At the western edge of Cleveland, Ohio, Lake Erie stretches an infinite, placid blue towards the horizon. The buildings in the Rust Belt don’t pierce the sky the way the buildings of New York do, aside from some of the blue-glass corporate towers of the city’s downtown. Otherwise, for a New Yorker, it looks like the sky and the earth have suddenly opened up and you’ve entered some foreign land where the ozone touches the tops of the buildings and the streets feel as wide as prairies.
Of course, this is only the perspective of a native New Yorker. Like me, Mike 171, SJK 171, Henry 161, Taki 183, and JEC * are New Yorkers from the Heights in a world far from the narrow sidewalks stained with blackened dried gum, where tattered sneakers dangle from power lines between the crowded buildings that we grew up in. I had moved further east down the Ohio River in Pittsburgh just a few days before taking the Greyhound to Cleveland. I was still a bit dumbstruck at the quiet and the clean air, and the fact that I’d traded chaotic Washington Heights of my youth for comparatively bucolic Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. But the Rust Belt’s spaciousness certainly doesn’t mean it has any less of a commitment to graffiti.
The Boys from the Heights, as they’ve started to call themselves, were invited to Ohio by Stamy Paul, the founder and president of local nonprofit Graffiti HeArt. In the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Graffiti HeArt is impossible to miss on Superior Avenue. Its exterior pops out of the scenery around it with a rainbow gradient spray-painted by Los Angeles-based artist Risk. Even Paul’s car stands out parked on the street with its unique spray-painted designs on its exterior.
By the end of the three days the Boys from the Heights spent in Cleveland, Paul said she “felt like [she] had known them for much longer.”
Paul hosts artists ranging from Cleveland natives like WRDSMTH and global muralists like Beau Stanton, as well as providing scholarships, community aid, and partnerships with local organizations like LGBT centers. By the end of the three days the Boys from the Heights spent in Cleveland, Paul said she “felt like [she] had known them for much longer.” It’s no surprise, given that Paul displays the same grit and generosity that make the Boys from the Heights who they are. The group even helped Paul come up with her own graf tag: “Stem65.” And rather than Washington Heights, Paul and her organization can now say that they’re repping “The Land” on the shores of northeast Ohio.
Paul and Graffiti HeArt’s event for the Boys in the Heights spanned three days. First there was live spray-painting in a warehouse that SJK 171 referred to as the “5Pointz of Cleveland,” a documentary screening of Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence–Taki 183 professed that they’d all seen it “like eight times,” but that it never get old–and a Q&A session for the Cleveland gallerygoers facilitated by Chicago-based graf writer ISH.
All five of the boys in the Heights have lived through traumatic events, and when you have lived through such intense trauma tagging takes on more meaning than simply spraying your name to get it out there. It’s asserting who you are, and if you don’t know who you are, it’s asserting that though you can lose everything, no one can take away your name and the streets you’re from.
Throughout their stay, the graf legends made sure to leave their tags all over the art space. Graffiti HeArt was the first art institution I had been to that found a way to display graffiti in its authentic form. Rather than placing it in a frame or relegating it to an individual gallery room, Paul has created a space where every surface is a potential canvas, from fridges to tables to bathroom walls.
“I’m sixty-five years old. But this is our time. These are our golden years,” Mike 171 said at the panel at Graffiti HeArt. “We want to share our art with the world. Fifty-three trips around the sun after we started, we’re still here and we’re still alive.”
I met the Boys from the Heights at their lodgings on the northeast end of Cleveland on the curve of a steep hill. A group of local teenagers donning helmets and kneepads were doing skate tricks. Mike 171 stopped to congratulate them on their progress. One member of the skating crew was an older man in his fifties who had just retired, and I could see the parallel between that skater and the graf writers.
“I’m sixty-five years old. But this is our time. These are our golden years,” Mike 171 said at the panel at Graffiti HeArt. “We want to share our art with the world. Fifty-three trips around the sun after we started, we’re still here and we’re still alive.” All five of the boys in the Heights have lived through traumatic events, and when you have lived through such intense trauma tagging takes on more meaning than simply spraying your name to get it out there. It’s asserting who you are, and if you don’t know who you are, it’s asserting that though you can lose everything, no one can take away your name and the streets you’re from.
Henry 161, who came to Ohio all the way from San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, stopped the panel for a moment to deliver some emotional words. “I suffer from PTSD, and I took a different path than these guys,” he said. “I chose to take this path of a criminal lifestyle, and I paid a price for it. And I just separated from this lady I was married to when I got out of prison. So, this is really my first time being social as a single guy, and it’s a new life for me. This is all new to me.” As he spoke SJK 171 put a hand on his back. “I feel like I’m opening up in a way,” Henry 161 said, wiping his eyes. “I feel like God brought us back together.”
“I feel like I’m opening up in a way,” Henry 161 said, wiping his eyes. “I feel like God brought us back together.”
And the brotherhood between Mike 171, SJK 171, JEC *, Taki 183, and Henry 161 does seem to have a spiritual quality. The five of them say grace over food together, jostle each other in the car, openly tear up and laugh loudly. In a world where there seem to be so few positive male role models for young men, the Boys from the Heights’ willingness to be openly emotional and advocate for love and authenticity is a truly special thing.
Taki 183, when interviewed in the film, notes that it does feel pretty cool to be considered a legend, to have people look up when you walk in a room. But someone like Taki 183, who got into graffiti with his friends from his Greek Orthodox youth group basketball team and who values subtlety and simplicity in his tags, clearly has the heart and life experience to bear the responsibility of the “legend” title.
The media, both in the eighties and today, has long portrayed graffiti as egoistical vandalism fueled by a desire for fame. And the trademark vandal is an angry teenager. But it’s evident that the Boys from the Heights are still painting. he signposts of Cleveland bear Taki 183’s clean-cut lettering now, and the floors of Graffiti HeArt are now covered with SJK 171 and Mike 171’s flaring and unique tags. And these tags were not for personal gain or egoism. They meant to contribute to the community and leave it better than they found it.
JEC *, whose signature asterisk originates from the fact that he lived on 164th but spent so much time at 171st that he felt conflicted as to which street to put in his tag, now has one of the most elaborate tags in the group. It’s a swirling signature that stretches far beyond the three letter it’s made up of. The asterisk made his work one of a kind, and JEC * now handles the bulk of the merch for the Boys from the Heights and sells t-shirts with his tag on it. “We never did merch or anything before,” he said. “It’s all new.”
“When we’re dead and gone, you’ll have these tags, these books, these movies, all that to remember us by.”
In the car back to my hotel, Mike 171 remarked: “When we’re dead and gone, you’ll have these tags, these books, these movies, all that to remember us by.” I nodded. “You made your mark on the world,” I agreed. The car sped past a signpost bare of graffiti, but I knew that even if the Boys from the Heights didn’t come back to Cleveland, their work would inspire somebody else to tag it.