The following is an excerpt from the spectacular new book Blade: King of Graffiti, by Chris Pape (Schiffer). From issue 55.
Words by Chris Pape (Schiffer)
Bronx native Steve “Blade” Ogburn has painted more subway cars than anyone else (he’s painted more masterpieces, at least. You know, the big, bold, colorful stuff). This fact is the kind of thing that 56-year-old graffiti writers will argue about for days—years. But the proof is in the pages of Blade’s new book, which is humbly titled Blade: King of Graffiti. Co-written by noted graffiti historian and painter Chris Pape, the tome is beaming with tales of an unhinged, ‘70s highlife that could have only happened at a time when New York was essentially dead-ass poor. The following is an excerpt from the book, in Blade’s own words.
To us The CRAZY 5 was just as much about hanging out at Parkside Houses as it was about painting trains. Nobody imagined that forty years later writers from that period would be traveling the world as artists, lecturing about the movement, and selling their canvases. You were dodging trains to make art. What’s amazing is that guys like CRACHEE and VAMM had the foresight to document their works with the old 126 cameras. They had a cube on top that rotated to create a flash … click, click, click. I also started documenting my pieces. We didn’t care about anything materialistic, but the trains meant something to us—something you couldn’t put a price on. By 1974 writers were trading photographs like baseball cards and the graffiti movement was blowing up.
We had two hangouts away from the playground. The first was an old garage a few blocks away, across from PS 41. Somehow we got permission to hang out there. We decorated it with a couch from the street and anything else we could find to make it look cool. That was where we went to make out with our girls.
There could be twenty or thirty teenagers a night, all begging for a little bit of privacy. When we weren’t hanging out there, we had a brand new Burger King to go to. Originally the manager didn’t like us, but one weekend VAMM did a painting of the Burger King character on a train. We showed pictures of the train to the manager; after that he fell in love with us. We could spend hours at the Burger King, bragging about what went on in the garage. Of course, most of the stories were embellished, as they usually are at that age. We were still seventeen and riding Stingray bikes. The real men had cars.
One of the advantages of hanging out at Parkside was that we had a train lay-up running right through it. The elevated 2 line rose above us as we played basketball and rapped to the girls. We would hit the trains seemingly at will. For some of THE CRAZY 5, getting to the lay-up was simple. For CRACHEE it was just a matter of opening a door, since he lived on the first floor of one of the buildings in Parkside. I had to walk for forty-five minutes from Co-op City and dodge cars while crossing a major highway while carrying my bags of paint. Early on we just wanted to get up, and that’s how we did it.
In July of 1974 ten of us from the Parkside playground went up to the lay-up, including a couple of the girl writers, KIVU and Z-73, and Karen. We were all drunk off our asses. We walked up the steps to the Burke Avenue station and jumped right over the turnstile while giving the token clerk the finger. We couldn’t be stopped. We jumped off the platform and hit cars with tags and pieces. We stumbled back and forth, bumping into each other and laughing under the summer moon. I pulled the bumpers of the two trains apart, lifted the chain that held them together, and helped Karen climb in between cars. She looked so fine. I opened the train door and we crawled into the car. The door shut behind us. It was exciting and Karen started to kiss me. I kissed her back hard and then ran my hand under her halter-top. Karen took off her top and I kissed her breasts.
CLIFF 159 AND BLADE UNFINISHED PIECE 1975 : PHOTO BY KIETH BAUGH
The two of us huddled under the windows of the subway door so no one would see us—for once, a little privacy in the Bronx. CRACHEE noticed three undercover cops headed our way. He yelled out “DTs!” and we watched as everybody scrambled back toward the station. But there were also cops on the platform coming down the tracks to greet the group. Karen threw her top on and we joined the group. Together we ducked underneath the train and crawled by the cops. We hit the platform and we were gone.
