AN INTERVIEW WITH ZEPHYR
1. Describe a typical day for a graffiti writer in the 1980’s. Did you used to go to clubs like Negril or similar places? Tell us about the flavor of those days.
I may not qualify as a typical graffiti writer, so I may not have had typical days back in the 80’s, but let me try to answer your question.
As a kid I never imagined that the graffiti that my friends and I were doing was going to one day become so interesting to people. I never could have predicted that.
In the 70’s I was making all different kinds of artwork, mainly psychedelic drawings and posters for rock bands, things like that. Sometimes I even made a little money from my art, even while I was still a teenager before I graduated from high school (1979). I used to paint the back of Levi jackets or I’d charge a kid, 20 dollars to paint something on the bottom of his skateboard.
Like I said, who could have imagined that graffiti would become so popular and beloved worldwide? Graffiti was something we did that could have bad consequences. Most people hated it. We fully understood the trouble we could get into for doing it. We knew we could get beaten up, arrested or even killed. We knew that Solid, Stim and RC were graffiti writers who were all killed by subway trains. Or how about Ali, Futura’s graffiti partner? In 1973, while painting a train, Ali was badly burned when the fumes from his spray paint ignited into flames from the spark of a passing subway train.
We tried our best not to let any of the older people around us (parents and teachers or anyone else) know that we were doing graffiti, and I think about the measures we took to keep our graffiti writing a secret.
Now, as you’ve requested, I’ll try to convey a little about the “flavor of those days”. Back in 1976 virtually every kid I knew wrote graffiti. In 1971, the year the graffiti movement really emerged in New York City, there were no laws against graffiti writing, they had to be created and put into effect later on that year. Everyone under the age of 16 (the cut-off age for avoiding legal prosecution) was doing graffiti. I knew entire families where all the kids in the family wrote graffiti, even the sisters.
Well, I’ve gotten off the subject a bit, so let me try to get back to it. By 1980 I was involved with a group of graffiti artists named “the Soul Artists”. The Soul Artists were a writing crew that Ali had> formed in 1972 with Futura and another writer named Coca 82. After Ali’s accident Futura went off to the navy. He stayed in the military for 4 years. Ali eventually healed from his burns, but the Soul Artists disbanded. However, in 1978 Ali decided to put the Soul Artists back together. However, this time he had more than just graffiti writing in mind.
The Soul Artists became an artists’ workshop. Many of the members were ex-graffiti writers and some, like myself, were still actively doing trains. We had a studio in Harlem, and we made money (not much) painting signs for stores and doing different types of art jobs. Me, Futura, Revolt, Quik, Dondi, Noc and other members of the Soul Artists were still doing trains at night. But we also started painting canvases and attempting to find venues that were receptive to exhibiting them.
We frequented a lot of nightclubs during that period, not just Negril, but also the Mudd Club (a punk rock club), the Peppermint Lounge, Danceteria, the Roxy, and many others.
We were active in the community, and were becoming pretty well known through our graffiti and the local media. A lot of the people that were hanging around the clubs with us at that time were starting to become known for their endeavors too, particularly a lot of the musicians we knew. They were our friends. We all frequented the same clubs and we partied together. David Byrne (Talking Heads), Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Debbie Harry, Billy Idol (whenever he was in NYC), Grace Jones, etc., were all on the scene back then. It was a weird and wild time. We were outlaws, but in certain circles, we were well-liked outlaws.
2.In the 80’s there was big media interest in the> scene. There were huge exhibitions featuring Basquiat, Haring and Warhol. Did it feel strange seeing your type of art associated with “Pop Art” or did it feel like a natural way to show your work? What was Basquiat’s interest in graffiti?
These questions require long answers with lots of historical information. If you have the patience, I’ll tell you how it went down: There is a neighborhood near the bottom of Manhattan called the East Village. In the 70’s it was very rundown. Young people loved it because you could smoke pot on the streets and there were used-record stores and comic book shops on every corner, but there was also a lot of drugs (particularly heroin) being sold on the streets. On a regular basis people would be robbed, stabbed or even shot. Hollywood movies like Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” or Tama Janowitz’s “Slaves of New York” attempt to capture a bit of the flavor of that period, but of course they are Hollywood films so they’re not very good.
