Interview with STAFF 161, Part 1

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. My name is Steven Payne, librarian and archivist at The Bronx County Historical Society. Today is February 23, 2022, and Kurt, before we introduce our main event here, you wanna go ahead and introduce yourself?

Kurt Boone:
Yeah, I'm, I'm Kurt Boone. I've been writing about urban culture for 40 years.

Steven Payne:
Alright, great, thank you, Kurt. So we're here with STAFF 161, really a true pioneer in the graffiti arts movement, there from pretty much the, the get go, when, be-, before many people at all had started writing on subway trains, and STAFF is also the founder of The Ebony Dukes Graffiti Club, really, the, the first crew, in, graffiti crew, in The Bronx . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment, Steven Payne and Kurt Boone, the interviewers, introduce themselves as well as the interviewee, STAFF 161, an early graffiti pioneer from The Bronx and founder of The Ebony Dukes G.C., the first graffiti crew based in The Bronx.

Keywords: Staff 161 (Graffiti artist); The Ebony Dukes G.C. (Graffiti artist group)

Subjects: Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Graffiti; Graffiti artists

00:01:10 - Early Life

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Okay, so, hello. So, my name is, is Edward. Edward is my given birth name from my mother and father. And I was born in 1956 in Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. So I was basically born and, and raised in, in the city. My first residence, my parents' first residence, and basically where they brought me when I was born was in Harlem on 117th Street and Madison Avenue . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment of his oral history, STAFF speaks about his early life in Harlem, being removed from his family to Staten Island in the foster care system at age 5, and his mother's background in St. Thomas as well as his father's background in South Carolina. He also touches on his parents' separation, how this led to him and some of his siblings being put into the foster care system temporarily, the challenges of living on Staten Island as a part of one of the few Black families during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the initial shock of moving at age 10 to a tenement apartment in the South Bronx, where his mother had resettled while he was living on Staten Island.

Keywords: "Fort Apache" (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.)

Subjects: 117th Street (New York, N.Y.); Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Civil rights movement; Divorce; Foster home care; Harlem (New York, N.Y.); Madison Avenue (New York, N.Y.); Metropolitan Hospital (New York, N.Y.); Migration, Internal--United States--History--20th century; New York (State). Family Court; Saint Thomas (United States Virgin Islands); South Carolina; Staten Island (New York, N.Y.); Tenement houses

00:10:34 - Adolescence in The Bronx

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: This was a place, in, in, in The South Bronx, between Westchester Avenue and Longwood Avenue, by the name Hewitt Place—H, E, W, I, T, T Place. And a section of 161st Street intersected Hewitt Place. And, so that was basically in the heart of, of, of the section of the South Bronx that we referred to as "Fort Apache" . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment, STAFF describes the area of the South Bronx that he moved to at the age of 10, called "Fort Apache" colloquially. He describes the background of the name, the tension between residents and the 41st Police Precinct, and the general environment of the neighborhood as a result of housing deterioration and abandonment and arson. He also speaks about his apartment at 858 Hewitt Place, what children would do for fun in the neighborhood, the centrality of a back wall of a large church in street games and early graffiti culture, and the general ubiquity of graffiti in the neighborhood (especially when compared to Staten Island, with one notable exception aside). He reflects on his public school experience at nearby P.S. 130, the old desks in the school and how formative the writings and carvings on them were for his artistic imagination, his fascination with his younger brother Joseph's cartoon sketching, and the classes he was drawn to in school, especially History, English, Art, and Arts and Crafts. He then reflects on the de-funding of arts and music programs in many New York City public schools that took place while he was coming of age and the effects of this on South Bronx communities.

Keywords: "Fort Apache" (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Bugs Bunny; Casper; Flintstones; Intervale Avenue station; Johnny on the Pony (game); Prospect Avenue station; Ringolevio (game); Simpson Street station; Spider Man; Wendy the Witch; basketball; hot peas and butter (game); stickball; television

Subjects: 41st Police Precinct Station House (New York, N.Y.); Arson; Art in education; Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Caricatures and cartoons; Fort Apache (Motion picture); Graffiti; Hewitt Place (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Housing--Abandonment; Music in education; New York City--street games; P.S. 130 (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Southern Boulevard (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Tenement houses; Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (New York, N.Y.); Westchester Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Wood carving; Writing desks