The chase was an amazing one, and we talked about it for weeks, but unfortunately it burned the lay-up. The following weekend the police placed cops in both the Burke and Allerton stations, denying us access. We were discouraged for a while, until DEATH came up with a revolutionary strategy. If we couldn’t go through the stations, then we would climb up to the tracks from the street. From what I’ve been told (I wasn’t there), his first attempt at climbing the girders leading to the tracks absolutely stunned the UPS employees who worked across the street. Some of them shouted and called him a monkey, didn’t faze him at all. Before long we were all doing it. If we got chased, we climbed back down the same way. The climb itself was simp le. There were hundreds of rivets in the beams, which you could put your toes on. And if you leaned back from the beam, extending your arms, you barely felt your own weight. DEATH also figured out the best way to bring paint up: in a plastic bag held in your teeth. There were still chases at the Burke lay-up because we were there so often, not always to paint. Sometimes we went up there at night just to make out with girls. On occasion, cop cars would pass by and the cops would get out and shine their flashlights at us. About an hour later a black and white Transit car would come by shining spotlights up at the lay-up. The housing cops would come by in orange and blue cruisers, but they didn’t really care about us writing on the trains. In fact, right after painting the BLADEISM, VAMM car we climbed down the pillar into the waiting hands of one Officer Leon of the Housing Police. It turned out that Officer Leon was a fan, so I took a photo of him and VAMM together and we went on our way.
While we painted together in 1973 and 1974, we each had a different method that suited us. DEATH liked to paint alone, so after we climbed up the pillars he was gone. He had a lot of worries on his mind, some of it was family related, some of it was the neighborhood. He liked to be alone with his thoughts while he painted. Sometimes we didn’t know what he painted until the next day. CRACHEE and VAMM were partners in 1973 and they’d hit a car together, but in 1974 I was usually painting with VAMM. When VAMM wrote with CRACHEE they did stick letter pieces, but by the time VAMM and I partnered it was important to be able to collaborate and unify the two names. TULL 13 (MARIO) painted right along side us.
VAMM could get intense when he painted, which led to one of the few confrontations that ever took place at our lay-up. VAMM had just broken up with his girlfriend, so he was getting no ass at all, and he was angry about it. Anything could set him off. One night we were painting at the lay-up and KINDU (a notorious writer from the 6 line) was there. KINDU was the darkest guy you’ll ever meet, a tough guy who loved to fight. They started a conversation that couldn’t have possibly ended well. While painting VAMM yelled out, “You can’t even have your own lay-up anymore!” KINDU stared at me and said, “You better talk to your boy BLADE.” Normally KINDU would have won that fight, but the way VAMM was feeling that day—not getting laid and all—he could’ve won. I told KINDU the story about VAMM not getting any lovin’. As it turns out, KINDU had a heart after all and he actually felt bad for VAMM, so they didn’t fight. The more VAMM bitched, the more KINDU just smiled.
CRACHEE and VAMM had a good run on the 2 line in 1973. Whether they kinged it or not is still debatable. But in 1974 VAMM and I took it over—undisputed kings.
Being king of a line in 1974 was a big deal because the competition had expanded tremendously and the new writers coming up had the advantage of copying the latest styles, so a lot of them got good fast. In 1973 THE EBONY DUKES and WAR were the two big crews; everyone envied them and the pieces they did. One of the things about the evolution of graffiti is that the next group to come along would have to double the number of pieces painted by the earlier generations and improve upon the earlier styles.
The pieces by THE CRAZY 5 were much different in 1974 than they were in 1973; they had a more polished look. The only one in the group who didn’t care about style was DEATH, since he was painting trains for other reasons—mostly to get up and king the line. CRACHEE began to expand on his first pieces, coming up with square letters that had nice 3-Ds. MARIO’s best pieces were his TULL 13 whole cars. The four letters would only take up half the train, but the bottom of the two Ls would shoot across to the end of the car. VAMM was innovative; he celebrated April Fool’s Day by painting his name upside down. Another time he painted the American flag inside the letters of his name—something a lot of writers copied later. In 1975 he painted a VAMMTASTIC piece, which started even more copying, including a PAZTASTIC piece by CLIFF 159.
DEATH AND VAMM CLIMB UP THE GIRDERS 1973
Bringing new writers into the group was easy because they all hung out with us. In fact that was one of the rules of THE CRAZY 5—you had to hang out at Parkside. Since we didn’t really have a president, someone would mention a name and we’d take an informal vote. It usually worked out. Sometimes a big name writer didn’t get in because they didn’t hang out with us. In the end we probably could’ve been called THE CRAZY 25.
With WAR and THE EBONY DUKES fading out there were two crews we were competing with in 1974: WANTED and the INDs. In 1975 the THREE YARD BOYS (3YB) started getting up on all of the lines and so they were added to the mix. The WANTED crew was probably our biggest competition. They had better style than we did and a lineup that included TRACY 168, CHI-CHI133, KING 2, PNUT 2, ALL 2, and SONNY 107, who were all great. They would do three name cars with a unified cloud, which we couldn’t compete with. Our solution was to do at least one whole car for their three name cars. It wasn’t that different from what SUPERKOOL 223 had done just two years earlier. But in the end everyone remembered: bigger was better.
