Boogie that tells the stories of New York’s rich graffiti history. Boogie itself is an arts and culture blog covering life in the Lower East Side.
REE and Rebel have been collaborating for years.
REE: Back At It Again
In his prime, REE was known for his massive, whole-car pieces featuring deep lines and vivid colors. Photo reproductions and original pieces of REE’s work have been featured in collections around the country. “I left the scene around 2000 to raise a family, all the good stuff, but I’m back at it again,” he explained. REE, now in his fifties, is still a prolific painter. In October, he returned from a one-month tour of London, where he did a long series of projects with U.K. artists, ending with a side trip to the Peace Wall in Belfast, Ireland.
“How has your lettering style evolved over the years? Are you incorporating anything new?” T.K. asked.
REE responded, “nothing new, just making sure it has the precise tones to it. I had the straight hand back then, but the color was off… Man, today the color wheel these days is outstanding.”
T.K. followed up by asking, “back then, a lot of what you were doing was illegal, versus now there’s more permission, from law enforcement and the public, and social acceptance of graffiti. How has that effected your work?”
“Give me two hours, and I can give you an outstanding piece, but if you give me five hours, I’ll give you something truly excellent,” REE explained. “A lot of times I’ll be working, and then one minute someone wants to come along and talk, so I always make time to communicate with people about what I’m doing.”
“Give me two hours, and I can give you an outstanding piece, but if you give me five hours, I’ll give you something truly excellent,” REE explained.
“So looking ahead to the battle, is there anyone in particular you’re looking out for? Any strong challengers?” I inquired.
REE paused, reflecting for a moment. “I don’t want to give any shines or negative lines… There’s a lot of talent and I’m looking forward to seeing whoever makes it to that final round with me.”
Rebel: Dust, Sweat, Ink and Paint
A native New Yorker with Lower East Side roots, Rebel began her professional life as an educator at the New York Tenement Museum. After following the Bowery Boogie blog, she decided to join the team as an arts and history writer.
“I was at the Tenement Museum for seven years. While I was there, I saw that Bowery Boogie was just, everyday, talking about the LES, and I wanted to be a part of that,” she explained. “I grew up here, and preserving the stories of what happened here is important to me.”
“I grew up here, and preserving the stories of what happened here is important to me.” – Rebel Knowledge
And it’s true: nearly every square foot of New York City has been built and rebuilt over the last 150 years. Though today we recognize it as the concrete jungle and the many strange creatures that dwell here, Brooklyn was a verdant stretch of farmland, and the city itself was home to nearly one million domesticated horses just a few lifetimes ago. The public relies on historians and writers in order to keep track of all this, and Rebel is up for the task.
“Even though we can’t see it, there’s layers and layers of history in Manhattan. That’s why so many homeowners in New York dig up their backyards! What someone threw in their privy could now easily be treasure for someone else.” Rebel explained.
She continued, “graffiti is a quintessential part of NYC history. Most of the writing I do, does not go into the twenty-first century. I’m trained to write about the classics. Most of my writing is in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. I rarely if ever bring my skills into the 21st century but being a part of Bowery Boogie means getting to work with writers like REE. Working with these guys is a gift.”
For a competition to determine a “winner” in the graffiti world sounds almost trite. Every inch of the graffiti that covered MTA train cars of the 70’s and 80’s was literally wiped clean by former MTA president David L. Gunn. His crew of 2,000 maintenance workers worked around the clock for years to remove the now-classic images, including the work which first put REE on the map. These odes to a delinquent counterculture may be gone, but in Rebel’s house, all schools of thought–new and old–are given a voice.
“When it comes to theme, I always need my train-era writers to juxtapose the new school. There’s so much that we can build upon when we see how all of these artists take all their heart and personal experiences and put them into their work.” Rebel elaborated, “We have a ‘Clean Train’ (Referencing Gunn’s initiative), and people still write on the train, but it’s nothing like what it was back in the 70’s and 80’s. People need to see the kind of talent that came out of that era.”
Inspired by a childhood spent investigating the history of Manhattan’s historic buildings, Rebel wanted to dive into the smelly, dusty, hidden places that end up being some of the most important venues for New York street art.
“I’ll never give up the exact location for the best urban exploring,” she laughed, recalling the hunt for raw materials to make the canvases for the battle, “but Manhattan is where it’s at. No question.” For the Gauntlet, she went from derelict buildings to abandoned tenements, and onto the streets in search for plywood, scrap wood pallets, and other found materials to form collages that will become the canvases for artists to work their magic on.
GOLDEN GAUNTLET GRAFFITI BATTLE
“Artists have been talking about battling without beef for ages. Crews have spent so much time talking about beef that it’s difficult to unite the graffiti/street art community at large. We want the Golden Gauntlet Graffiti Battle to be the place where artists can come to squash beef and get more exposure. The first one was such a success, and I honestly wasn’t prepared for it. What it’s turned into, the number of artists hitting me up to get involved… it’s really exciting,” Rebel gushed.
“Artists have been talking about battling without beef for ages. Crews have spent so much time talking about beef that it’s difficult to unite the graffiti/street art community at large. We want the Golden Gauntlet Graffiti Battle to be the place where artists can come to squash beef and get more exposure.” – Rebel Knowledge
It’s difficult for the average person to see graffiti art in progress, particularly at the level of mastery that’s come to be associated with the likes of REE. The GGGB represents a new type of venue for what has become a staple of NYC creative culture: a safe, competitive, community space to show off and get face time with other artists and exposure to the public. For just $5, New Yorkers willing to make the trip will have entre to some of the best artists of a generation… And for a few dollars more, even go home with a piece of the action.
As we wrapped up our interview, Rebel explained; “we’re hoping that after the battle, people will see what is going on at Smash and Uncapped, and want to get involved. Most of the expenses that go into this are coming out of pocket, so it’s totally a labor of love for me and my team right now. I mean, show me another place where you get to see this many incredible artists working live for five dollars. I’ll wait.”