The Story of Scrap Yard & SoHo’s Graffiti History

Written by Elizabeth Lepro

This article is part of UP Magazine’s Issue 6: Graffiti – Order Your Copy Here [Releasing 2024]

Thirteen-year-old Ali Mark Awfe arrived in New York City September 26, 1984, among the more than one million people who fled Lebanon during its 15-year civil war. An uncle picked up Awfe, his parents, and his three sisters from JFK and took them to Bayside, Queens. It was in Queens, on the elevated RR train, that Ali saw graffiti for the first time.

“My thought was, ‘what is the purpose of this writing?’ Why do people do this?’”

He was about to find out.

——

Before the internet, social media, or the mass appeal of ‘street art,’ graffiti was a strictly underground affair. The 1982 documentary Style Wars offered a rare — and what was for many, first — glimpse at the network of graffiti crews at work all over the city, tagging cars and bombing — or painting — trains end to end, inside and out. Some writers were at war with each other, while everyone was up against the New York Transit Police’s Vandal Squad, a new cadre within the department created to fight the war on graffiti that would morph with each new era in NYC politics.

It was in many ways the ‘bad old days’ in New York City, and, to the chagrin of worried parents and disgruntled straphangers, graffiti writers — mostly kids — had found community in the underground.

“They’re saying… the system is out of control, that 15- or 16-year old kids are running the system,” says an interviewer in Style Wars to a group gathered at the Writer’s Bench, a meet-up spot for graffiti writers in the 149th st-Grand Concourse station.

“Nah, I ain’t runnin’ the system,” one young person responds. “I’m bombin’ the system.”

 

Before the internet, social media, or the mass appeal of ‘street art,’ graffiti was a strictly underground affair.

 

——

In a few ways, what was underground had begun to bubble up to the surface — especially in SoHo. The blocks on either side of Canal Street, west of Broadway, were “like a magical area for aspiring young graffiti writers” in the ‘80s, said David ‘Chino’ Villorente, the graffiti historian and writer known as Chino BYI.

Pearl Paint, the art supply store where writers would buy or ‘rack’ – steal – paint, had its anchor location next to Canal Jean Co. Graffiti and hip-hop documentarian Henry Chalfant, who co-produced Style Wars and co-authored the infamous ‘Subway Art,’ regularly welcomed writers into his studio on Grand and West Broadway to flip through photo albums — one of the only ways writers could see each other’s work all in one place. Just around the corner, at 307 West Broadway, a magazine and comic book shop called SohoZat sold Vaughn Bodē’s Cheech Wizard and Ninja Turtles comics, which featured characters often recreated in graffiti.

A preteen at the time, Chino would travel into Manhattan from Brooklyn to visit SohoZat. “A part of the allure for me as a kid was that they had all of these cool import items in there,” Villorente said. “They had imported comic books. They had kung fu magazines and karate things — just in a very strange way, everything that was cool to a kid in junior high school.”

Soho Kiosque 1992 – Photo Provided by Mark Awfe

For some time, SoHoZat’s owners, Stan Bobrof and Darryl Mendelson, rented out booths in the space to other vendors — the clothing store, Axiom, had a stall in the back, for example. At another booth, a man named Ali Sater sold pipes and newspapers. SohoZat fell victim to the climbing rent prices in 1992, but just before that, Sater cut out across the street and opened the SoHo Kiosque at 300 West Broadway.

The Kiosque was mostly a bodega and smoke shop “and just the smallest section, half a showcase, of graffiti supplies,” said Awfe. Among the most coveted graf-related items the SoHo Kiosque carried were copies of Videograf, Carl Weston and Colin ‘KoolSpin’ Turner’s underground video magazine, and fat caps — specialized nozzles that widen the spray area and were a rarity in those days.

“Prior to that, you had to really just get your supplies or graffiti paraphernalia all kinds of other ways,” said the writer Grimace, aka NZ-One. “If we wanted to get a fat cap, we had to steal it off of a can of [Krylon] crystal acrylic spray.”

