High Five

Words by Mike Steyels Photos by The Young JFK

The freight train struggles, blocking the street and causing traffic to pile up. It’s a little bit conspicuous to be standing there in this otherwise deserted, industrial part of Queens on the side of a throughway where pedestrians are rarely seen. Plus, the February night gets into your bones pretty quickly if you aren’t moving.

The goal was to hit a chill trackside spot, but this locomotive is blocking the entrance. Its wheels slip all over the icy tracks, sending sparks flying as it achingly wills itself along. “Fuck it,” says Sye 5, and he takes his bag off. He doesn’t like chill spots anyway. Everyone fans out to look for cops as he preps the paint.

Although he’s been painting for years, SYE 5’s become known for giant tags and hollow pieces, which he paints with a specific type of pesticide sprayer filled with a mix of bucket paint and water. It’s a technique he brought back from France, where he learned from fellow YKS crew members. The sprayer tags are not as big as fire extinguisher tags, which can be over a story high, but what they lack in size they make up for with control and efficiency.

Pumping pressure into the container, he picks up the bag and waves the sprayer wand like he’s casting a spell on the slow-motion locomotive. The wand allows him to get closer to the surface, even up high, which is part of the reason his tags are so crisp, and often styled with flares. After finishing the 5-foot-tall handstyle, he adds a second layer going backwards, bolding it out nicely. Then the whole team dips, shuffling out through the traffic jam. A bald white guy in a Mercedes attempts to catch pictures of everyone’s faces, desperately trying to twist his fat body around in the heated seats. The crew ignores him and fades into the darkness of the back streets.


A few blocks away, Sye is scheming on a spot on a different throughway when an unmarked car rolls by. The uniformed officers inside lean and swivel their heads around at him. The cops don’t know what to make of the odd-looking sprayer—it’s not like he’s carrying a Krylon can, but he is thoroughly covered in paint. “If you’re not covered in paint, you’re not doing it right,” Sye likes to say. But this close encounter, plus the possibility of having been ID’d at the previous spot, means it’s time for them to ditch the paint and fall back. They walk a block away and a silver Impala rolls by with what look like plain-clothes officers inside who grill them too. They decide to split up and regroup at someone’s crib, scattering in all different directions as a pair of locals watch the scene from their stoop with baffled grins.

The Impala circles the empty one-way street in this quiet residential area repeatedly, but everyone makes it safely to the meeting place, enjoying a few beers while they wait for things to cool down a bit. Someone turns the TV on and a Wes Anderson movie is nearing its end. Everyone takes turns critiquing it. Sye has an obvious interest in art, but for him, graffiti is about the act itself and about being visible.

“It’s about getting up, honestly,” he explains. “I’m concerned with style, but in a stripped-down way. Parents in the Midwest might be able to appreciate a Cope 2 piece. A burner. Something that he spends hours on. If they walked down Bowery, they’ll see my sprayer tags, and they’re gonna think it’s the most ugly, horrific thing in the world.”

But everyone will be be able to read it, which is the key. “I want it to be legible,” he says. “I want high-school girls to be able to read it. I want everyone to know my name.”

With the beers polished off and the movie credits rolling, they head back out. Sye catches a quick streetside fill in as they scout for another sprayer spot, eventually settling on a wall in the parking lot of a popular nightlife area. But to Sye’s frustration, the sprayer is clogged. The giant blank wall, freshly made available by an eight-foot-tall, frozen-solid snowbank, proves too irresistible. He climbs back up it and does a hollow throw up in the dead center with a couple tags surrounding it.

Walking around the area, he catches a couple more throw ups and handstyles, blasting thick chrome lines at the wall. “Throwies and tags are my favorite,” Sye says, “the actual act of it with a spray can. But the sprayers and rollers are really what I think make you stand out to people outside of graffiti.”

They decide to cap the night with whiskey at a local bar where they run into a friend who offers to let Sye paint his rooftop. While outside smoking cigarettes, Sye busies himself with the sprayer, hoping the warmth has soothed the fickle device. The allure of the untouched wall still taunts him, so before heading to the roof, they return to the wall in hopes of scratching that itch. Sye climbs up the same footprints he left in the snow before and shoots a giant tag above his throwie, crowning his own work. He stands there for a quick second grinning at the rocky triumph.

Back on the roof, he decides to do a hollow piece, since there’s still paint left—another advantage over the fire extinguisher, which wastes paint. “I’d really like to try and do a piece. Fill it in. Maybe double outline.” The painting he had just finished stood close to a story tall, so a step beyond that would be a pretty big one, requiring lots of work and motivation. “I’d have to collect all the sprayers. Fill them and test them. Then actually spend the time painting it. It’d be sloppy, but that’s what’s great. You can see what made it. I like it really raw.” Seems there is an aesthetic after all. The action itself is the motive driving the style. The energy of the moment left exposed so everyone will see and know who it was that experienced it: Sye 5.


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

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