Off Script: PART ONE
Documenting the best graffiti handstyles from NYC and around the world
Photos: Enrique Torres
Meet PART ONE
Many of graffiti’s heroes and legends emerged from New York City’s 1970s subway era. One of the key protagonists of the time was PART ONE, one of the founders of TDS, aka The Death Squad, and an innovative style master who influenced generations of other writers. He had an unusually long eleven-year run on the subways, painting alongside and inspiring many notable artists and has been featured in numerous exhibitions and books, including his biography, PART ONE: The Death Squad. Several of his old blackbooks are included in the Martin Wong collection in the Museum of the City of New York. He continues to create drawings and artwork and to practice his skills.
How did you get into graffiti and who were some of your influences?
For me, it started when I was in junior high school, in 1971. As a kid traveling the city, I used to see tags on the walls and trucks and whatnot, and that caught my eye. There was a little group of us when we were growing up. We all came up with names which we would tag. We used to make markers and all that. It was a fun time, because I was still experimenting with names.
I started on the insides, basically just tagging, in 1972, when I was still in junior high school. I was just about to graduate and go to high school. We would take the 6 train up to Pelham Bay Park and on the way up there we would cop tags on the insides and then we would get off, wait for another train, get on and do the same thing. Or we would get on the train at 116 St, go down to 103 Street, walk over to the other side and then go up.
Later on we would walk through lay-ups. It really got me pissed off, because I would go with a big thing of ink and we would go through two or three trains that were laid up, ten cars each train, and I would never see my damn tag. What the hell? Once I started doing pieces, I decided I’ll cop tags here and there, but I’m not gonna waste my time going through lay-ups doing that. Running the chance to get caught just for copping tags? I don’t think so. Somebody posted one of my insides on Instagram last week. Look at this! I’m finally seeing one of my tags on the insides! We had some fun times doing that. Once in a while you would run into somebody who’d say “Hey, what are you doing?” But it didn’t happen too often. A lot of times we would eventually come across other writers.
When we were young, some of the names were long and outlandish. As time went along you finally realized, damn, you need to trim it down a bit, maybe to four or five letters tops, because you’re not gonna sit around doing a name with seven or eight letters. I wrote SPIDERMAN, DR SLICK, HAWK and VENTURA, just to name a few, until my tag was suggested to me by a childhood friend in 1973.
This guy lived a couple of blocks away from me. We used to go to school together. As a matter of fact, he used to write MAD MOON 112. He said, “Yo, why don’t you try PART?” And it just stuck, it was perfect. In the late ‘70s I created other names as well [such as WORM 2 and FUDGE], but I kept it at a minimum.
Writing in a crowded train was a no-no, I wouldn’t do that. If there were maybe six, seven people in the car, that would be okay, because you would have somebody stand in front of you and block you. I would never pull out a marker and just write. You want to be discreet. You never know who’s going to be in that crowd. You don’t want to take that chance. If you’re on a moving train, you go in the opposite direction away from where the crowd is headed. Usually in the last car there was nobody there.
I began on the 6 line, that’s where I grew up. I lived two blocks away from the station. That’s the train that we most frequented. At that time, in ‘72, ‘73, it was pretty clean [on the insides]. There was room to have your tag, and have it be decent, and then maybe there would be two or three other people on a panel, which was cool. Not like in the ‘80s, there was no room at all to do anything, that was a mess!
Other writers were mostly friendly, because everybody was starting out, everybody was new to this. Rather than come across as a thug, you wanted to meet and greet. I didn’t get too much bad attention, because I was a younger person. A lot of the writers that I would come across were a little older. I was eleven, twelve. And it was cool. When I would go to the lay-ups, you never knew who would be up there. And the 6s were not as crowded as the 2s, the 4s, or the 5s. That worked for me.
When I started painting on the outside, it wasn’t on that level yet, it was just to do my name in two colors and then watch it roll. In ‘74 I started getting a little more elaborate with the letters, the clouds and other elements, and that really made the piece stand out.
It just so happened that when I started painting, I saw what was out there. I didn’t have anybody to mentor me. A lot of these guys, they were surrounded by certain writers that were able to influence them and help them. But in my case, I was not from that part of town or whatever. I would go ride the trains, see what was rolling and go home and do my homework, I would practice. Even a lot of the stuff that I was doing before I hit the train was pretty good. I was pretty much home-schooled.
I saw TAKE 5, when I came up on the 6s. His partner was PIECE 2. BANET 1, he did some nice stuff. That was just on the home line. Then you had people like TRACY 168, RIFF 170, PHASE 2 and BILLY 167. There was this other guy, PEL, I liked his stuff. And then you had other writers who weren’t style-savvy, people like MOSES 174. His pieces used to be straight letters and toward the end of his career he was doing his throw-up with these squiggly letters, which was cool. For the most part, those were the people I was coming up with. TRACY I got to meet in ‘74, ‘75. BILLY I met a little later, in ‘75. I never got to meet TAKE 5. PIECE 2 I met much, much later. For the most part, I got there [on my own]. Even PHASE 2 acknowledged my presence. I saw their stuff and tried to duplicate it, but in a different style. To my credit, I did pretty good.