Awfe was 21 at the time. A few years earlier, he had graduated from the Windsor School in Flushing, where he unknowingly studied alongside Chow156 and Queens bomber DUEL RIS.

After school, he worked with his uncles at their jewelry and smoke shops, learning the ins-and-outs of running a business. Awfe’s parents hadn’t adjusted to the U.S. They, along with his sisters, had all moved back to Lebanon shortly after arriving, leaving Awfe alone in the city. When Awfe’s brother-in-law, Nabil Al-Ahmar, heard Sater was selling SoHo Kiosque, he asked Awfe to go in on it with him.

 

“Prior to that, you had to really just get your supplies or graffiti paraphernalia all kinds of other ways,” said the writer Grimace, aka NZ-One. “If we wanted to get a fat cap, we had to steal it off of a can of [Krylon] crystal acrylic spray.”

 

Sensing that he had to carve out his own future, Awfe chipped in $15,000 in 1992. It was half the price of the shop and all of his savings, but with it, he became co-owner of the little bodega at 300 West Broadway. Though the name changed several times before becoming Scrap Yard, the bodega-sized graffiti shop would flourish for more than 25 years under Awfe’s tenure, cementing itself as a first-of-its-kind landmark destination for graffiti writers and fans worldwide.

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The ‘90s moved in. The red awning remained, but the prim SOHO KIOSQUE typeface was replaced with graffiti-style lettering marking the shop’s new name: Soho Down & Under. The gate was littered with tags. A neighboring payphone had been completely decimated by spray paint, as was a door to the left, and all the space on the wall in between. Graffiti writers had officially taken over 300 West Broadway.

On any given day in the ‘90s, Villorente and others remembered, 10 to 30 kids in Adidas shell toes and streetwear from Stüssy or PNB Nation could be found outside the shop drinking Arizona iced tea or malt liquor, swapping blackbooks, hoping to be recruited by crews and trading information. In a changing SoHo, the shop felt to many like a refuge that was unapologetically true to graffiti culture.

 

“If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t probably be where I’m at today,” said New York-based artist Hektad. “This was the only place I could get my paint. Without that, I’m screwed.”

 

“If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t probably be where I’m at today,” said New York-based artist Hektad. “This was the only place I could get my paint. Without that, I’m screwed.” Soho Down & Under paid artists up front, rather than on consignment, for their apparel and magazines and Awfe went to some trouble importing international publications including Underground Magazine from Stockholm, Fatcap from Norway and The Hype from Australia.

“I started buying two-to-three-hundred magazines at a time,” Awfe said. He traded fat caps with a shop owner in Berlin and visited trade shows at the Javits Center to find new streetwear brands from across the country, including 187 HUDDA, Tribal Streetwear and Top 2 Bottom. The shop helped buoy artists when other businesses may have balked at endorsing graffiti.

 

“If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t probably be where I’m at today,” said New York-based artist Hektad. “This was the only place I could get my paint. Without that, I’m screwed.”

 

“Sometimes he would sell 200 shirts a week, just my brand,” said the writer WANE COD. “It’s incredible. Back then I thought it was kind of normal… but it’s not normal. Even to this day, it’s not normal.”

The shop’s reputation spread to the point where, according to Awfe, Eric Clapton once saw someone in London wearing a windbreaker from the store and later pulled up in a limo to purchase eight of them. Other celebrities popped in over the years. “One of the first times I had a run in with a celebrity was around ‘93,” remembered street artist Chris RWK. “I was going to walk into the shop and Biz Markie was walking out.”

At the time, graffiti was purposefully clandestine — “completely draped in mystique,” said Villorente. In an internet-less age, at 300 West Broadway young writers could put a face to names they’d only seen plastered across train cars. “You couldn’t get on Instagram and connect with Futura or Crash or Daze, there were just stories of who these people were,” Villorente said. “It’s almost like Joseph Campbell’s power of myth. I’m sure Paul Bunyon was a tall dude but with every retelling he probably got a little bit taller.”

