June 19, 2000

Night Scrawlers Have Their Day, Though Prices Disappoint


The gallery at the Puck Building was filled last week with people who don't get out much. At least not out into the light, where they might be recognized, and arrested.

Photographs by Gary Dunkin for The New York Times

Works of 100 graffiti writers, as they call themselves, were auctioned last week. The artists attended in force. Above, Bama, center, reintroduced Case 2, right, to Stay High 149, friends who had not seen each other for 25 years.

Some call themselves artists, others boast that they are true vandals. Some, who have retired to the comfort of suburban homes and respectable careers, or who now show their work in galleries, carefully spell out their names for reporters. Others, who still prowl city streets, rooftops and subway tunnels, don't dare give their names.

They are part of a subterranean fraternity born more than three decades ago when the first of them began scrawling their names on walls, but many had never met until last week, when two concurrent graffiti events drew them to New York or out of their concrete city hideaways. On Wednesday night Guernsey's Auction House put the work of some 100 graffiti writers, as they call themselves, on the block; and on Saturday night two galleries in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, State of the Art and Bellwether, in collaboration with the Martinez Gallery in Manhattan, opened "The Painted Word," a retrospective of graffiti art since 1969, to run until July 16.

"This isn't only a gathering, it's a historic occasion," said Wicked Gary, who was a member of the Experienced Vandals, otherwise known as the Ex-Vandals, a graffiti crew formed in 1970.

The work sold poorly at the auction, with pieces expected to go for at least $10,000 selling at $3,000, and a painting by Lady Pink, one of the few women who have become famous graffiti writers, going for just $750. Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's, declined to sum up the profits, and said only that sales were "up and down." Although some of the artists milled about the room wearing grim expressions, many sloughed it off, saying the important thing was that everyone had come together for what was the first unofficial graffiti reunion.

But even though there was clearly much admiration among some artists, who traded auction catalogs collecting one another's signatures, or tags, many of the artists spent the week settling old scores and trying to validate their places in the graffiti pantheon.

"It's like cleaning shop," said Michael Tracy, or Tracy 168, who wrote "wild style" graffiti starting in 1969. "Now that we're all in one room, you can't say this guy innovated this, because I can say, 'Oh yeah?' and walk across the room and see if they did it."

Both the auction and the gallery shows feature the work of several "old school" train writers, like Taki 183, Case 2, Flint 707 and Bama, as well as pieces by artists who achieved gallery fame in the 1980's, like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And there is also a significant representation of work by new, young graffiti writers -- like Mösco, Giz and Nato -- who are still trying to redefine the genre on city streets.

Many of the older writers, who started painting trains when hippies were still a novelty, said the auction -- in which the four pieces by Kenny Scharf failed to sell at all -- would help put the work of "art stars" in perspective. Some felt they were overlooked in the 1980's, when a small coterie of art school graduates became the toast of the downtown gallery scene without first paying their dues in the train yards.

"In the 80's the work was redefined by galleries and some of the artists and curators started creating this terminology, like 'iconoclastic panderism' and 'post-graffiti,' " said Roberto Gualtieri, 43, who started writing his name, CoCo, on the backs of city buses in 1969. "It's a lot of hype. Part of the criteria of being a writer was street credibility. Whoever doesn't have it is worthless."

But those who spent years selling work in galleries said it took a different set of skills to make it there.

"It's like two different spheres," said Aaron Charles Goodstone, also known as Sharp, who has shown in galleries, primarily in Europe, since 1983. "There are some people who have been able to eke out a living on canvas and have had the wherewithal to be in the public arena. You have to be able to travel, and talk about your work articulately and show up. Anybody who is a working artist in the context of the studio has a whole different set of expectations."

These arguments tend to bore younger graffiti writers, who have tried to stretch the form in recent years under increasingly harsh conditions. The Giuliani administration now spends about $25 million a year fighting graffiti, and 10 years ago the Transit Authority instituted a "clean car" policy, which dictates that no train leave the yard if it is marked. And while in the 1970's those caught vandalizing subway cars were given a couple of days in jail and required to clean up their scrawls, a graffiti writer caught today faces felony charges.

"I've come to realize that's just the graffiti ego: no matter how you write, whoever wrote just before you is the best, and the people who write just after you are the worst," said Kunle Martins, a 20-year-old from the Bronx who writes Earsnot, which he said stands for "Extravagant Artist Renovating Styles Not Orthodoxed to Taggers." "It's like as soon as you get a tiny little bit of fame you think everyone else is toy," or someone who copies other's hieroglyphics.

Teenagers carrying backpacks filled with spray cans and artist's black books lined up agog in front of legendary writers like Case 2 and Mico, who are now in their 40's. And though there was clearly admiration here, the younger generation, which paints on rooftops, trucks and walls inside subway tunnels, was skeptical about the nature of the event, arguing that even the pioneers had lost the true spirit of the genre.

"This is nice and all, but it's not graffiti," said Giz, 23, who paints "throw-ups," or his name in bubble letters, on the sides of trucks, stores and police stations. "A lot of people forget that graffiti is street art, it's not gallery art. This is the first time that graffiti is starting to get civilized, but you still got to keep it on the ground, otherwise it's not worth anything."

But Rich Admiral, who has been known as Bama on the street since 1969 and has sold paintings in galleries since 1973, said that graffiti had always struggled between those two poles. He looked around the gallery, watching his compatriots, three generations of night scrawlers, gather and debate.

"You realize that everyone in this room is insane," he said affectionately. "It's not normal to want to go out in the middle of the night and write your name on a wall. We all have our personal ghosts, and we all have our dirty laundry and rivalries. But it's like any family, and this is my family."

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