Subway Graffiti Legends Pay Respect To Photographer Who Documented Them, Reminisce On Painting Trains
"I don't think we would be sitting here today, talking about some of the titans, if we didn't have these photos." —SKEME
Subway Photos: Henry Chalfant, Event photos: Ray Mock
Art events featuring panels of graffiti artists tend to produce predictable scenes: Shoulder-rubbing of different generations of writers, a smattering of blackbooks, group photos and unwelcome tags in the bathroom. But they rarely rise to the level of The Writers: 1980, an exhibition at Eric Firestone Gallery in Manhattan featuring 150 of photographer Henry Chalfant’s large-scale prints of subway graffiti classics from the same year.
The panel, one of several events staged by the gallery in conjunction with Chalfant’s show, brought together a unique group of legendary subway artists whose names would be familiar to every viewer of the 1983 documentary, Style Wars, made by Chalfant and director Tony Silver. Moderated by Jay ‘J.SON’ Edlin, it featured CRASH, MARE 139, DR. REVOLT and SKEME. Among the audience in the packed NoHo loft space were countless other luminaries featured in the film and in Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s Subway Art, the “most stolen” graffiti book in history (or cited by them as influences): LAVA I + II, TRACY 168, PART, RIFF 170, NIC 707 and Rock Steady Crew leader Crazy Legs, to name just a few.
The artists had come together to celebrate the birth of style writing and to honor the work of the photographer, who was on hand to introduce the artists. Chalfant had stumbled across the fledgling subway graffiti culture more or less by accident. He was not the first to document it, but his skill and determination earned him the trust of many of the leading figures in late ‘70s and early ‘80s graffiti, a time of great innovation, when crews like TMT, TDS and Mafia were competing to see who could come up with the most creative new styles.
MARE remembered how prolific his brother, KEL, became, because he knew that Chalfant was going to take photos. “He would put Henry’s name up so Henry would take the shot.” In those days, Chalfant frequently received calls from writers to let him know when and where he could shoot their newly painted pieces.
Chalfant’s studio in downtown Manhattan, filled with photo albums as well as his sculptural work, became a gathering place for young graffiti writers, what Edlin called the “downtown writers bench,” after the famous meeting place for writers at the elevated 149 St station.
It was “a safe haven,” said SKEME, a sanctuary from the often violent reality of life as a writer in New York City. He noted that Chalfant helped shape the legacies of many writers whose work is now considered foundational, such as TRACY 168, RIFF 170, PHASE 2, CHAIN 3, BUTCH, KASE 2 and DON ONE. “I don’t think we would be sitting here today, talking about some of the titans, if we didn’t have these photos.”
The work done by Chalfant and the other early photographers had a tremendous international impact as well. CRASH experienced it first-hand when he met met Dutch graffiti artist SHOE in Amsterdam in 1981. “If it wasn’t for all those books, there would be no graff in Europe,” he recalled SHOE telling him, “because there was no access to what we [New Yorkers] were doing unless there was a book, some kind of visual that they could study.”
“He was an artist advocating for writers who didn’t know they were artists,” MARE added. To him, Chalfant’s own artistic background allowed the young writers “to look at ourselves differently.” That sentiment was echoed by CRASH, who remembered being treated respectfully by Chalfant and Cooper despite their differences in age and education. “They never ever talked down to us. It was an equal conversation.”
In response to the praise, Chalfant humbly remarked: “We were finding our way, just like you were. We didn’t know what was going on. There was no reason to take a condescending attitude to anybody.”
￼The event also provided an opportunity to dig up a few stories and remember the places and characters that came to shape the trajectory of the culture, including the legacies of artists who are no longer with us today.
DR. REVOLT recalled painting the underground 1 line yard on the Upper West Side. “Six lanes across, two are in service. It was basically a giant art studio. I remember the first time we went there it was literally knee deep in spray cans and garbage. You had to wear boots. Bring gloves. Filthy, disgusting.” Yet it became a regular destination for the RTW crew writer, as it had been for many others who made their name on the 1 line.
Among the legends to which the panelists paid tribute, one name loomed particularly large: KASE 2, who passed away in 2011. The “King of style” epitomized the highs and lows of graffiti culture. A double amputee after a horrific accident as a child, KASE 2 nonetheless became a celebrated style master, building on inventions by writers like RIFF 170, particularly in the area of 3D lettering, and influenced countless others with his short, but crucial, appearance in Style Wars, where he is seen working on a sketch. As MARE remarked, “if you study that frame you see how important it is to the development of contemporary graffiti.”
