Interview with STAFF 161, Part 2

Bronx Oral History Center
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00:00:00 - Introduction and Membership Card

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Partial Transcript: Steven Payne: Welcome back to the Bronx Aerosol Arts Documentary Project. Today is March 23, 2022. My name is Steven Payne, librarian and archivist at The Bronx County Historical Society, and we're again with STAFF 161, and Kurt Boone is also here. And, and we're looking forward to everything that STAFF will share with us today. And picking up from last time, we're gonna start off by showing a photo of an original membership card of The Ebony Dukes . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment of the second and final part of STAFF 161's oral history, Dr. Steven Payne, librarian and archivist at The Bronx County Historical Society, and Kurt Boone, veteran documentarian of urban life and culture, introduce the narrator, the founder of The Ebony Dukes G.C., the first graffiti crew in The Bronx. STAFF also shows and speaks about a digital image of an original membership card for The Ebony Dukes, G.C., sent to STAFF by VAM.

Keywords: bottom rocker; cut sleeves; denim jackets; gang colors; gauntlet; initiation; markers; membership cards; top rocker; writer

Subjects: Gangs; Graffiti; Hewitt Place (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Initiation; Peace symbol; Prospect Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Spray can; Staff 161 (Graffiti artist); The Ebony Dukes G.C. (Graffiti artist group); Vam (Graffiti artist); Woolworths

00:05:33 - Outlaw Youth Culture of Early Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: It, the whole thing with, the whole thing with the early writing era was that it was just more than just tagging your name. It was the fact that, that you had to be rocking spray paint. So it was like more or less, I assumed that if I saw your name up, that you was like a racking person, or basically a street urchin person bas-, and you, that you had that heart that I was looking for as part of the crew members . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF speaks about the early graffiti movement's culture, particularly its outlaw, or underground, elements and youth focus. These aspects of the culture, STAFF explains, stemmed from the reality of New York State penal law, which defined graffiti as "vandalism" or "defacement of public property" and typically assigned milder sentences to minors aged 16 and younger. The likelihood of arrest—whether for tagging, racking, or any of the other activities related to graffiti—along with fear of incarceration, particularly at Rikers Island, led many of the early graffiti pioneers to stop writing past the age of 16. STAFF himself stopped writing in 1975, at age 17, which means that his rap sheet to this day shows one charge related his graffiti activities as an "adult". STAFF also speaks about the various challenges faced by and charges brought against "juvenile" writers in Family Court, sentences that those convicted would have to serve in the Spofford Juvenile Center in The Bronx, and how all of this helped shape the original outlaw youth culture of graffiti, which, STAFF notes, has changed considerably now that graffiti has been partially institutionalized and monetized.

Keywords: boosting; early pioneers; heart; minor; outlaw culture; racking; rap sheet; retirement time; spray paint; street urchin; tagging; underground culture; writers; youth culture

Subjects: Astoria (New York, N.Y.); Bosket, William James; Community service (Punishment); Criminal mischief; Criminal trespassing; Defacement of property; Graffiti; Hunts Point (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Nanny; New York (State). Family Court (City of New York); Racking (Graffiti); Rikers Island (N.Y.); Shoplifting; Single parents; Spofford Juvenile Center (Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Stay High 149 (Graffiti artist); Vandalism