00:29:36 - South Bronx of the Late 1960s and Early 1970s

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: I think, you know, in an environment like the South Bronx, and based on what the South Bronx was, was going through, and, and the disenfranchisement that was in the South Bronx of that time. The people of the South Bronx, I got to realize, in that area of the South—Fort Apache section specifically—seemed to be ostracized politically. It was like a blaming thing, like because of the high rate of fires, and the decay of the neighborhood and such, and, and the high gang, gang, street gang presence and drug addiction—you know, lot of heroin available in that part of The Bronx. And what, it seemed like that politically and in the media and such that, that those people who were living in the area were blamed for that, and I, I, I always thought that was so unfair . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF paints a vivid picture of what it was like to grow up in his section of the South Bronx during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He touches on the political disenfranchisement of the South Bronx, particularly the "Fort Apache" section, the landlord neglect of buildings and high rate of arson, drug addiction, and the presence of street gangs, and how all of these factors were used by the media to blame the people who lived in the South Bronx for all the area's ills. STAFF reflects on how he witnessed building deterioration all around him in his neighborhood, and how it often started with the disappearance of building superintendents and the subsequent cutting off of heat, which was still largely provided by coal-fired furnaces requiring daily upkeep. He also touches on the demographic makeup of his block on Hewitt Place and how some degree of housing segregation between Black and Puerto Rican residents was still maintained. He then elaborates on the atmosphere of suspicion and violence that he faced among some youth in his neighborhood as well as the positive local influences of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. He particularly remembers area locations associated with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. He remembers the wider street gang culture that was emerging at this time, the colors and "outlaw" appearance associated with most of the gangs and the effect of this on school attendance, and his own attraction to the Youth Division of the Ghetto Brothers as a result of the group's Latin rock music and militant outlook, as well as the influence of older members Slick and Black Benjie. In connection with street clean-up, which was a focus of the Ghetto Brothers, STAFF reflects on the trash, rats, and stray cats and dogs that were a regular feature of his neighborhood. He relates the story he heard as a Ghetto Brother of the murder in 1971 of Black Benjie, who was trying to broker peace between warring street gangs in the South Bronx.

Keywords: "Fort Apache" (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); arson; berets; colors; cut sleeves; disenfranchisement; drugs; fighting; heroin; housing deterioration; landlord neglect; militant; motorcycle boots; ostracization; outlaw; racial segregation; street gangs

Subjects: Addiction; African Americans; Arson--United States; Bachelors; Beck Street (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Benjamin, Cornell "Black Benjie" (member of the Ghetto Brothers); Black Panther Party; Black Spades; Black power--United States; Civil rights movement; Coal-fired furnaces; East 162nd Street (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); East 163rd Street (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Gang colors; Gangs; Gangs--style; Gangs--truancy; Ghetto Brothers; Hewitt Place (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Housing--Deterioration; Housing--Landlord neglect; Javelins; Kelly Street (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Latin rock music; Mongols; Peacemakers; Political disenfranchisement; Puerto Ricans; Puerto Rico--Liberation; Racism in mass media; Savage Skulls; Segregation in housing; Seven Immortals; Slick (member of Ghetto Brothers); South Bronx; Stebbins Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Turbans; Westchester Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Young Lords Party

00:53:00 - Getting Into Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: So, you know, that led to a few things that I decided I was gonna do, and that was 1) to, you know, come out of that environment of, or that situation of, of being a "gang-banger", so to speak, you know, part of that gang, street gang scene there in that area; and also to more or less focus in on graffiti writing. At that point, I had acquired spray paint . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF describes the process of how he got into graffiti and gradually disaffiliated with the street gangs. He remembers the intensification of gang activity at J.H.S. 52, particularly around the handball courts, and his mother's decision to place him and his brother Adam in the Seventh-Day Adventist R.T. Hudson School on Forest Avenue, where his neighbors Danny and Betina also attended. He recalls his fascination with seeing graffiti tags on the way to this school in the interior of subway cars and the thrill of meeting taggers. He also speaks about his own early tagging with the street names of "Corky" and "Mr. Ed", as well as how he got these names. He then speaks about his first experience with spray paint in connection with his block crew stealing bikes from other neighborhoods as well as the various places—stores and the superintendents' areas in tenements—where he and others would acquire cans. He speaks about the general necessity of kids shoplifting in the neighborhood, given the general lack of money and other resources. He reflects further on the phenomenon of superintendents abandoning the basements of buildings and how this facilitated the acquisition of spray paint, on the one hand, and the proliferation of heroin dens and gang clubhouses, on the other.