 

“You couldn’t get on Instagram and connect with Futura or Crash or Daze, there were just stories of who these people were,” Villorente said.

 

By most accounts, Scrap Yard’s success over the years was a combination of right time, right place, right management. “The truth is that the community was starved,” said Villorente. “There were generations of kids that were enamored and fascinated with graffiti but there weren’t many places for them to go and I think Scrap Yard created that place. You could find out what was hip, what was new, meet your favorite graffiti writers there while you’re buying fat caps… if there was a new marker out, they had it. If there was a new book out, [Awfe] was carrying it.”

——

By the summer of 1996, construction was coming to a close in the vacant lot next door to Soho Down & Under on the SoHo Grand Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel whose design was meant to evoke some co-mingling of the artsy ‘70s and the gilded ‘80s. Soho had already begun mythologizing its own recent history.

Elsewhere, designer brands moved into buildings once rented out as artists’ lofts. Properties changed hands and the gritty subculture that had once defined the area started giving way to a more refined, more expensive version of what once was.

“It was time to revitalize the shop to make it look more chic,” Awfe said.

At the same time, an artist who declined to be named in this story, but will go by Mr. NoName, heard about plans for a large streetwear store around the corner from Soho Down & Under that was going to include an indoor skate ramp (the store was likely Yellow Rat Bastard). “I ran from Broadway over here and I told Mark, ‘this guy is gonna put you out of business,’” he said.

Again, Awfe made the choice to go all in on graffiti. He and NoName transformed the store into a mini subway car. They installed silver sheet metal panels around the walls and used a drill with a metal brush to buff the inside. Mr. NoName brought subway handles to hang up. He also suggested a new name inspired by a 1992 Lordz of Brooklyn song: Bomb the System.

 

“Nah, I ain’t runnin’ the system,” one young person responds. “I’m bombin’ the system.”

 

Subway graff writer and sign painter Peter Paid sketched out lettering for the new sign with a marker. Paid’s sign — hand-cut letters, metal awning, subway motif — was immediately distinguishing.

“There was not a day… where that sign would not be photographed by 50 people,” Awfe said.

The downside of more recognition for Bomb the System was that it drew more heat.

——

In 1972, when subway passengers couldn’t see out the window of a NYC MTA car through the spray paint, then-Mayor John Lindsey declared war on graffiti. “Since then, every New York City mayor has at some point reaffirmed his commitment to fighting ‘the war,’” the historian Jeff Chang told New York Magazine.

New York Transit Police, which was independent from the NYPD proper in the ‘80s, created the Vandal Squad to bust writers in the act. Any and all vandalized cars were immediately pulled from service. As Chang noted, other similar squadrons have cropped up in the years since. Mayor Bloomberg created a city-wide vandals task force, and in 2007, the transit authority deployed a team of ex-NYPD detectives called the Eagle Team to surveil the subways.

In 1989, when the last graffiti-covered train was taken out of service, Mayor Ed Koch rather absurdly declared the war on graffiti over, but in reality, the war had moved aboveground. Even when the last tag had been buffed out, the Vandal Squad followed the writers out into the streets.

 

The golden days of subway graffiti may have passed, but the store had cemented its role in history — a virtual replica of the shop would even feature in Marc Eckō’s 2006 graffiti-themed video game Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure.

 

Vandal Squad members would stake out Bomb the System on a regular basis in the ‘90s, parking their cars across the street or around the block, waiting to nab graffiti writers in the act. Sometimes squad members would browse inside. “They never came to the store and said ‘give me the name of the guy or whatever,’” Awfe said, “but they did annoy the shit out of me.”

