Words Matthew Fauster
There’s a rich history of mentorship in graffiti culture. Unlike most genres of Art, it was never taught in the academy. In the past, there weren’t galleries you could go to, or museums where you could learn from the masters. There were benches: meeting places where graffiti writers congregated and watched the painted steel giants ride by on the train lines. The way the artform was handed down from generation to generation was through tutelage.
New-jacks became apprentices, learning from those established in the illicit arts. Names given, outlines handed down, dues paid. There used to be a distinct lineage of styles. But, with the advancement of technology and the proliferation of graffiti media, young writers today are more inclined to learn by copying what they see in magazines and on the Internet than through personal relationships with living legends who have perfected their craft.
Arguably the most influential graffiti crew in the world today is The Seventh Letter. Based in Los Angeles, The Seventh Letter is comprised of an all-star lineup of many of the best graffiti writers across the globe. Their reach spans beyond walls and trains into fashion and fine art.
With such a high demand to be down and an undeniable influence on the next generation of graffiti writers, Jersey Joe Rime took it upon himself to create a structure for new prospects. Complete with membership applications, hopefuls can apply to become one of Rime’s Minions. Think art school mixed with boot camp, hazing and reality TV. The Seventh Letter Crew Minion Handbook illustrates a method to the madness. Minions are required to perform tasks such as carrying paint, buffing walls, beer runs and providing Tribute.
As a Minion you are required to provide Tribute to your Superiors. The bigger the Tribute, the better you look. Tribute comes in several different forms; painted pieces honoring your Superior, drinks and entertainment at your expense, planning a relaxing event for your Superiors and perhaps unique gifts like “sacrificial lambs,” which show you understand your boss and his interests.
Perhaps the most impressive example of Tribute to date, is a wholecar freight painted by three Minions featuring a portrait of Rime in a throne surrounded by 25 naked women worshipping him. “I should have sunglasses on and look majestic,” he instructed via text message. However, Minions who fall short of what’s expected of them do not slide by without repercussions.
If you fail at providing Tribute, if your responsibilities are not met (or done poorly), if you are asked to show up and are late, if you are called and do not answer, if you complain or speak back to your Superiors, you will be shamed and must provide Penance.
Penance can come in many forms, depending on the failure. The most common form of Penance is Push-Ups. Push-Ups remind both your mind and your body not to make mistakes!
Other forms of Penance can be the production of a funny or embarrassing video featuring you and other Minions (failure is sometimes a team sport), a painting project highlighting your failures and apology or any other form of creative suffering your superiors deem appropriate.
Failure to carry out an act of Penance may result in termination from the program. “Go be another crew’s problem!” But those who put in hard work and dedication can quickly find themselves working their way up The Tribute Game Tower of Power. “The Minions learn skills that have taken their Superior 20+ years to figure out. Being in the program is a shortcut to getting ahead and it must be earned. Minions can learn technical skills in a fraction of time with less effort. Minions are heavily challenged in other ways for this reason,” Rime told Mass Appeal.
As Minions graduate to the rank of Head Minions, they will have subordinates of their own. The next step in the journey is becoming a Sidekick, recognized in the crew for providing leadership and organization. Responsibilities include passing on teachings from their Superior to Head Minions, organizing large-scale Tribute activities and challenges, and completing “next-level graffiti challenges” themselves. The final stage before becoming a full-fledged member of The Seventh Letter crew is the Understudy.
The role of the Understudy is one of the most important and secretive levels within your journey. As an Understudy you will learn not only the secrets of The Seventh Letter but also you will learn all of the tricks of the trade when it comes to painting highly evolved and game-changing graffiti.
The Understudy learns directly from the master. True mentorship. They learn to perfect their craft and become a well-rounded and respected artist. The culmination of this experience is becoming a full member of The Seventh Letter. There are currently nine prospects enrolled in the program, ranging in age from 21 to 43 years old and based in New York and Canada.
This may be the hardest journey you will ever take. The road will rise and fall in front of you. You will be challenged in unthinkable ways. Only the best will survive and make it to the end.
The few who succeed will be “down and family for life.” They will “be looked at worldwide as the best of the best.” Really? Nowadays the next great pop stars, fashion designers, chefs and entrepreneurs are all forced to jump through hoops in efforts to be discovered on reality TV. So why wouldn’t the next great graffiti artists come out of a program like this. An unconventional perversion of the traditional means of scholarship is as old as the artform itself. Like pledges to a fraternity, the tasks (although quite ridiculous at times) are intended to teach discipline, strengthen, and weed out the weak. Being challenged to go out and paint sure beats sitting at home and talking shit on the Internet. Are you up to the challenge? Like Rime says in The Seventh Letter Minions Handbook, “Fame waits for no man!”
Interested in joined the crew? Check out The Seventh Letter Glossary of Term and Entry Form.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 53, which you can purchase a copy of here.