Interview with SLAVE

Bronx Oral History Center
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00:00:00 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: Steven Payne
Welcome to The Bronx Aerosol Arts Documentary Project. This is the third oral history for the project. My name is Steven Payne, librarian and archivist at The Bronx County Historical Society. Today is February 9, 2022, and we're very excited to have here as our guest SLAVE, and I'll say a little bit more about him in a second . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment Dr. Steven Payne, librarian and archivist at The Bronx County Historical Society, and Kurt Boone, veteran documentarian of urban culture, introduce SLAVE, the legendary graffiti artist who is a part of The Fabulous Five, the first graffiti crew to paint an operational whole subway train in 1977.

Keywords: Whole train (Graffiti)

Subjects: Graffiti; Slave (Graffiti artist); The Fabulous Five (Graffiti artist group)

00:01:39 - Early Life and Introduction to Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
Yeah, well my name's Kenneth Durant, known as SLAVE from The Fabulous Five. I originally was born in The Bronx, but then we moved to Brooklyn. I really don't remember too much of The Bronx, cause I was like 2 or 3 years old when we moved to Brooklyn . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE speaks about his early life, including his birth in The Bronx, moving then to East New York, and finally to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where he grew up. He also remembers his introduction to graffiti in Crown Heights and how he first got involved in writing.

Keywords: Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.); Dash (Graffiti artist); Facts 160 (Graffiti artist); IO (Graffiti artist); Kingston Avenue (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Layups (Graffiti); Riff (Graffiti artist); The Odd Partners (Graffiti artist group); Tracy 168 (Graffiti artist)

Subjects: Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.); Cartoons and comics; East New York (New York, N.Y.); Graffiti; Graffiti artists

00:04:05 - Origins of the Name "SLAVE"

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
I couldn't, like, think of a name. So, I, I used to work in McCrory's, when I was about like 14, 15. So we used to work, and we'd work, and we'd work, and then when we'd get the check there was hardly anything left. So that's how I came up with the name. I said, "They working me like a slave."

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE speaks about how he came up with his graffiti name and how he had to develop style quickly to master the first letter of the name.

Keywords: McCrory Corporation; Slave (Graffiti artist)

Subjects: Graffiti; Graffiti artists; Lettering in art; Slave (Graffiti artist); Style (Graffiti)

00:05:08 - Family Background, Adolescence, and Public School Experience

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
Oh, my whole family, they originated from the Virgin Islands, St. Croix. Frederiksted. And they moved up here. And, like, all my brothers and sisters, everybody, were born there. I was the only one born in New York. My mother was a nurse. My father, believe it or not, he used to drive the subway trains . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE speaks about his family background in St. Croix and the jobs his parents had while he was growing up. His father, coincidentally, was a subway operator, though he never expressed knowledge of SLAVE's involvement in subway writing. SLAVE also speaks about his experience attending various public schools in Brooklyn, when graffiti started to become his major focus, and the sports he would play around his neighborhood.

Keywords: Albany Projects (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); Frederiksted (United States Virgin Islands); Freeman Street (Bronx, N.Y.); P.S. 182 (East New York, New York, N.Y.); P.S. 221 (Brooklyn, N.Y.); P.S. 232 Winthrop School (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Racking (Graffiti); Simpson Street (Bronx, N.Y.); St. John's Park (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); Thomas Jefferson High School (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)

Subjects: Basketball; Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Cartoon characters; Football; Graffiti; Migration, Internal--United States; New York City Public Schools; Saint Croix (United States Virgin Islands); Subways--New York (State)--New York

00:10:32 - Street Gangs and Teenage Years

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
We had the Ghetto Brothers, we had the, the Tomahawks. Really around me were the Jolly Stompers. They, they, they headquarters were right around the corner from my house on Crown Street and Schenectady . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE speaks about some of the prominent "gangs", or street organizations, in Crown Heights while he was growing up, including the Ghetto Brothers (he was a Junior Ghetto Brother himself), the Tomahawks, and the Jolly Stompers. He also speaks more about his experience of high school and college, before having to drop out due to work.