00:20:55 - Artistic Elements in Early Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Yeah, yeah, okay, so if you talk to any of the pioneers, early Signature Era pioneers, in writing, tagging, the early Joe 182s and the Taki 183s, and Frank 207, and Turok 161, these early Broadway guys, and basically the, the, the be-, just, the beginning stages of it. That's where it started to proliferate in New York City early on around that, those Broadway writers, earlier—we call them Broadway writers, but Upper, Upper, Upper Manhattan, Washington Heights area, a lot of those writers come from. Those writers will tell you that they, they weren't, you know, looking at themselves as artists at that time. The art thing came a little, well, a long ways after. Some of the taggers, right? Some of the taggers, as my myself, had a natural, a natural propensity to draw things . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF speaks about the various artistic elements at play in the early graffiti movement, even if writers at the time did not think of themselves as producing "art". He remembers his own sketching and drawing in black books on the roof of his tenement. He also recalls designing kits for friends and the aesthetic inspiration he found in the street gang culture in the neighborhood. For instance, his early fascination with the Grim Reaper character came from the colors of the Reapers, and his various skull and crossbones played on the colors of the Savage Skulls (much to their dismay). The transition from sketchpads and black books to drawing with spray paint ("can control"), therefore, was quite natural for STAFF. For this reason, he draws a clear line of descent from the early spray paint drawings produced by himself and others on walls and other surfaces to the murals and "street art" so ubiquitous around the world today. STAFF then reflects on the term "style" as it is used in the graffiti movement and defines it as basically the same as "art", plus a little something more, especially as connected to the letter form of the tag. From here, STAFF discusses some of the early fonts used in the early Piecing Era, particularly bubble letters, and the development of wild style lettering from the more stylistic tags of the Signature Era. The driving motivation behind the proliferation of "style" at this point in time, however, was not art, STAFF insists, but rather the desire to bring attention to one's tag. As more and more writers started to enter the scene, things became more competitive and it took more effort and embellishment to make your tag stand out. STAFF also discusses the more derivative nature of bubble lettering, which was directly influenced by pop culture, particularly cartoons and advertisements, and wild style, which grew more organically out of the Signature Era. STAFF ends the segment by drawing a distinction between "graffiti writing", an "illegal" activity someone engages in primarily to get their tag up (hopefully acquiring "all city" status), and "graffiti art", a legal activity authorized and in some cases commissioned by the powers that be, done primarily for artistic or aesthetic purposes. This is a distinction, STAFF notes, that emerged early on within the movement and is still operative today.

Keywords: B. Boney; Corky; Mr. Ed; all city; bombing; can control; cut sleeves; denim jacket; embellishment; gang colors; grassroots writing; kite flying; mobile canvas; pieces (masterpieces); pioneers; signature era; skull and crossbones; style; tagging; tenement houses; underground; up; wild style; writers; writing

Subjects: 7 Flushing Local; <7> Flushing Express; Art and graffiti; Black books; Broadway (New York, N.Y.); Bubble letters; Cartoon characters in art; Comic books, strips, etc; East 161st Street (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Ex-Vandals (Graffiti artist group); Fonts; Frank 207 (Graffiti artist); Gangs; Graffiti; Harlem (New York, N.Y.); Hewitt Place (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Hippie (Member of Savage Skulls); Joe 182 (Graffiti artist); King Kool 156 (Graffiti artist); Lettering in art; Murals; Pop culture; Reapers; Riff 170 (Graffiti artist); Savage Skulls; Signature Era (Graffiti); Spencer 1 (Graffiti artist); Spray paint; Street art; Style (Graffiti); Super Cool (Graffiti artist); Taki 183 (Graffiti artist); Tenement houses; Tracy 168 (Graffiti artist); Turok 161 (Graffiti artist); Upper Manhattan (New York, N.Y.); Washington Heights (New York, N.Y.); Westchester Avenue (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Wild Style (Graffiti)

00:42:51 - Whole Cars in Early Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Here's the thing with that, right? It, it's, that's where the aesthetic factor, how the, your tag looks, right, came into play in the, in the graffiti, or the writing world. The shape, or the style, right, or the font of your tag, right—for instance, this is Stay High's tag there. So that's Butch, and Ralph Macdonald, and this is a brother named "Ket", K-E-T . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF talks about the transition from the Stylistic Signature Era to the Piecing Era of the early graffiti movement, noting that a primary concern running through both eras was making your tag stand. This concern was only amplified as more writers joined the movement and began taking up more space on the exterior of subway cars with "pieces", or "masterpieces". According to STAFF, the whole point of these increasingly larger and more dramatic pieces, at least initially, was making sure the tag stood out. His brother Adam, who wrote "A.J." or "All Jive 161", for instance, was one of the first to do a "married couple", or a tag that spanned two subway cars. The addition of characters to these early pieces by STAFF and other pioneers was also a part of this same process of embellishing the tag. STAFF also discusses his general avoidance of schematic drawings for pieces at the time, given the risks of being arrested with such clear evidence of your "crime". For similar reasons, STAFF and other pioneers also generally avoided taking photographs of their pieces—besides, cameras were too expensive for most youth in the South Bronx. Some of the earliest photographs of pieces along the 2 and 5 lines, nevertheless, were taken by members of the Uptown crew of The Ebony Dukes. STAFF then speaks about the different subway lines he would write along, the importance of the main Writers' Bench (and other ones) in early graffiti culture, and the significance of black books, both as a part of the social environment of "benching" and as a major influence on early subway pieces. STAFF reflects on the early days of doing pieces on whole cars and how he worked alone at first and also began doing outlines and helping out other members of his crew.

