The Real DON KING
The book on graffiti writer Don 1 gets close to the myth. And no one can tell the tale better than KR. One.
Growing up in Astoria, Queens back in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, there was graffiti everywhere. And all I knew was, the names that I saw in my area belonged to famous people. I was too young to understand the politics of graffiti; too young to understand how far a tag on the inside of a train could travel. Louie “KR. One” Gasparro was a local cat I looked up to. He was up in the streets, up on the trains, was down with all of the local dudes, and he was getting money early by way of painting storefronts and murals for local businesses. I remember coming up to him while he was painting one day and I asked him a bunch of questions. I was a nervous little kid but he took the time to speak to me—a shocker because graffiti is largely about ego.
Recently, KR humbly went out and put together a book about another local Astoria area legend, Don 1. A mysterious figure, Don 1 is largely known to style masters and old writers with good memories (not too many of those). KR’s book, Don 1: The King from Queens (Schiffer) is something special. The book features a lot of Don’s striking photography, in addition to his amazing signatures and pieces. Don has had some health-related challenges in his life— which KR details in the book— but the story of his writing career and the fruits of said Technicolor actions is worth your time. If you’re real…DON All Time Greatest
Mass Appeal: When did you first encounter Don’s writing?
KR. One: It was on a RR flat (train). I was a little kid standing on the 36th Ave. train station in Astoria and his DON 1 Cascade green with the dancing Snoopy was laid up right there off the station. I vividly remember looking at it and asking my older brother what is was. I wasn’t even writing yet. This was 1976. I started tagging in the neighborhood in 1977 when I was 11. This whole car and two others ran untouched and un-buffed until at least 1982. I would periodically see them all for the next 5 years or so. I actually stopped a couple of kids from going over one of them in the M yard. I explained what the piece was and who it was done by. They were like “but it’s old.” I filled them in a bit more and they just walked away.
I then proceeded to cop a jungle green KR 1 tag on the bottom of the car. I only saw that particular piece one more time. This was in ‘81. I also discovered his practice yard. It was a schoolyard in Long Island City off Crescent street, near Queensboro Plaza. PS. All of his piecing and tag styles from ‘73 ‘til ‘77 were all right there. That was his hangout where he would develop his arsenal. It was also the beginning of what I call the “DON 1 MAFIA enigma”. That mystique stuck with me throughout the years.DON burner Mafia wholecar
MA: What was it like when you first encountered Don? Were you surprised by his demeanor?
KR: I tried long ago, in the mid ‘80s, to reach him. At the time, I was doing many legal murals in Astoria and Long Island City (pre-Lady Pink, lol) and thought, why not reach out to this fantastic artist from my youth? In my mind it was to bring together the master and the student. Little did I know what had transpired in his life and his severe illness. I spoke to him once by phone and knew then it was not to be.
Fast forward a lifetime later— about 10 years ago. I was looking online and saw a DON 1 photo. That one photo reignited the mystery once again. I initially wanted to get in touch with him again just to interview him for some sites like Subway Outlaws or @149th St. Through a mutual friend I was able to locate him. So I called a few times to no answer. When he finally answered the phone, I explained who I was and what my ideas were. He remembered me from the ‘80s. He agreed to meet. I developed a phone relationship with him that took about a year and a half before we’d actually meet.
Upon our first meeting his demeanor was really friendly. He was amazed that I still cared enough to try to meet with him again after so many years. He still had the note I gave his younger brother in 1986! That amazed me. We have since become very close friends and I see him as much as I can. He really is a sweet, gentle, polite guy. I wish his life was different because I have no doubt at all that if he hadn’t gotten ill that he would’ve been a very successful artist and photographer. As an artist, his name would be right up there with Lee, Futura and Seen.DON 1 Bronx BBC Television 1975
MA: What was it about his work that spoke to you?
KR: Simply put: pure, nasty style. Period. His tag style is what I refer to as a “burner” tag style. He ripped the BMT insides vicious with Marvey markers, minis and uni-wides. His pieces just stood out so brightly to me. Also, his actual tag and his crew went together so seamlessly. “DON 1, MAFIA” (Masters Administration For Incredible Artists). The Don of a graffiti administration? Perfect. Plus, he tagged up cliques like SSB (Soul Stoned Brothers) and TFA (The Fantastic Artists) and TGM (Transit Graffiti Masters). TFA and TGM were also DON 1’s cliques. His TFA pre-dates the TFA crew from the IRT lines. And all of this is before I ‘d ever seen his blackbook work. That was yet another mind-blower for me. That’s when I saw his illustrative and airbrush skills.