Keywords: Corky; Mr. Ed; Topaz; bike stealing; block crew; fighting; handball courts; hustling; junkies; racking; shoplifting; snap back; snapping; spray paint; street gangs; tagging

Subjects: Graffiti; Heroin; Housing--superintendents; J.H.S. 52 (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); John's Bargain Store (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); P.S. 130 (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Powell, Colin L.; Prospect Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); R.T. Hudson School (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Savage Skulls; Seventh-Day Adventists; Spray paint; Street names; Subways--New York (State)--New York; Theodore Roosevelt High School; Woolworths

01:10:35 - Making His Niche Through Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Well, okay, see here's the thing. I'm already in the environment, and I see what it is, right? I know it's not, it's not Staten Island no more, right? And, you know, this is where I gotta, I have to be, so I have to make my niche. Now, now the first thing was, is, is learning how to defend yourself, right? So, so me and my brother seen that we were in the situation together, and we were the oldest of our siblings . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF gets into how he established a niche for himself in the early graffiti scene in The Bronx. He stresses that establishing yourself was crucial to survival in his neighborhood, remembering how he and his brother Adam (A.J.) had to learn to defend themselves and their younger siblings. He also recalls the first drawing he did with spray paint, a skull and crossbones on a church's back wall on Hewitt Place, and how this caused conflict with Hippie from the Savage Skulls, a street gang whose colors were somewhat similar. Around this time, STAFF also began to realize the contradictions of so many rival gangs being represented on his block, since he had become close with so many of these rival gang members by playing a variety of games together around the neighborhood in prior years. He realized, then and now, the social support provided by gangs, and at the time wanted to do something similar, only with graffiti. He also revisits how his daily trips to R.T. Hudson on buses and subways provided ample opportunity for exploring the emerging world of tagging (mostly interior tagging at this point in time) and opened his eyes to the possibilities of the mass transit system as a way to circulate tags. This realization, in addition to the general ubiquity of gang and political street writing and learning about the Ex-Vandals (one of the earliest graffiti crews, based in Brooklyn), influenced his decision to organize a crew on Hewitt Place specifically devoted to graffiti. STAFF also muses on the wider social significant of graffiti, particularly its potential to give voice to the voiceless, and draws a distinction between the more basic tagging of the early Signature Era and the more intricate tagging of the Stylistic Signature Era, which took off particularly in The Bronx during 1970–1972.

Keywords: Corky; Johnny on the Pony; Mr. Ed; Playboy Bunny; canes (walking sticks); celebrity; colors; defense; disenfranchisement; interior tagging; jumping game; notoriety; ostracization; ringolevio; skelzies; skull and crossbones; street gangs; tagging

Subjects: 2 Seventh Avenue Express; 3 Seventh Avenue Express; 5 Lexington Avenue Express; A.J. (graffiti artist); BMT Broadway Line; Black Spades; Boston Road (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Bug 170 (graffiti artist); East 161st Street (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Eddie 181 (Graffiti artist); El Marko 174 (graffiti artist); Ex-Vandals (graffiti artist group); Exploration, urban; Fighting; Flint 707 (Graffiti artist); Gangs; Gangs--Social aspects; Ghetto Brothers; Graffiti; Graffiti--Signature Era; Graffiti--Stylistic Signature Era; Graffiti--social significance; Hewitt Place (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Hippie (member of Savage Skulls); IRT Third Avenue Line; Joe 182 (graffiti artist); Kool Herc (Graffiti artist); Kool Kevin 1 (Graffiti artist); Lee 163 (graffiti artist); Phase 2 (Graffiti artist); Prospect Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); SJK 171 (Graffiti artist); Saint (Motion picture); Savage Skulls; Spin (Graffiti artist); Spray paint; Staff 161 (graffiti artist); Stay High 149 (Graffiti artist), 1950-2012; Street games; Subways--New York (State)--New York; Super Slick (graffiti artist); Sweet Duke 161 (graffiti artist); Taki 183 (graffiti artist); The Ebony Dukes G.C. (graffiti artist group); Washington Heights (New York, N.Y.); Westchester Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Wet-look paint; Writers Corner 188

01:42:06 - Emergence of "STAFF"