In the early 80’s, around 1982, a number of people in the East Village were living in old stores that they were renting as apartments. As a way to help pay the rent (although rents were quite inexpensive back then) they would turn part of their apartments into small art galleries. The first storefront to do this successfully was called the Fun Gallery, and the original location was on 11th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The two people who created this place were named Patti Astor and Bill Stelling.
Patti and Bill decided that they would let their friend, the artist Kenny Scharf, show his paintings in their storefront apartment for a month. They also decided that he could call the storefront whatever he wanted for the duration of his exhibit. However, after Kenny decided to call it the “Fun Gallery”, Patti and Bill liked the name so they kept it.
The Fun Gallery became very popular very fast. They had an incredible line-up of artists, although you must remember that these artists weren’t fully ‘famous’ yet. Some of the artists who had one-man exhibits at the Fun Gallery included Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, Dondi White, Futura, Lee Quinones, Crash, myself, and a host of others.
Before long, two things happened. The first was that dozens of other storefront galleries suddenly appeared all over the East Village. Other entrepreneurs saw the success of Patti and Bill, and tried to replicate it. Some were quite successful. These are the names of a few of the galleries that sprang up in the East Village in the wake of the Fun Gallery’s success: PPOW, Gracie Mansion and Civilian Warfare.
The other thing that happened is that the “real” galleries began taking note of what was happening in the East Village. In a fancier neighborhood about a kilometer South West of the East Village called Soho, is where the big-time art business took place. It was there that artists like Warhol, who you mentioned, were represented by Leo Castelli, and where paintings priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars exchanged hands.
Inevitably, galleries like Tony Shafrazi ended up luring the best of the East Village artists into their galleries. Of course, this is to be expected in the art world. Ultimately, Haring, Basquiat, Scharf, and Futura were all represented by the Shafrazi Gallery.
As to your reference to “Pop Art”: If you’re interested in the subject of modern American art, read about Pop Art. Pop Art was a movement of art that emerged during the early 60’s. Basquiat and Haring were not members of the Pop Art movement, although you might say that Haring is a son of the Pop Art movement (Keith was a child when the Pop Art movement came into vogue). The Pop Art movement was populated by the likes of Warhol, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, etc. It should be noted that Leo Castelli represented virtually every important pop artist of the era.
Now let’s talk about Jean Michel Basquiat’s involvement with graffiti.
When he was 16 years old, Jean wrote a weekly cartoon in the school newspaper called “SAMO”, which was inspired by the expression “Same old shit”. Before long, he and two friends, Al and Shannon, were writing the name “Samo” around the streets. Although Al was a traditional graffiti writer (his tag was “Bomb”) Jean and Shannon were not. And the “Samo” graffiti they did was not at all like the typical graffiti most kids were doing. In this case, they would write “Samo” in a very legible way, followed by an inscription or an expression like: “Samo: A way of life”. Because three of them were doing it, they were able to get it around a lot. And because they were writing interesting, sometimes poetic phrases, people took note of it.
3. What are your interests and jobs today?
I make artwork. I give talks about graffiti at colleges and write books and articles. I still paint a lot of freight trains.
4. What kind or relationship do you have with Seen, Lee, and Futura?
I consider all three of these artists dear friends> that I don’t get to see as often as I’d like to.
5. You’ve painted with many different people. Who is your favorite partner?
I’m very fortunate to have collaborated with so many different amazing artists, and I feel extra lucky because they’re great people too. Doing art with folks like Revolt, Dondi, Rasta, Noc, Ezo, LSD, Klass, Kaws, Nace, Smith, Pink, Karado, Vandal, Min, just to name a few, has enriched my life. I don’t have a ‘favorite’ partner, but I’ve worked with Revolt the most. There’s a good balance between us. Revolt and I have both been influenced by a lot of the same things. Monster movies, comic books, science fiction, psychedelic concert posters, underground comics, Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead album covers, and such things.
