Taki, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Washington Heights, moved there when I was a little kid. A lot of Greeks at the time stayed with the Greeks, then that changed with the Heights, the183th street, hung out with everybody and it was a pretty nice place to grow up.
Is it safe to say Washington Heights was the birthplace of modern graffiti in New York City?
I would say the east side of Manhattan was the birthplace of graffiti because that’s where the media picked it up. They couldn’t give a crap what happened in Washington Heights or the Bronx. When it happened on the east side, that’s when it was in the paper.
When you started writing graffiti, what were you calling it? Did you call it tagging or writing?
I think we were calling it writing, but if we saw a subway car we would say, “Let’s go hit the car.” If you hit it from end to end, you’d “kill the car”— that was how we talked Part of the reason it became big during the summer of ’70 is because I was going to summer school at George Washington High School and my desk was full of graffiti. I had written my name and all these people would write on my table also. I already had a name and people were meeting me and they would go out and write. That was the big summer I was working as a messenger. I was in a lot of places and I just kept writing; as long as I had a marker I’d keep writing. It was addictive.
You were doing this solely for the purpose of writing your name?
Yeah, just to say I was there, basically.
Did you go out to all the different boroughs?
I inevitably I did, but Brooklyn is a very big borough, so I wouldn’t make a point of stopping at every station and writing. At some point I hit all the boroughs, but not everywhere, it’s big job.
So in early 1970, the subway system has no tags except for you guys. At what point do you start seeing other people like BABYFACE 86, for example, or JOE 182?
I think it just happened overnight. Basically, you’d already hit the 169th Street station, and they would write right next to you. They wouldn’t write around the corner, they’d write next to you. People just added their names and it was pretty cool. The names tended to be clustered, and it kind of mushroomed from there. It just happened overnight basically.
What do you think it is about graffiti that makes it so attractive to kids?
I think graffiti is attractive to kids because it’s a cheap way to get notoriety. If you’re not a great athlete, if you’re not a great scholar, you can always be a great writer and everybody will know you.
All this early graffiti is very legible; it doesn’t really start getting stylized till end of ’71, ’72. Since you guys aren’t really thinking of yourself as graffiti artists, how important was the legibility and everyone on the street being able to read it?
I think legibility was pretty important, and you can throw it up quick. If you did bubble letters, you’d really have to stand there and balance it out, so it was easier to put it up in block letters.
You once said to me that you wanted a tag that took less than 3 seconds. You wanted to be able to get off the train, hit a pillar and keep going… You talked about legibility just now, describe what the tags looked like: Grade school penmanship? Straight lines? Can you describe the graffiti you saw others doing?
As far as legibility goes, the guys I was with used very straightforward lettering. JULIO had a little style in it because the letters lent themselves to it. I remember JOE 136 would make a curve, a script-type writing, which he could do quick, but it had some style to it. The first fancy stuff I saw was STAY HIGH and SUPERKOOL 223. They kind of stacked their letters; they did things you can recognize without actually reading them but they were still legible.
After it became really bubble and stuff like that, we kind of lost interest in it. You know, it’s not what we started doing, and they’d take up the whole [wall] and spray over you. It got ridiculous for us.
At what point do you start to phase out of graffiti?
I think I phased out of graffiti when I finished high school and I had a car and a girlfriend. I wasn’t riding the subway as much. Probably by 1972 I stopped writing. It’s just there was nothing else to do. I didn’t want to start hanging off bridges; going into train yards. I guess I had made my point. I had fame and glory.
How do you feel about being considered, especially in books, the most important early writer that there is?
For all the graffiti that’s in all the books, there’s so little of me recorded, which is what makes it cool. The further back you are, the less there is recorded.
Can you sum up your life post-graffiti?
I’m glad I don’t carry a marker around because I’m always tempted to write.
Thanks for the Interview, more at taki183.net