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Okay, so "Staff", "Staff" came about like, like the early part of '70, when I—in, in the culture of, the street gang culture, and in the culture of the day, you had these walking sticks. Not, now I'm doing like this, but you had the ones that you would make. Guys would walk around with golf clubs, with golf clubs, right, and, you know, you know a 9-iron, you know, a golf club, and, as a weapon, and as, as a cool thing, you know, a walking stick. And then you had guys that would make their own, you know, get a piece of tree limb and cut out their own walking stick, and shellac it . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF narrates how he developed the tag "STAFF". He remembers the phenomenon of walking sticks at the time, both as a weapon and as a result of a rising consciousness of Afrocentrism, with dashikis, Afros, and canes in vogue. He also recalls the impact of the imagery of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, and how this led him to carve his own large staff from a piece of wood he found in Crotona Park. Although others in the neighborhood called him "Staff" in jest at first, the name stuck, and he adopted it as his tag and identity. STAFF also reflects on the historical nature of all human behavior and culture, including graffiti, and makes links between elements of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the day—particularly Malcolm X's discussion of "slave names"—and the desire of Black and Brown graffiti writers to create their own new identity. This leads him to a discussion of graffiti as particularly a youth movement and one of the earliest elements of a nascent "hip hop" culture, the full content and very name of which would emerge only years later.

Keywords: "We Shall Overcome"; Mr. Ed; afros; canes (walking sticks); dashikis; golf clubs (sports equipment); slave names; staffs (walking sticks); tag; youth movement

Subjects: Afrocentrism; Black Panther Party; Bug 170 (Graffiti artist); Crotona Park (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Graffiti--as youth movement; Heston, Charlton; King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968; Lee 161 (Graffiti artist); Naming; National Baptist Convention of the United States of America; Staff 161 (Graffiti artist); Staten Island (New York, N.Y.); Stay High 149 (Graffiti artist), 1950-2012; Super Kool 223 (Graffiti artist); Superheroes; Ten commandments (Motion picture : 1956); Weapons; X, Malcolm, 1925-1965

01:51:39 - Graffiti, Hip Hop, and Identity

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Yeah, so I was saying the thing with hip hop culture, as they call it now, "hip hop culture": now, just like I mentioned that on the street in that community where I was there was prevalent markings, markings that we referred to as "graffiti", graffiti is basically markings and sketching and, you know, other things that's in the public form. That was, it's part of the community, it's part of what I would perceive, the culture of that community to basically mark your turf, make your presence known by putting your mark in the community . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF speaks about the graffiti as an early component of a wider emerging hip hop culture, which he defines as a youth movement primarily concerned with creating new identities for and by Black and Brown youth. He recalls the ubiquity in his neighborhood not only of street writing but also of MCing (in the form of loudly playing records in public places) and "wild" dancing (primarily through the celebratory, sometimes drunken dances of street gangs). He also reflects on the role that the de-funding of public music and art programs had in the development of these more DIY street cultural expressions. He revisits what he sees as the intimate connection between these new expressions of culture among Black and Brown youth, on the one hand, and what Malcolm X struggled for, on the other. In connection with this discussion, STAFF elaborates on the meaning that he assigned his tag: "Seek Truth Always Faithfully Forever." As one among other new means of youth self-expression, graffiti, STAFF relates, naturally developed more intricate ways of self-elaboration, with the generation of taggers of the early Signature Era (including Kool Herc, before he got into MCing) largely fading away and the more elaborate taggers of the Stylistic Signature Era taking their place.

Keywords: Corky; Mr. Ed; breaking; drawing; embellishment; emceeing; graff writing; graffiti; hip hop; identity; self-expression; splif; stylistic; tagging

Subjects: A.J. (Graffiti artist); Art in education; Black Spades; Break dancing; Bug 170 (Graffiti artist); DJ Kool Herc; DJing; Dewitt Clinton High School (New York, N.Y.); El Marko 174 (Graffiti artist); Gangs; Graffiti; Graffiti--Signature Era; Graffiti--Stylistic Signature Era; Hip-hop; Joe 182 (Graffiti artist); Junior 161 (Graffiti artist); Lee 163 (Graffiti artist); MCing; Music in education; Saint (Motion picture); Staff 161 (Graffiti artist); Stay High 149 (Graffiti artist), 1950-2012; Super Kool 223 (Graffiti artist); Taki 183 (Graffiti artist); X, Malcolm, 1925-1965; Youth cultures