Keywords: Grim Reaper; One-armed Jeff (Case 2); Phase 2 (Graffiti artist); Piecing Era; Signature Era; Writers' Bench; benching; black books; boosting; bubble letter font; cannon; checkerboard; clouds; color schemes; dots; embellishing; graff; graff names; kickin' it willie bobo; layup; married couple (Graffiti); outline; pat down; pieces (masterpieces); stripes; tag; whole cars

Subjects: 149th Street–Grand Concourse station; 2 Seventh Avenue Express; 4 Lexington Avenue Express; 5 Lexington Avenue Express; 6 Lexington Avenue Local; <6> Pelham Bay Park Express; All Jive 161 (Graffiti artist); Black books; Blade (Graffiti artist); Butch 2 (Graffiti artist); Cameras; Cartoon characters in art; Case 2 (Graffiti artist); Comet (Graffiti artist); Community--graffiti; Crachee (Graffiti artist); Evidence (Law)--New York (State); Graffiti; Hunts Point station; Ket (Graffiti artist); Longwood Avenue station; MacDonald, Ralph; Naming; Phase 2 (Graffiti artist); Schematic drawings (Graffiti); Stay High 149 (Graffiti artist); Subways--New York (State)--New York; Sweet Duke (Graffiti artist); The Ebony Dukes G.C. (Graffiti artist group); Vam (Graffiti artist)

01:01:42 - Graffiti, Race, and Gender

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: With the, the early writing thing, to me, it was a unifying force, a youth culture, a youth movement to bring disenfranchised youth, or, or, or segregated youth communities together, you know. That ordinarily, we, we wouldn't have interpersonal communications with each other but now we have a base thing now. We have a base thing, which is graff writing, right? Aerosol painting, use of markers, putting our tags up, right, racking paint, going on missions. This is a unifying thing, right, that bring, all, all these segregated youth communities together, from racial, to gang affiliation, to "I'm from the east side, I'm from the west side" . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF speaks first about graffiti as a unifying force for disenfranchised urban youth living in communities facing various degrees of segregation. He speaks about how race was somewhat de-emphasized in the early graffiti movement and also touches on the involvement of women in graffiti from the very start of the movement. He reflects on the contribution of these women to the movement as well as the ways that male chauvinism worked to limit the involvement of other women.

Keywords: camaraderie; disenfranchised youth; diversion; racking; segregated communities; unifying force; women writers; writing

Subjects: Barbara 62 (Graffiti artist); Charmin 65 (Graffiti artist); Dewitt Clinton High School (New York, N.Y.); Eva 62 (Graffiti artist); Feminism and art; Graffiti; Kivu (Graffiti artist); Male chauvinism; Phase 2 (Graffiti artist); Racism and the arts; S.PAT 161 (Graffiti artist); Segregation--United States; The Ebony Dukes G.C. (Graffiti artist group); Writers' Bench

01:07:38 - United Graffiti Artists

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Yeah, absolutely. The whole thing with U.G.A. started early on in the Piecing Era. It was formed early on in the Piecing Era. When—not so much the Signature Era—in, in the early Piecing Era, we heard that there was this fellow that was around that had started a, a group with taggers to come and to paint in a, in a structured, formal setting, to come and do their "graff writing" in a structured, formal setting. Now, graff writing at that point is already structured in the sense that we have a meeting place, which is the Writers' Bench, and we have a network of writers that is grassroots, and we have protocol, and we have hierarchy . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF speaks about the formation of the United Graffiti Artists during the Piecing Era and how he and many other pioneers saw the group as part of the establishment, as opposed to an organic part of the underground, or outlaw, youth culture that the early graffiti movement represented. STAFF also draws out the ways in which graffiti's roots in both street gang culture and militant organizations made many writers and crews, including The Ebony Dukes, wary of U.G.A., in spite of the group's promise of gallery showings and supplies. STAFF remembers his shock at the time when he learned about the ultimatums handed down by U.G.A.—that members had to swear off tagging—and the new, outsider terminology coined by the group. He does not remember "graffiti art", for instance, being used too much, if at all, before United Graffiti Artists came on the scene. He recalls his confusion with seeing members of U.G.A. identified by their government names in various publications, something he viewed as completely at odds with the spirit of the early graffiti movement. Although there was always the desire for recognition among the disenfranchised youth that comprised the early graff community, the recognition was supposed to come from other writers and never at the expense of exposing your government name (and thus opening yourself up to prosecution). He reflects on the very terminology used to describe the movement, drawing out the contradictions of people who bristle at the term "graffiti", on the one hand, but align themselves with the legacy of "United Graffiti Artists", on the other. Although STAFF insists that he and other pioneers would have identified themselves as "writers" (certainly not "artists" or "graffiti artists") at the time, he realizes that in a court of law his activity was, in fact, called "graffiti" and that the illegal connotations of the term were actually central to the movement itself.