Keywords: Colors (Gangs); Crown Street (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); George W. Wingate High School (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); Ghetto Brothers; Jolly Stompers; Junior Ghetto Brothers; Montgomery Street (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); New York City College of Technology (CUNY); Queens-Midtown Tunnel (New York, N.Y.); Schenectady Avenue (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); Tomahawks

Subjects: Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.); Gangs--New York (State); New York City Public Schools

00:13:36 - Various Aspects of Childhood

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
We used to do a lot of—I used to do them, my nephew did them, like Thor and Luke Cage, and all those. But on my wall I did like a Frankenstein dancing, and a girl with long hair, earrings dancing . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE speaks about various additional aspects of his childhood, including the cartoons and characters he drew, the food that he and his family ate, music, house parties, and his sense of fashion.

Keywords: Adidas USA (Firm); CONVERSE; Cage, Luke (Fictitious character); Cats (Gang); Cooking (Chicken); Cooking (Liver); Frankenstein's monster (Fictitious character) in art; Puma; Racking; Thor; White Castle (Restaurant)

Subjects: Calypso (Music); Cartoons and comics; Food; Hip-hop; Hip-hop--Fashion; House parties; Reggae music; Seafood; Sneakers

00:19:59 - Getting into Style Writing

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
Oh, style letterings? Let me see. I used to always watch all the new pieces coming out. I used to see . . . But when CLIFF and them was out, well we did that one with Charlie Brown and all those . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE speaks about his first introductions to style writing through seeing the work of individual writers and especially the crews The Odd Partners, The Fantastic Partners, and The Fabulous Five (the crew he joined). He also speaks about his time writing "RO3", what he wrote before "SLAVE", and the fact that he went straight to working with spray paint, instead of starting out tagging with markers (as was more typical). He touches on various additional basic elements of the graffiti arts movement, including racking, the brands of spray paint available during the 1970s, and where he would paint lay ups (trains resting at stations before being put back into operation). He offers his definitions of some of the standard graffiti terminology: "throw ups", "pull in and pull outs", "burners", and "pieces".

Keywords: 110 film; 2 Seventh Avenue Express; 3 Seventh Avenue Express; 3 Yard Boys (Graffiti artist group); 4 Lexington Avenue Express; 5 Lexington Avenue Express; Atlantic Avenue station; BI (Graffiti artist); Baychester Avenue station; Blade (Graffiti artist); Bot 707 (Graffiti artist); Brown, Charlie (Fictitious character); Burners (Graffiti); Cliff 159 (Graffiti artist); Comet (Graffiti artist); Dash 167 (Graffiti artist); Doc 109 (Graffiti artist); Esplanade Avenue station; Falcon 789 (Graffiti artist); IN (Graffiti artist); Insides (Graffiti); John 150 (Graffiti artist); Kingston Avenue station; Krylon (Firm); Lay ups (Graffiti); Magik Markers; Mono (Graffiti artist); Nostrand Avenue station; OG 2 (Graffiti artist); OI (Graffiti artist); Outsides (Graffiti); PO 137 (Graffiti artist); Pieces (Graffiti); Prof 165 (Graffiti artist); Pull in and pull outs (Graffiti); Racking (Graffiti); Red Devil (Firm); Riff 170 (Graffiti artist); Rust-Oleum (Firm); Slug (Graffiti artist); Solid 1 (Graffiti artist); Stan 153 (Graffiti artist); Stim (Graffiti artist); TO 729 (Graffiti artist); Tagging (Graffiti); Tee (Graffiti artist); The Fabulous Five (Graffiti artist group); The Fantastic Partners (Graffiti artist group); The Odd Partners (Graffiti artist group); Third Avenue–149th Street station; Throw ups (Graffiti); Ti 149 (Graffiti artist); Top to bottoms (Graffiti); Uttica Avenue station; Wild style (Graffiti); Woody Woodpecker (Fictitious character)

Subjects: Graffiti; Graffiti artists; Lettering in art; Photographs; Spray paint; Style writing (Graffiti); Subways--New York (State)--New York; Tools in art; Writer's bench (Graffiti); Writers' Bench

00:37:37 - Writing SLAVE and Joining The Fabulous Five (TF5)

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
In '75. And I, this is where my head was at. I, I did a silver "SLAVE". The "S" was this big, but then when it got down to the "E" it was small. But in my eyes I did a bad burner, you know. I was so proud, my chest stuck out when I got home . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE relates a funny story about his first time writing "SLAVE" and remembers how he joined with The Fabulous Five as well as various members of the crew.