6. Tell us about the period of Mayor Koch, in the eighties, when subway painting 90% died.
Koch claimed that if the Transit Authority cleaned the trains quickly, and writers couldn’t see their names running on the trains, they’d stop painting them. What you see in the film “Style Wars” was the start of the prison-style fence program. That was when they started building those double fences with the razor wire on top. Of course, the Transit Authority didn’t claim to have all the trains free of pieces until May of 1989. But as you point out, writers (mostly from Europe) are still doing pieces on New York City subways.
7. You appeared in the movie “Wild Style”. What was it like making this movie about the graffiti scene?
“Wild Style” was made without any real money or financial budget. When Charlie Ahearn and Fab Five Freddy made the film, they relied on their friends and colleagues. When I was first contacted, they asked me to design an animated segment for the opening credits of the movie, which I did with Revolt. Eventually, Charlie began telling me that he had a character in the film that he wanted me to play. I told him that I wasn’t an actor and I didn’t think I should be in his film, but he kept telling me I should do it. When I see the movie, I get a little embarrassed because I obviously am not an actor.
8. Early on, dee-jaying, em-ceeing, writing, and b-boying became associated as “hiphop”. Do you believe in this concept of hip-hop, or is it simply a way to combine these elements? And do you feel like a part of it?
This is a very significant question, and something I discuss in my talks at universities. What I believe you are asking about is the “elements of hip-hop” paradigm and how it came to be. Basically, there are two divergent theories on that, and the middle ground in between. One idea would be that the association of these elements is contrived, or manufactured (not in a conspiratorial way, of course). One can site a number of things to support this idea. For example, graffiti flourished for a number years before the other “elements”, so these elements didn’t appear at the same moment. We should also acknowledge the accounts of people like Ruza Blue, Fab Five Freddy, Charlie Ahearn, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, who explain how the elements were showcased early on.
On the other hand, there is a lot of fact (and of course some mythology too) about the South Bronx, which we can certainly call the historical epicenter of the movement, which to answer your other question, I do feel a part of.
9. In Italy Phase 2 teaches that it’s not correct to use the term “Graffiti”. He says it’s a media term. He says that the real term is “Writing”. What do you think about this?
I’ve known Phase for a long time, and we actually discussed this topic the last time we saw each other. Obviously, based on my repeated use of the term, I do not have an aversion to the word “Graffiti”. However, I fully respect Phase’s right to his opinion on this subject.
10. Writing has become very technical. There are a lot of different caps, colors and brands of spray paints. The new 3-D styles are so modern looking. Do you think there’s a lack of the type of spontaneity that typifies “New York style”, or has it introduced a new “point of view” to painting?
Up until a few years ago I made distinct separations in my mind about the different forms of graffiti that I saw. The major “production” walls I saw were starting to look more like elaborate murals, and less like “graffiti”. As far as I could determine, the only things connecting them to graff were the use of lettering and the use of spray paint, and I did feel that there was a lack of spontaneity. Of course, I know that under tense conditions it’s impossible to create elaborate work like that. But there are artists, like members of the AWR crew from California, who do challenge these expectations. When I see some of the work that writers like Revok or Sever or Skrew are doing on bridges and streets and billboards, I realize what’s possible. I prefer to see photos of the latest illegal work on the streets than productions, but there’s room for everything to coexist.
11. Do you still follow the writing world in fanzines or on the web?
Yes, I try to follow it as much as possible.
12. Who are your favorite new-school writers?
The most important writer of the past ten years, in my opinion, is “Twist” from San Francisco.
13. Do the new school writers in the U.S. know about the old school? Do they know the roots of writing on walls and trains?
Some do, and some don’t. Some care about the history, and some don’t. Probably most young writers don’t care too much about the history, but I think that’s o.k. It’s their business what they want to learn or care about. Of course, some people might say, “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going”.
14. The last question, and I’m very curious about this, how do you feel knowing that you started a worldwide movement?
Well, I didn’t personally create anything, graffiti was already in motion when I got involved with it. And as far as New York City getting the credit, Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) had a vibrant graffiti movement before New York did. I think the real credit goes to writers in Italy (and other countries) for taking the movement worldwide. But thank you for giving New York City (and me) so much love. You are very kind. Anyone who wants to see my work should look at my website, www.zephyrgraffiti.com. Grazie!