02:03:19 - Graffiti Movement Takes Off

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Yeah, so, yeah, so by '71, even '70 you started seeing a few tags that would be coming on the exterior of the train, and so it started to build up. Now, a lot of people—again, everything is time specific, and you gotta understand the political, social factors that happened, were happening in The Bronx, in New York City, in the world at that time, why, why these things happened. And again, New York going through a fiscal crisis and stuff like that: they weren't cleaning the trains . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF reflects on various factors that led to the explosion of graffiti as part of the wider youth culture that came to be called hip hop. He mentions the general disrepair of subways in New York City at the time as one factor, alongside the incredible resolve of youth in the South Bronx (and places like it) to create their own culture, even though public funding for cultural training and activities was being cut during the same period. STAFF also reflects further on graffiti as an integral part of what would eventually come to be called "hip hop culture", since all of the elements of this culture, at least in some form, were organically connected in his neighborhood in the early 1970s. He realizes that this was not the case in every neighborhood, and that graffiti developed in more isolation from new techniques of MCing and dance elsewhere. He also touches on the appeal in the community of rock music like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrex, Black Sabbath, and Santana, even though this was not the kind of music heard primarily in the streets.

Keywords: exterior; fiscal crisis; inspiration; maintenance; tagging

Subjects: Black Sabbath (Musical group); Break dancing; Ghetto Brothers; Graffiti; Hendrix, Jimi; Hip-hop; Led Zeppelin (Musical group); MCing; Rolling Stones; Santana (Musical group); South Bronx; Subways--Maintenance and repair; Subways--New York (State)--New York

02:08:40 - Formation of The Ebony Dukes G.C.

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Very good, so. Okay, so, so by 1970, right, there, again, like I said, I recognized that there was numerous people in my community that, right, on my block—not even community, on my block, that were actual taggers. I felt a responsibility to organize them, right, and, and so we could be unified in what we were doing on that block . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF narrates the formation of The Ebony Dukes G.C. in the Spring of 1970. He mentions that leading up to the formation he had realized that there were people who were pursing tagging as a full-time activity and not just something incidental to their environment, all centered around the New York City transit system. He also remembers how instrumental the technique of "motion tagging"—doing a tag while a subway is temporarily stopped at a station—helped facilitate the movement from the interior to the exterior of trains. STAFF then recalls Birdie, his friend Danny's uncle, and how Birdie would invite him along on painting jobs, during which he would tell STAFF old war stories from the original Ebony Dukes, a gang in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. Fascinated by these stories, STAFF decided he wanted to preserve this history specifically through forming a graffiti crew of the same name. He also wanted to escape street gang culture and realized that the Ghetto Brothers, of which he was still a part, did not always look kindly on graffiti tagging. All of this led STAFF to form The Ebony Dukes Graffiti Crew in the Spring of 1970. The original lineup consisted of seven members, all from Hewitt Place: Staff 161, All Jive 161, Dynamite 161, Topaz 1, Hot Sauce 575, King Kool 156, and Super Slick 156. STAFF remembers making membership cards for the crew at a relatively early date, as it started to spread outside the neighborhood. He reflects on some of his motivation underlying the membership cards—i.e., inclusion of youth otherwise excluded from this kind of thing—as well as how he would produce the cards. He ends by remembering a few women involved in graffiti at the time, both within The Ebony Dukes and without, and stresses that women were largely excluded from participating in graffiti due to still prevalent notions of male chauvinism.

Keywords: Birdie; badge; boosting; colors; divide and conquer; exterior; graffiti; hustling; index cards; interior; membership card; motion tagging; painting; preservation; racking; tagging

Subjects: Adam 12 (Graffiti artist); All Jive 161 (Graffiti artist); Barbara 62 (Graffiti artist); Black Benjie (member of Ghetto Brothers); Blade (Graffiti artist); Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Clubs; Dr. Soul 1 (Graffiti artist); Dynamite 161 (Graffiti artist); Ebony Dukes (Gang); El Marko 174 (Graffiti artist); Eva 62 (Graffiti artist); Felt-tip markers; Ghetto Brothers; Graffiti; Graffiti--Women; Hewitt Place (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Hot Sauce 575 (Graffiti artist); King Kool 156 (Graffiti artist); Kivu 1 (Graffiti artist); Line 149 (Graffiti artist); Male chauvinism; Segregation; Staff 161 (Graffiti artist); Stay High 149 (Graffiti artist), 1950-2012; Subways--New York (State)--New York; Super Slick 156 (Graffiti artist); Sweet Tea 163 (Graffiti artist); The Ebony Dukes G.S. (Graffiti artist group); Topaz 1 (Graffiti artist); Woolworths