Keywords: Blud (Graffiti artist); Cowboy (Graffiti artist); Del (Graffiti artist); Doc (Graffiti artist); James TOP (Graffiti artist); Mono (Graffiti artist); OG (Graffiti artist); OI (Graffiti artist); Pieces (Graffiti); Prof 165 (Graffiti artist); Quinones, Lee George; Slave (Graffiti artist); Slug (Graffiti artist); The Fabulous Five (Graffiti artist group); The Odd Partners (Graffiti artist group); Throw ups (Graffiti); Ti 149 (Graffiti artist); Top to bottoms (Graffiti)

Subjects: Graffiti; Graffiti artists; Interborough Rapid Transit Company; Subways--New York (State)--New York

00:41:37 - Artistic Process and Painting the First Whole Train with TF5

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
You know, sometime I, I'd take a piece of paper and draw on it. Black books wasn't really my things because I couldn't just sit in one spot all the time. Be, had be at my house doing, like, every now and then we'd have a bunch of people over and we'd just play around in black books and stuff . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE speaks about the process behind planning and outlining pieces, which usually involved hanging out with other writers while drinking and smoking. He also remembers hanging out at LEE's house with other members of The Fabulous Five as well as the crew's painting of the first whole train, comprised of 10 cars, over the course of a weekend in 1977. Although the train was photographed, he makes the point that it was not photographed by Henry Chalfant or Martha Cooper, because they did not start coming around the graffiti scene, he recalls, until after he stopped writing in 1978.

Keywords: Beer; Black books; Blade (Graffiti artist); Butch 2 (Graffiti artist); Case 2 (Graffiti artist); Chalfant, Henry; Cooper, Martha; Doc (Graffiti artist); Dondi (Graffiti artist); Lay ups (Graffiti); Lee, Bruce; Lincoln Terrace Park (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.); Mickey Mouse (Fictitious character); Mono (Graffiti artist); Noc 167 (Graffiti artist); Pencil drawing; Pieces (Graffiti); Quinones, Lee George; Racking (Graffiti); The Fabulous Five (Graffiti artist group); Top to bottoms (Graffiti); Uttica Avenue station; Weed; Whole cars (Graffiti); Whole trains (Graffiti)

Subjects: Graffiti; Graffiti artists; Subways--New York (State)--New York

00:50:35 - Getting Out of the Graffiti World

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Partial Transcript: Kurt Boone
Cause LEE, LEE was the star of Wild Style, the movie, right. Were you, were you hanging with LEE when they were making the movie?

SLAVE
Nah, nah cause when I, in, in '79, I had bought a car. So that was the rest of it. That was that. Now I was chasing women and making money . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE describes getting out of graffiti in 1978/1979 and eventually moving to Florida in 1983, where he stayed until 2009/2010, when he moved back to New York City. He also speculates on Dondi's stylistic debt to Noc 167, who was and still is SLAVE's friend. This leads SLAVE to speak about the general atmosphere of friendship that has reigned in the graffiti arts community since the beginning, with a few notable exceptions. This atmosphere also shaped the etiquette around going over other artists' pieces (in most cases, this was widely looked down on). He talks about missing the transition of some writers to canvas in the early 1980s as well as not being aware of Style Wars when it came out in 1983, since he was not only out of the graffiti scene by this moment in time but also out of New York City.

Keywords: 4 Lexington Avenue Express; Beer; Burners (Graffiti); Canvas; Cap (Graffiti artist); Dondi (Graffiti artist); Futura (Graffiti artist); Morris Park Crew (Graffiti artist group); Noc 167 (Graffiti artist); Old timers (Graffiti); PO (Graffiti artist); Police Athletic League (U.S.); Quinones, Lee George; Style Wars (Motion Picture); The Fabulous Five (Graffiti artist group); The Odd Partners (Graffiti artist group); Weed; Wild Style (Motion Picture)

Subjects: Daughters; Divorce; Florida; Friendship; Graffiti; Granddaughters

00:58:14 - Early Graffiti Culture and Its Global Spread

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
Yeah, yeah, it's amazing to me, you know, of, of how back in the days artists didn't wanna have nothing to do with nobody graffiti. We vandals. We just messing up property and all that. Now look at them. Now they wanna be graffiti artists. They been artists all the time. Now all the sudden they wanna do letters and [inaudible] graffiti . . . but you don't have the soul to do this, you know. We know what the letter styles are . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE starts off reflecting on the global spread of graffiti, especially its recent appropriation by the "high art" world and how some contemporary graffiti artists lack the soul that animated the movement during its early years. This leads him to a general discussion of various aspects of early graffiti culture, including style writing, the most famous writers' bench at Third Avenue–149th Street station in The Bronx, the thrill and terror of being chased and harassed by vandal cops, and the general underground or outlaw nature of the movement.