Keywords: "Fort Apache" (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); "graffiti art"; Daily News; Piecing Era; Writers' Bench; age out; anti-graff; art; burglaries; canvas; drug selling; establishment; exhibit; formal setting; graff writing; homicide; militant; outlaw culture; outsiders; publication; recognition; robberies; street gangs; supplies; swear off tagging; tag; theater; ultimatums; underground culture; writers

Subjects: 41st Police Precinct Station House (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Beck Street (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Black Panther Party; Ex-Vandals (Graffiti artist group); Gangs; Ghetto Brothers; Graffiti; Graffiti--terminology; Martinez, Hugo, 1951-; Militant organizations--United States; Nova 1 (Graffiti artist); The Ebony Dukes G.C. (Graffiti artist group); Underground culture; United Graffiti Artists; Young Lords Party

01:20:58 - Graffiti and Hip Hop Revisited

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: And it's the same thing with the hip hop thing, right. I, I seen it, and I lived it, so I understand where it's coming from. So, so you have people, right, you have people who, who make a big thing about: "Oh, graffiti writing, or tagging, right, graff writing, writing, was before hip hop." It was before the actual label of hip hop, yes. But, to me, it's one of the elements, or aspects, of the culture, the youth movements that started happening in the late '60s, early '70s, here in New York and in South Philly. In the community, or neighborhood where I grew up in, all those activities—tagging, emceeing and DJing, and break dancing—was part of the youth culture . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF revisits a topic he spoke about at more length in part 1 of his oral history: the place of graffiti within the wider hip hop culture, which he defines as a youth movement that began to form in the late 1960s and early 1970s (even if it did not come together fully until later) and involved various new expressions of music, dance, and visual cultures.

Keywords: DJing; blues; breaking; emceeing; hip hop; rock and roll; soul

Subjects: Blues (Music); Break dancing; Classic rock; Graffiti; Hip-hop; MCing; Rock and roll; Soul

01:23:15 - Overcoming the North–South Bronx Division

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Partial Transcript: Yeah, so, those (Blade and Comet) are early members. See, most of them guys is, is known as The Crazy Five now. Vam, and Crachee, and Death, and those guys, but, again, tagging, graffiti writing, as a grassroots youth movement in, in, in the early '70s was a unifying force for segregated neighborhoods. The, the neighborhood that, that those guys lived in, Upper Bronx, was, was generally an off-, off-limits neighborhood for people who were from like the South Bronx and other places because number 1: gang affiliation and racial barriers . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF tells a story about how he and his crew worked to overcome the gang and racial segregation the reigned between the South Bronx and the northern Bronx of the early 1970s. STAFF got wind that Death, a writer from the northern Bronx, had marked over his famous cannon piece. Death was getting up, but like other writers from the northern part of The Bronx (most, but not all, of whom, were white), he rarely ventured down to the Writers' Bench at 149th Street and Grand Concourse, instead staying north of East 180th Street station. When the Writers' Bench community somehow figured out that Death was the culprit, STAFF decided to confront Death on the latter's home turf. Although Death refused to meet at East 180th Street station, STAFF agreed to meet him at his home in the Valley section of The Bronx, an area typically off limits to Black folks at the time, especially Black folks from the South Bronx. STAFF and Death sat down in the backyard, and Death explained that he had accidentally marked over STAFF's piece and vowed to fix it. STAFF then invited Death and other writers from that part of The Bronx to join The Ebony Dukes, G.C., which they did until they started their own crew, The Crazy Five. This story, STAFF stresses, highlights the unifying nature of the youth movement originally represented by graffiti, which eventually changed into something else as a result of outside influence from the establishment.

