This Might Just Be The First NYC Subway Graffiti Documentary Ever Made
A rare interview with Cliff 159
Over the years I’ve scoured the remotest depths of the Internet in search of NYC subway footage from the ’70s and ’80s. About seven years ago I stumbled upon a short graffiti documentary from the ’70s on Getty Images that blew me away. To this day it remains some of the most impressive early New York graffiti footage I think I’ve ever seen. It’s such an accurate snapshot of the NYC I remember as a child. It also features a rare interview with CLIFF 159, the founder of 3YB (3 Yard Boys), a versatile All-City writer from the Bronx who was well known for his comic book-themed whole cars. Some of the other notable writers who can be seen in the film include Phase 2, Comet, Blade, IN, Billy167, LSD OM, Ajax, Dean, Mico, Checker 170.
At first I figured out to how to download small watermarked MP4 segments of the film from Getty for free, and strung them together using iMovie. In the end I had amassed roughly 10–12 minutes of this amazing film with no title. I quietly sat on the documentary for a few years without posting or sharing it.
At the end of 2016 I noticed one of my recommended videos on YouTube was a film called The New York Graffiti Experience 1976 by Fenton Lawless. The mystery film now had a title and a date! We’re talking 1976. Jimmy Carter was the President. The same year Rhythm Heritage released the “Theme From S.W.A.T.”—and eight years before the publication of the book Subway Art. After a bit of sleuthing I learned that Fenton Lawless is an actor, musician, and photographer who lives in New York. Naturally I had to learn more about this project, which you can check out in the window above before reading my brief interview with the filmmaker.
At the 6:40 mark you can see a CLIFF piece featuring the Marvel Comics character “Thing”
MASS APPEAL: Where are you from?
Fenton: I’m from Philadelphia.I came to New York in 1969. After high school I got a job at NBC, I wanted to be a comedian. I worked for The Tonight Show, I jockeyed Johnny Carson’s jokes back and forth from the writers’ room all day. I was interested in comedy and television.
How did you come up with the idea to make a film?
In 1975 my girlfriend and were talking one night. We were very interested in graffiti, so I said “Why don’t we shoot some slides and put it to my music and will send it to the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts)? At the time they were giving grants. We went out with a 35mm Leica and then we scouted the city and we shot what we could, put it together with my music and we created a slideshow and an oral presentation. They jumped all over it, and we traveled from different cities putting on this graffiti art show.
So then I got the idea, why don’t I make a documentary about it, which I did. I went out and found my 17-year-old cameraman Andy Aaron, who now works for George Lucas. We basically retraced our steps from where we did the slideshow and put it all together. There are two versions of the film the educational version which is the one that’s on Vimeo and YouTube right now and I have more of a street version.
This was several years before social media, the Internet, graffiti books, films or zines. As an outsider, how hard was it for you get in contact with Cliff 3YB?
While we were out shooting stills and slides, we were going into neighborhoods. CLIFF was everywhere at the time—he was omni-present. He was not only on walls, he was on Subway cars. So I asked around and I asked around. One thing led to another and somehow I gave this kid who said he knew Cliff my phone number to have him call me because I wanted him to do some work for me. Which he did. Cliff created the titles for our film. We had several conversations back and forth. He called me; I didn’t call him. In the end I was able to establish a bond. Everything I said I would do, I did. I used him for the narration. I paid him when I said I would. I think he was interested that I was interested in what he was doing, and that I wanted to document this.
I’m assuming because CLIFF was still active he had no interest in being on film?
Tha’s for sure! I asked to shoot them during something once and he declined. I didn’t ask him again. You have to be totally undercover. Writers really had to protect their identity. They were marked men and the city had it in for them. It was an interesting relationship.
When was the last time you had contact with Cliff?
Right after the film. It’s been almost 40 years.
Why did you decide to post the film after all these years?
After we made the movie I sent it around a little bit. They screened us at the museum in 1976. I broke up with this woman and I sort of lost interest in the work and I sort of just let it sit for years.
The footage was supposed to be kept in storage but about seven years ago I was looking around online and came across clips of my film that were being offered for sale on a site similar to Getty. The only way to find out who selling my film was to try and purchase some footage. When I saw the guy’s name, it was my editor Carl. It turns out he kept the masters. He had been selling footage for 20 years. I was able to sue. I received a settlement and I made sure I secured all of the rights. When I found it online I got re-interested in it.
Somebody got in touch with me from GETTY and said we can offer you a nonexclusive deal for your footage. A bunch of those clips have since run on HBO’s Vinyl.
Fenton Lawless is currently raising funds for a new short film.
At 6:49 in, a “Broom Hilda” themed Cliff whole car rolls past the camera.