Keywords: 2 Seventh Avenue Express; 5 Lexington Avenue Express; Baychester Avenue station; Brooklyn Bridge station; Chain 3 (Graffiti artist); Colors; Doc (Graffiti artist); Global culture; Hickey, Kevin; J Nassau Street Local; Layups (Graffiti); Lesnewski, Conrad ("Ski"); Mono (Graffiti artist); Part One (Graffiti artist); Pieces (Graffiti); Quinones, Lee George; RR Fourth Avenue Local via Tunnel; Racking (Graffiti); Soul; Style; The Fabulous Five (Graffiti artist group); Third Avenue–149th Street station; Writers' Bench

Subjects: Appropriation (Arts); Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Graffiti; Graffiti artists; Style writing; Vandalism

01:08:55 - Aspects of Artistic Work, Past and Present

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
Well, well, I painted when I first came back. But I, I never really painted none of my old pieces because to me it's hard to recreate your old pieces. It's more easier for me to do new pieces and new canvases and styles and stuff . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE talks about some of the artistic work he is doing currently. He also reflects on his use of cartoon characters in pieces back in the 1970s and the ways in which his crew would lessen the chance of something going wrong while painting a piece. He circles back to speaking about his current craft, which he engages in as the urge arises. He ends by relating his experiences being in shows with other old timers from the graffiti arts movement.

Keywords: Art commissions; Art--Exhibitions; Beer; Brown, Charlie (Fictitious character); Doc (Graffiti artist); Futura (Graffiti artist); Keep On Truckin'; Layups (Graffiti); Mono (Graffiti artist); Quinones, Lee George; Ree (Graffiti artist); Sam, Yosemite (Fictitious character); Wild style (Graffiti)

Subjects: Canvas; Cartoon characters; Graffiti

01:16:07 - Inspiration, Colors, and Other Aspects of Graff

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
Well, let me see. When Noc came down from The Bronx me and him used to hang out and stuff. And I used to watch some of the stuff that he do, so I'd like imitate some of it, then I'd switch it around my way, then I'd start noticing, you know, different letter patterns in, in, on the train and stuff. From, a lot of people from The Bronx, you know . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE touches on various aspects of his graffiti practice, including his inspiration, the reputation of Bronx writers as being style masters, the colors he was drawn to, how he would acquire a supply of aerosol caps, and how he would get into various layups (Uttica, Baychester, and New Lots). He also speaks more about his proximity to the M.T.A. through his father and reflects on the fact that he mostly avoided incarceration, two-week stints aside, unlike many other graffiti writers of his generation.

Keywords: Baychester Avenue station; Butch 2 (Graffiti artist); Cap (Graffiti artist); Cascade green; Cascade red; Jolly Stompers; Layups (Graffiti); New Lots Avenue station; Noc 167 (Graffiti artist); Racking (Graffiti); Red Devil (Firm); Rust-Oleum (Firm); Sandalwood tan; Schoolbus yellow; Skeleton keys; Style masters (Graffiti); Uttica Avenue station

Subjects: Aerosol caps; Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Color in art; Graffiti artists; Incarceration issues; Inspiration in art; Style; Subways--New York (State)--New York

01:23:03 - Final Reflections

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Partial Transcript: SLAVE
Yosemite Sam, I liked that one. Let me see what else. Two, me and LEE did some burners, with, what's the, used to be these two bird characters in the, in the Mad books back in the day . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment SLAVE offers some final reflections on his favorite pieces as well as how he wants to be remembered in the graffiti arts movement and where he and his generation fit into its history. He ends with a reflection on the ways in which the movement helped those involved overcome some of the effects of racism.

Keywords: Burners (Graffiti); Chain 3 (Graffiti artist); Doc (Graffiti artist); Kool 131 (Graffiti artist); Mad magazine; Mono (Graffiti artist); Noc 167 (Graffiti artist); Part One (Graffiti artist); Quinones, Lee George; Racking (Graffiti); Riff 170 (Graffiti artist); Sam, Yosemite (Fictional character); Spy vs. Spy; The Fabulous Five (Graffiti artist group); Tracy 168 (Graffiti artist)

Subjects: Global art; Graffiti; Graffiti history; Mural painting and decoration; Racism in art