Keywords: Writers' Bench; cannon; community; cross out; establishment; getting up; graff writing; pieces (masterpieces); straight letter style; tagging; unifying; uptown; youth movement

Subjects: 2 Seventh Avenue Express; 5 Lexington Avenue Express; Blade (Graffiti artist); Comet (Graffiti artist); Crachee (Graffiti artist); Death (Graffiti artist); East 180th Street station; Gangs; Hewitt Place (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); King Kool (Graffiti artist); Racism in art; Segregation--United States; South Bronx; The Crazy Five (Graffiti artist group); The Ebony Dukes G.C. (Graffiti artist group); The Valley (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Vam (Graffiti artist); White Plains Road (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.)

01:32:35 - The Ebony Dukes, Living Preservation of Graffiti History

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: Well, okay, I, I more or less look at it as what it, what it initially was, to some aspects, which is basically a graffiti, graffiti crew, right, a graffiti club, right, a graffiti fraternity, graffiti writing fraternity, grassroots, but you have some aspects of it that I look at it, it's more and more a cultural guild, yeah, you know, basically that preserves the culture and the history of what it was, right, and is . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this segment STAFF speaks about The Ebony Dukes G.C. as a kind of living preservation of the history of the early graffiti movement. Because of this focus, the crew has started accepting members from around the globe, including Europe, where aspects of the original underground culture of graffiti are still often front and center. STAFF then reflects on other attempts to preserve and document the early graffiti movement, including efforts by outsiders (like the well known photographs of Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant or Norman Mailer's 1974 essay) and writers themselves (like Phase 2).

Keywords: documentation; outside; pictorials; pioneers; preservation; underground culture; writer

Subjects: Baugh, Keith; Beat Street (Motion picture); Carson, Johnny, 1925-2005; Chalfant, Henry; Cooper, Martha; Graffiti; Graffiti--Denmark; Graffiti--Europe; International Graffiti Times; Mailer, Norman; Naar, Jon; Paze (Graffiti artist); Phase 2 (Graffiti artist); Stewart, Jack; Style Wars (Motion picture); Styles from the Underground; Subway Art; The Birth of Graffiti; The Ebony Dukes G.C. (Graffiti artist club); The Faith of Graffiti; Tonight show (Television program); Wild Style (Motion picture)

01:42:52 - Final Reflections on Graffiti and The Bronx

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Partial Transcript: STAFF 161: I see it, I, I, I, I admire it, you know. I mean, what can I say? You know, it's, it's more than I even, even, even imagined it to happen. See, you gotta understand, the early, the early proponents of this, from the Signature Era to, you gotta understand, what it was intended to be was this, that, something that was gonna be an underground, street art—not street art—but street writing movement, youth movement, youth movement to put your tag around . . .

Segment Synopsis: In this final segment of his two-part oral history STAFF reflects on the now global nature of graffiti, what the movement originally represented, and still is to a certain extent—i.e. an underground youth culture—and what it has become. He also elaborates on the role that The Bronx, especially the South Bronx, played in the formation of graffiti and other aspects of hip hop culture, drawing out both the negative aspects of the environment—the daily experiences of violence, high rates of infant mortality, mass incarceration, etc.—and the incredibly creative expressions that first emerged among South Bronx youth in spite of it all. He offers a final reflection on graffiti as originally and still to a certain extent the voice of the voiceless. This aspect of graffiti, STAFF is confident, will always remain, at least to one degree or another, even though other elements of the original movement have evolved and become part of the establishment over the years.

Keywords: "Fort Apache" (The Bronx, New York, N.Y.); anti-establishment; can control; dread; grassroots; street credibility; tagging; voice for the voiceless; writer; youth movement

Subjects: Aerosol; All Jive 161 (Graffiti artist); Bronx (New York, N.Y.); Graffiti; Graffiti--Globalization; Gun violence; Hip-hop; Infant mortality; Joe 182 (Graffiti artist); Mass incarceration; Spray paint; Taki 183 (Graffiti artist)