TRACY 168 was a major writer in the movement, and not a big fan of mine. We had different artistic philosophies. For TRACY, painting Yosemite Sam (which he did extremely well) and placing it next to his name was the peak of what a writer could do. It looked great and it was innovative, but I wanted to do my own characters—ones that I created.
I always felt that KING 2 and PNUT 2 had more style than TRACY 168, but it was TRACY 168 that held that crew together. One thing only a few writers knew back then is that TRACY would do pieces for other members of the crew when they weren’t there. Also, since he was usually the first one done painting, he had the responsibility of doing the cloud around the names to make the crew look better than it was.The INDs belonged to PHASE 2. Their lineup included RIFF 170, BILLY 167, PEL, and BOT 707. A lot of writers looked up to PHASE 2 and called him a king. He became a graffiti star by hanging out at the bench and giving out styles. He even gave me a style, which I used regularly. We battled the INDs the same way we battled the WANTED crew, with top-to-bottoms, and not just our individual names. We did CRAZY 5 pieces all of the time; some of them top-to-bottoms, which you never saw that with the other crews. A problem with the INDs was that they should’ve worked more like the WANTED crew. RIFF 170 did a lot of great pieces by himself, but they were solo shots and didn’t have the power of three names in a color-coordinated cloud. As a fan of the movement I would’ve loved to see some PHASE 2, RIFF 170, BILLY 167 cars painted by all of them together.
CLIFF 159 had been around forever. He grew up in Harlem right above the 3 yards, a line he owned for years. There’s no other way to put it, CLIFF 159 was an improbable king. He hadn’t really shown much style until 1974 when TRACY 168 started to teach him some things. Then in 1975 CLIFF 159 started to take off, doing one whole car after another— and they were good. He surrounded himself with talented writers such as COMET, JESTER, TRACY 168, and PEACE 108, but his main writing partner was IN. IN was the inventor of the throw-up, a two-letter piece done in under a minute. IN was so fast that he painted with both hands. But they were ugly.
IN came up to see us at Parkside. He tried to be down with THE CRAZY 5, but we said no. That’s when he took on the new name of KILL 3 and started to do some style pieces. I did a BLADE THE CRAZY 5 end to end that took up 95% of the subway car. It took a lot of time and a lot of paint. At the very tip of it IN had an ugly throw-up, which I went over. He had the balls to cross me out for it. I told him, “You’ve got these things everywhere that took less than a minute to do, and we’re trying to do whole cars. Are you kidding me?” He wanted respect for doing his throw-up with both hands—they were that fast and that sloppy. It didn’t work that way.
CLIFF 159 was the leader of 3YB (THREE YARD BOYS). They were big in 1975, because CLIFF 159 was going to other boroughs and putting down writers he barely knew. A lot of times he was also getting paint from them. Even though they got up a lot more, you didn’t know half the names. THE CRAZY 5 consisted of fifteen or twenty people that hung out together daily at the same spot, smoking weed and shooting hoops. Most of us had known each other since childhood, although we did put in LSD OM, which was odd because he was from the Bronx. A lot of the WANTED crew guys came through to hang out and talk graffiti. I was surprised when PNUT 2 asked to be in THE CRAZY 5. He was a great writer, but he was also in WANTED. Since those were his boys, so we said no. You really had to hang with us to be in THE CRAZY 5.
CLIFF 159 was definitely up in 1974 and 1975, but I’m sure I had more pieces than he did. There were very few whole car specialists at the time, which made CLIFF 159 my main competition. His influence came directly from TRACY 168, whose influence came directly from comic books, which made me critical of his work, even though it probably helped him in the long run. His work was simple to figure out: Dick Tracy on the side of a train, Beetle Bailey on the side of a train. Kids loved it; I didn’t. I felt the works weren’t turned into anything new; he was just copying what he saw. He did have a few bright moments though. His Silver Surfer car was a classic. It looked like he was flying right off the car. To me there was a concept behind this particular painting. His painting of The Thing was nicely animated, which was CLIFF 159 at his best. He also competed with COMET in doing a lot of throw-ups, and the two of them wrote together sometimes.