My favorite piece ever would be my first whole car, when The Death Squad was created, back in 1976. It was a special car, because it was my first piece with the crew, and that day we did eight cars, two shy of the whole train. It was pretty impressive. There was six of us: Myself, the president, KOOL 131, BEAR 167, MR JINX 174, PADRE and DEK. My whole car was with KOOL. And then it’s funny because my last piece I did was in 1987. That day, ten cars got done. It was pretty crowded and it was pretty special, because I did a top-to-bottom and then I did a top-to-bottom for my old partner, PANIC, and that was his first top-to-bottom. That day, ten cars got done. You had SENT, CAVS, WANE, VULCAN, BIO, I think DERO was there, VEN, JON 156, a few more people. That whole tunnel was full. It just so happened that day was Super Bowl Sunday. I knew it was my last piece. Time ran its course. I was old already, I was working. I was in my twenties already. Normally, the average train life span of a writer would be anywhere from three to five years. Mine was a lot longer, but I have no regrets.
How did your handstyle develop?
When I was coming up, you had certain people who had really nice tags, like STAY HIGH 149. On the 6 there was PIECE 2, he used to write real nice insides, he had a real nice tag. If you’re gonna tag your name, you’re going to want people to either be able to read it or say “Wow, that looks nice!” It all boils down to penmanship.
Call it doodling or whatever, I always practiced. I would go in the stairwell where I grew up and that was the prelude to the trains. I would write on the stairwell door, or if I had paint I would practice on the wall. And then when I got on the train, that was it. There’s some instances where you don’t have time to focus on a proper tag, so you might want to write your name quick. Sometimes script, for something quick, or a straight simple.
My favorite was Broadway Elegant. The letters are long and tall. It was developed by this writer from Philadelphia, T REX 131, who moved to New York and he brought that style with him. He’s no longer around, but he was a big part of UGA. That style it influenced a few people, including myself.
When I first started, I would go to my local school yards and then tag in the neighborhood. But the train is a different ballgame altogether. The street is one thing, but the train is nothing to fool around with, you know. I got adapted to it. I was a kid. It was all new. Those were the best times, because everything was still so innocent and you were still able to get over, you know what I mean? But like everything else, time comes along and it gets saturated and things happen and you try to make changes.
One guy [I wrote with on the insides] was one of my good friends, he just passed away last March. His name was PANIC 1. He was younger than me, but we did a lot of stuff together. We would go and walk through the lay-ups.
What were some of the paints and other writing tools you used?
I was addicted to color, and to this day I experiment with it. There was only a certain amount of brands, and then one brand had a certain amount of colors, and then another one had a certain range of colors, and then a third brand had a wide range of colors, but when you’re from certain neighborhoods, those colors are not accessible. So you have to venture out of your comfort zone and try to access those colors. I tried to make good with what I had. But it taught me when you had more colors to appreciate and to use them.
Whatever we did, we tried to make it uniform, we all tried to have the same colors. We tried to pool [our colors] and then if we have one can extra that would all go into the finished product until it started getting completely crazy, where everything goes.
For tagging, Flo-master ink was the best. The smell was amazing. The ink was incredible. In the beginning we would take the eraser from school, break it open and there were two sets in there, it would come out [about 3-4 inches] wide and then you fold it in half, and you shove it into a pepper can. You put enough ink where it’s nice and flooded. And then you take another pepper can that’s a little larger, and that’s your cover. You put the ink in the felt of the eraser, and that was one style of marker.
Another one was the Zippo lighter, you take out the filling inside and put in a piece of that eraser felt, and lo and behold, you had a marker. As time went along the Pilot was the choice, and then you had the Mini and the Uni Wide, which was really fun. You had different color inks, so that made it fun to work with. I liked the red, but blue was my favorite. You get a nice clean blue and it’s amazing, really amazing! Sometimes you get creative, and you get opaque, which was great for the windows. But Flo-master was the top choice, hands down.
At that time it was kind of difficult to stash that at home with your parents. My parents knew what I was doing, because I got arrested in 1973, in the Bronx. After that I kept it underground. I would say I’m staying at a friend’s house or whatever. As I got a little older, I let my mom know what I was doing. “Mom, I’m gonna go do this, I’ll be back later.” I knew it wasn’t a good thing to do, but at least she knew what I was doing. She always admired my work, she was my number one fan. Unfortunately she never got to experience my exhibitions.
What do you miss most about writing on subway cars?
The action. It’s always a rush to go on that mission, accomplish that mission and then have your finished product running through the city and then to go look for it. The ultimate goal was to get your photo. That’s the thrill of it. Also meeting other writers, during the course of that mission. There’s nothing like it, man, nothing like it!
What does it take to become a good graffiti writer?
One, you definitely have to be humble. Two, let your work speak for itself. A good writer knows his talent level. That should speak for itself. Once you let that go the other way or swirl your head, it causes discrepancies all over. Always be focused. Don’t underestimate your art, your work. And always practice. That’s the key. I’m a real hardcore veteran, I still practice. It never hurts. Those are the key elements.
What it boils down to is execution. You do a nice piece and you do it the proper way, it should speak for itself. I’m not one to go “Oh, that looks like mine!” You know what they say, it’s the highest form of flattery. It’s a compliment. That’s the problem—a lot of people today, they’re kind of bitter. I can’t get wrapped up in that, that’s not my nature.
TDS was a formidable group. A lot of the individuals, including myself, were talented at different levels. We had some artistic members, incredible painters and good stylists. That was our niche. Fortunately we were doing a lot of stuff that other people were looking at, to our credit. We were doing what we liked to do. We came after the first generation and we raised the bar for future writers.