MA: Can you talk us through some of Don’s influences? Who/what influenced him and who did he go on to influence? How can this influence be seen?
KR: Before DON 1 entered Art and Design HS, he was ignorant to what graffiti was. Besides seeing things like “Johnny Loves Sue” and that type of graffiti he had no idea. He was influenced by guys like BOMB 1, STEEL 1, INCA and DIME 139. I don’t mean stylistically influenced, I mean influenced to actually start writing. It was STEEL who gave him his tag. In ‘73, he switched from writing “The Godfather” to DON. STEEL sarcastically told him he’d get arrested before he’d be able to complete a tag that long. It’s difficult to pin point his artistic influence. I know he admired DEAN, LEE, and CHAIN 3. He also admired and was friends with the late great BILLY 167. BILLY 167 was one of the original members of MAFIA. He acted as a lookout for DON while he executed a top to bottom whole car burner on the IRT’s–in broad daylight on the #2 line at the 225th street station.
DON went on to influence a lot of people, including myself. I think the most noticeable ones are cats who have tags that start with the letter D. DEAN BYB was one of DON’s friends, living only a few blocks away in the Queensbridge housing projects. GEAR 1 (also influenced by DON) was instrumental in bringing those two together. DEAN was flabbergasted by DON’s artistry and DON thought DEAN was a bombing machine. DEAN’s tags became way more stylized. DAZE is also very influenced by DON. DAZE started in Art and Design when DON was a senior. DAZE also speaks about DON’s “mystique” and that he was already a legend among the many other artists in A&D.
The other is DONDI. DONDI has stated and it shows in his work, that he thought DON 1 was dope. The first three letters of his tag are the same and they are both originally from the BMT’s. All the DON 1 stuff was rolling through East NY to be fully absorbed for a couple of years before DONDI really bent things up with his own style. KEL 139 has also stated that DON 1 was an influence on him. So you take all of these style cats and they list DON 1 as one of THIER influences which they in turn, went on to influence many people as well. So the lineage is there.DON 1 Bode Bot
MA: The BMTs, as a whole, have been grossly under represented when it comes to the history of writing. Why do you think that is?
KR: I think it’s because of who Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper were meeting. When they started to take photos, they met IRT cats. So they took photos of IRTs. If they’d met me, or KB TSS or CRIME 79 or LEE when he was hitting the BMTs there would’ve been a bit more BMT documentation. I think there are many BMT photos out there that have yet to emerge. Keep in mind that again, both LEE and TF5 along with DONDI were originally BMT writers, so that work may still come out. Also, maybe since the IRTs became the “showcased’ lines and the BMTs and INDs were more heavily bombed with throw ups, that people with BMT photos may not think that they have great “artistic” photos. Who knows? To me, it’s all part of the history. IRTs, BMTs, INDs. Tags, Insides, Throwups, Burners, T2Bs. All of it. I love it and want see ALL of the history. When the world found out about graffiti writing, they really didn’t get the whole story from all of the boroughs. I’ve always said that it is called NYC Graffiti for a reason: all of the boroughs make up our city and many great writers came from every borough.
MA: What does Don think of the book?
KR: A few months ago I was with him and we chilled for a few hours. When I was leaving he hugged me and asked me, “Hey Lou— how come you care so much when nobody else gives a s**t?” I just looked at him and smiled and waved good-bye. It was a good thing I was leaving. A tear filled my eye as he stood in the doorway waving back. Don 1 is the king from Queens and I’m proud to have been influenced by him and proud to have gotten his name and work out there. I basically showed everybody what I always knew. It’s amazing that he documented it all to prove what I’d been saying. Thanks DON!DON ONE (original photo) T2B DON Handball Ct. Pt. 3 DON Blackbook 4 DON I’M BACK! DON 1 IRT ACTION SHOT DON 1 BURNER TAGSTYLE