I did three character pieces in 1974, which preceded CLIFF 159’s whole cars. The first was done from a sketch I had drawn in art class of an easel with a head; there was a long CRAZY 5 piece next to it in red paint. If you look at it today it seems primitive, and certainly not something to be proud of, but in 1974 very few characters had been drawn on trains.
STIPEROO JUST FOR U(SILVER TIPS) AND AJAX ONE CIRCA 1974
The other guys loved it, and so I was inspired to do more. In November 1974, I painted a snowman; I called it my Merry Christmas piece. This one was a lot better. I remember it was a beautiful night to paint, nice and quiet with no one else at the lay-up. The sketch I did for it placed it nicely on the car and integrated well with the BLADE piece. I was so proud of the Christmas car that I tried hard to think of something to follow it up with. That December I painted an octopus with the letters of my name in its tentacles on the train. I was really stoned, so I spelled my name with two Ds. I was just beginning to use the train as a canvas at that time.
While CLIFF 159 and I were battling each other with whole cars, he was emerging as king of the 1 and 3 lines and I was already king of the 2s and 5s. I was fine with CLIFF 159 owning the 1 line. As LEE once said, “I’d never paint on the 1 trains. They’re too dirty.” He was right. The early graffiti stars were from the 1 line in Manhattan: TAKI 183, JUNIOR 161 and CAY 161, SNAKE 1 and STITCH 1, PIPER 1 and JACE 2, and MOSES 147. They all hit the 1 line so hard that we knew their names in the Bronx. In 1971 and 1972 being a king of Broadway meant something. But after those guys faded out, the movement took hold in the Bronx, which is where piecing really took off. By the mid-1970s the 1 line was mostly for throwups. In a strange twist of fate I found myself working near the 1 tunnel at 137th Street and Broadway on weekends. On my lunch break I would go in there and paint one or two trains. I didn’t want the 1 line trains. I was looking for cars transferred over from the 7 line, which had long horizontal windows. Those were the ones I hit. I never wanted to make that long trip back to the 7 yard.
CLIFF 159 and I painted together a few times. The most memorable one was when we painted our names as kings. CLIFF 159 stopped by Parkside to hang out in the summer of 1975 and we talked about doing a car together. We left the playground, went off to rack some paint, and made plans to meet at 1:00am at the Baychester lay-up, which put CLIFF 159 in my territory. One of the problems with meeting other writers late at night was that you never knew if they were going to show up. In fact you never even knew if the train was going to be there.
When I got to Baychester, CLIFF 159 had already climbed the hill and he was looking for the hole in the fence. This gave me a chance to study him for a moment. CLIFF 159 looked old. Even though we were the same age it looked as though his life was going by faster than mine. In my life you robbed hardware stores for paint to do pieces with. CLIFF 159 was well beyond that, and he was getting busted constantly. That night he wore his famous denim jacket with the studs on the back, which looked like he lived in it—and he probably did. CLIFF 159 certainly wasn’t the first writer to sleep in train stations. I climbed up the hill and we said our hellos.
We settled on a car in the middle lane. The car had some ugly throwups on it; I was happy to be going over them. CLIFF 159 started his piece almost immediately, sketching in his outline with a can of silver. By the time I was done with my outline CLIFF 159 was finished with his fill-in. While panting he was intense; I don’t recall him saying a word. I was told that TRACY 168 painted the same way: attack the train, get the piece done, and get the hell out of there. I liked the fact that both writers were so certain of their line. For the record, I consider myself to be one of the fastest writers out there.
CLIFF 159 finished his piece and started to walk toward me. I still had to do the crown on my piece, which were the most important element of the painting; two kings painting together. As we started talking, he looked at my sketch and asked if there was anything he could do. There really wasn’t, since I just had a few things left. He turned and looked down the hill of the lay-up, seeming a lot more relaxed now that his piece was done. As he looked over the fence I could hear a quick humming sound that meant only one thing: in a few seconds the train would be active and the lights would come on. Why? Who knew? These things happened, and when they did it they usually meant a conductor or motorman was heading our way. CLIFF 159 looked at me hard. This was my playground and he expected me to make the right call. Although I wanted to finish the crown, it was time to bail. We left the few scraps of paint behind, climbed through the hole, and took off into the night. That was the last time we painted together. CLIFF 159 was done painting by the end of 1976.
The piece with CLIFF 159 was done in the summer of 1975, a time when some of THE CRAZY 5 was slowing down. VAMM was my partner, but now he was painting only once a month. When the summer came around I was left wondering if THE CRAZY 5 was over.