Everyone interviewed about Scrap Yard remembered the police presence. Some pointed out that because the form originated with Black and brown youth, and because it was closely tied to hip-hop, the risk of run-ins with the cops was often worse for non-white perpetrators. In 1983, Vandal Squad beat 25-year-old Black graffiti artist Michael Stewart so badly that he lapsed into a coma and later died. Jean-Michel Basquiat created a painting called “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)” to memorialize Stewart and highlight the injustice of the moment. “It was just straight up harassment. Stop and frisk — that was the era,” said the writer NICEO CM, who started hanging out at Scrap Yard as early as 12 years old. “It was, ‘Listen, they hanging out, go harass them. Why? They hanging out in a place [that’s] not a real Black-family-oriented area… They must be up to no good.’”

To protect his more naïve customers from walking out of the shop and tagging while cops were around, Awfe would write ‘the block is on fire’ on a piece of paper and slide it across the counter. “The city pays four guys $75,000 a year to stand at a corner… to catch a kid with a Sharpie?” Awfe said. “That’s what I hate the most.”

——

In 2000, Awfe and Al-Ahmar dissolved their partnership and Awfe became Bomb the System’s sole owner. He’d learned from his uncles that, to avoid legal disputes, a fresh start should come with a fresh name. He chose Scrap Yard because MTA train scrapyards were once popular tagging grounds.

One afternoon in the summer of 2001, Awfe’s wife Lucy took a visiting friend to the top of the World Trade Center. There were binoculars at the top, so she called her husband. Awfe walked out of the shop and she could see him waving from the street.

Business was good. Awfe used to keep the shop open until 1AM. on the weekends, catering to writers who would stop by before they went out to tag bathrooms in clubs. The golden days of subway graffiti may have passed, but the store had cemented its role in history — a virtual replica of the shop would even feature in Marc Eckō’s 2006 graffiti-themed video game Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Awfe was in Astoria, Queens, getting ready to leave his house to open the shop when the first plane hit the Towers. His wife had just given birth to their second child; he remembered that she was breast-feeding. “The first one, it looked [to me] — like everyone else — a helicopter accident. The second one, I saw it live,” he said. The next day, Awfe drove to Scrap Yard to check on things. A border had been constructed along Canal St., closing the streets beyond the shop to non-residents. “All the media trucks and the vans and the satellites and the tanks and the Marines and the soldiers were literally at the corner of my shop,” he said.

Awfe went home and didn’t come back in for 20 days. It was so unusual that Scrap Yard’s long-time landlord called Awfe’s house to make sure he was still alive. He was alive, but he was struggling. “I would just get those severe anxiety and depression modes,” Awfe said.

After 9/11, Scrap Yard would close sporadically for days at a time. It once stayed shuttered for two months straight. Lucy helped keep the store afloat. At the same time, the cost of living in New York City was getting high. Online shopping for popular spray paint brands was easier and at times cheaper than in-person retail.

“When spray paint companies start undercutting the retail shops on their own website, it really left me no room to survive,” Awfe said. Regulars had grown up and drifted away — some became street artists, others took on new careers in and out of the art world. “I could have done something on the website, I didn’t do it,” Awfe said. “I always felt face-to-face was my job.”

Awfe had three children and had been supporting his family in Lebanon for most of his life. He had never owned a home. He decided that February 8, 2017 would be his last day in the store. After that, he and Lucy would move to Arizona to be near her family.

Before they left, Lucy and Villorente threw a going-away party for Awfe at a club in the Lower East Side. Peter Paid DJ’d and hundreds of artists who had known Awfe over the three decades he’d spent behind the counter at Scrap Yard showed up to wish him well. Though he was an “outsider” — not a writer — his long-time clientele said Awfe had earned trust by treating scrappy kids and established artists alike as valued customers; friends, even. At times, he had allowed regulars to pay later and given writers money to get food or get home when they showed up at the shop straight out of central booking.

