Harlem By Adam Zhu

Uptown Express

Get to know Harlem's faces of death.

Words and photos by Jack Welles Lead photo by Adam Zhu

The earth shakes underfoot as the 1 train rapidly approaches the station. Transit workers gaze up to a six inch beam above the tracks where a writer named Harlem quickly finishes his character’s outline. He’s totally aware of the scene below him and it fuels him further. Leaping down onto the platform, he then quickly jumps onto the tracks to catch more tags before heading for the exit.

He may be addicted to adrenaline, but the man himself is humble and peaceable. When I first met Harlem in a smoky, alcohol and acid- tinged East Village house party, he immediately offered me his seat and grabbed me a beer from the kitchen. He moved quickly, driven by impulse, but simultaneously seemed to be in no rush as we chilled until it was late enough to go out and paint. He talked about coexistence and avoiding the oppositional attitude that many in the graffiti world take.

As motivated as he is by the excitement graffiti offers, he’s also passionate about its artistry. His work is minimalist, sticking to tags and a throw up-style character. He makes an extra effort to paint that work with clean, solid lines. No matter what it takes, he’ll get over correctly and systematically, in the perfect spot.

“You see dusty-ass tags, in-and-out, this half-ass bullshit,” Harlem explains. “Without love, it’s wack. My favorite thing about graffiti is spending the time doing it. There are a lot of people who rush this act. If God is giving you the time to do it, enjoy that time.”

The placement of said work is equally important. He’ll paint in front of transit workers inside busy stations, climb fire escapes, ascend scaffolding, and scale billboards in order to get that perfect spot. He does it frequently too. It’s hard to go to many places in Manhattan without bumping into his work. He goes big with fire extinguisher tags, racks up points with street- side spraycan tags, and leaves his character behind on corners and roofs.

All his visibility leads to the discussion of getting caught. “I did this billboard on 14th St. and was walking back with my friend Fayer from Milan catching tags,” he says, reminiscing. “The cops didn’t catch us in the act, but three squad cars pulled us over and said, ‘Hey, get over here!’ I really didn’t have time to talk, so I ran. From 14th and 6th Ave to West Broadway and Spring Street, where I jumped into a basement staircase face first to lose them. You gotta be in shape…this is a sport!”

It’s not hard to understand the game when you are born into it. Graffiti has always been on this Uptown kid’s radar he claims, with numerous family members boasting train yard credentials. He won’t go into specifics about who they are, but he is sure you’ve heard of his uncles. He insists at the same time, that they’re on a different wave, explaining, “They criticize what I’m doing…It was all about trains for them…the game was trains.”

Another way he has evolved beyond his forebearers is his mission that is much bigger than New York City. With tags in dozens of cities across the world including Toronto, Philadelphia, and Montreal—not to mention major metropolises across Europe and South America—he has done some of his most thrilling work outside of the Five Boroughs. “They have a town named Haarlem in Holland, so I was in Amsterdam throwing it up with the double ‘A,’ mad sauced,” he reminisces with a smile. “Amsterdam was chill, you can do anything there.” He continues reminiscing, “Painting with my friend Sabio in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo was a very inspirational time. Seeing the geometric styles was dope. I got to paint in Copenhagen and see the fluidness of those writers. There was an objective and it was just to get it done, it was very systematic and strategic. That was tight.”

With Europe and South America already in his repertoire, it makes sense that he speaks about Asia being next. “I hear the Philippines is death if you get caught,” he says with a thrillseeker’s enthusiasm in his voice. He then pauses for a moment only to conclude, “There are really harsh penalties for expressing yourself on the street. It’s hard not to live in fear, but if you live in fear, that’s it. You either live in fear or you live in love.”

This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 56, which is available for purchase here. Read more stories from the issue here.

Harlem By Adam Zhu

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