June 19, 2000
Night Scrawlers Have Their Day, Though Prices Disappoint
By NINA SIEGAL
he 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
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
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."