“There was no predetermined notion,” said Chris RWK. “He just opened up the blank square and let everybody come in. I literally was going there for 20-something years, and he had no clue who I was, but he treated me as good on the last day when he learned who I was as the first day when he had no clue.”

NICEO recalled Awfe buying his shirts for the first time — believing in kids’ potential when few others did. Peter Paid remembered Awfe jumping up to buy him lunch every time he walked in the front door. WANE COD said Awfe would haggle for lower prices on shirts, then laugh about it — he “fit right in.”

“I did what I did in the store from the bottom of my heart,” Awfe said. “I know my story is not IBM. I know I’m not Tesla. But for me, I made a little memory for New York City history. Nobody could take that away from me.”

 

“There was no predetermined notion,” said Chris RWK. “He just opened up the blank square and let everybody come in. I literally was going there for 20-something years, and he had no clue who I was, but he treated me as good on the last day when he learned who I was as the first day when he had no clue.”

——

One Sunday in March 2023, NICEO sweeps the sidewalk in front of Scrap Yard.

It’s early afternoon; as quiet at this hour as a Manhattan street can be. No writers hang outside the shop, though a few stop in to browse. There are no Vandal Squad members staked out across the street. Inside the shop, the steel interior is littered with tags and stickers; a glass case displays spray paint and markers; New York Robbery beanies are propped above a clothing rack with T-shirts that say things like Criminal Minded and FUCK 12. Some products in the shop are more like souvenirs than supplies, including a Scrap Yard- inspired puzzle, which was NICEO’s idea, capitalizing on an opportunity to cater to new audiences.

“When I started writing graffiti at a young age, it was a no, no,” NICEO said. Now, “we literally get kids and parents coming in here and the kids is younger than I was, and they want to write graffiti and the parents is totally with it. It’s totally different. Then, art is totally different.”

 

“The longevity of the store helps even more, just for the fact that it’s so iconic,” Espino says.

 

It is different, Hektad agrees, when he stops in to buy paint. In some ways, that’s a good thing. Hektad grew up writing graffiti, but since having a family and re-emerging on the art scene, he’s transitioned into a street artist well known for heart-themed murals.

“We’re all authentic ‘cause we come from that era,” Hektad says, motioning to NICEO. “Art wasn’t mainstream like it is today. If I would’ve did hearts like I do today, psh… I had to keep it hardcore.”

In 2017, Awfe had sold the shop to Taylor Levin, who went by POBE. When he died unexpectedly just a year later, his friend James Espino took over. It’s never easy for someone new to step into a well-established role — especially not in a culture as tightly knit as the graffiti world — and some online commenters lambast the change. But Espino remains positive. He survived the pandemic thanks to private sales and Scrap Yard’s long-time landlord suspending rent payments. He’s hosted a few shows in the shop. He said he understands its history and its import — Scrap Yard is as much an artifact as a business.

“The longevity of the store helps even more, just for the fact that it’s so iconic,” Espino says. “It’s kind of cool to be part of that. It still kind of blows my mind that I’m actually ‘the person’ now.” On either side of Espino, Soho looks entirely different than it did 30 years ago. What used to be SoHoZat is now a pet adoption center next to a UPS. An outdoor eating structure overflows with plants outside the Soho Grand next door. But Scrap Yard still looks like a bombed subway car, even moreso as NICEO unrolls a board with his tag out front — an emblem of what remains.

As the afternoon at the graffiti shop waxes on, several groups of young people stop in. Two boys from New Jersey with cameras dangling from their necks poke around and buy a white marker. They’d always wanted to visit, they say — “it’s kind of a legendary place.”

“It’s kind of a legendary place.”

Elizabeth Lepro is a New York-based freelance writer and reporter. Her reporting has been published in BK Reader, International Journalists’ Network, River Reporter, The Cairo Review, The San Antonio Express-news, and PublicSource, among others.

Website: elizabethlepro.com