SKEME remembered how he was introduced to KASE 2, who had just received a settlement for his injury, by SEEN. “He had a mayonnaise jar full of coke, and we were snorting coke out of the mayonnaise char with a spoon.” SKEME called KASE 2 “a powerful human being,” but he also noted that, with proper counseling after his traumatic injury, the artist’s life might have taken a less tragic turn.
As the conversation drew to a close TRACY took it upon himself to sidebust the panel by pulling up a mic and grabbing a chair, to cheers from some in the audience. A pioneer in his own right, he was welcomed up front and shared a few of his own stories.
Mass Appeal met the panelists and asked them to comment on their experiences as style writers on the NYC subway.
￼Asked what he got out of writing graffiti, CRASH said: “Graffiti gave me the friendships and [the opportunity to meet] people that never would have happened” as well as “incredible memories of the times of painting, creating, exploring and inventing an art form that I have the pleasure to be a part of.”
He can’t name his favorite piece overall, “but a favorite car that Henry shot was ‘The Crasher,’ which was featured on the cover of his and Marty’s book.”
To CRASH, not all of the memories of writing on the subway are positive. “Do I miss painting on subways? Yes and no,” he told us. “I miss painting and watching these massive moving canvases roam around the city, 24/7, but I don’t miss some of the situations that came with painting, the danger of getting hurt, arrested and more.”
SKEME, who started painting subways in 1979, had an extremely impactful three-year run, and still remembers the thrill of writing on trains. “It was an addiction,” he told Mass Appeal. “Every graffiti writer is a narcissist to start with. The successful ones, on top of being a narcissist, are type A personalities. You just get hooked on it. You get hooked on the adrenaline, the instant gratification, the friendship, the camaraderie, the defiance of authority, so you just ball that up and it spells graffiti.”
One of SKEME’s earliest influences was CHAIN 3. He told us how he first noticed his work, a story he would later repeat for the audience: “The first yard I used to hit, there was a handball court right outside the yard and on the backside of the handball court was a piece, and it said A. RAMSEY. Before I went into the yard, every time I would stare at it and when I came out I would stare at it. And I used to wonder, who is this guy? Later on I got lucky, I met him, and I found out that A. RAMSEY stood for Alan Ramsey, which is CHAIN 3’s government name. The funny thing is, as we became partners and we started writing together, I pressured him into doing another A. RAMSEY piece and I did my name, so we did an A. RAMSEY and CECIL. He was my earliest and most profound style influence.”
CHAIN 3 wasn’t the only retired writer who came back out to write with SKEME. Famously, so did TMT founders TEAN and KADE as well as PHASE 2.
DR. REVOLT, who named LSD OM and JESTER among his influences, recalled to Mass Appeal how “there was something kinda sexy about the proportions of doing stuff on an actual subway train. The application of quality paint on a good metallic surface.”
Like some other writers, he tried to document as much of his own work as he could. “I started taking photos in early ’79,” he said. ”I used an old Pentax camera; I shot a couple of rolls of black and white and then color. Sometimes we had to hunt our own trains. Run up and down the stairs of the elevated” in order to get shots of both sides of the trains him and his partners had painted.
He came to appreciate the work done by the graffiti photographers. “I think I met [Henry Chalfant] on an elevated station, on 125th. I had heard about him. Someone else had met him. We were cool from the get-go.” He also gave credit to photographer Craig Castleman for documenting subway graffit. Castleman, REVOLT remembered, “was right across the street [from the subway], so he had a tripod set up and would take pictures out of his window.” To REVOLT, “the fact that people who were not graffiti artists themselves took the time out to actually document it one way or another was incredible. It was inspiring and it’s a blessing we have these photos of works that have since been destroyed by the MTA and other pseudo-political organizations.”
MARE credits his experience as a subway graffiti writer with giving him “social skills, technical painting skills and I would even say skills of strategy in dealing with foreign places,” he told Mass Appeal. “Writers always look at what’s in their best interest, what’s going to be safe for them, how they navigate new spaces. And certainly the art world is kind of like this open space full of vagueness, as much as the train world was.”
“There was a great level of innovation and honesty about what you were doing,” MARE told us. “It wasn’t as contrived as you are as a professional artist. There was a lot of collaboration between many writers from many boroughs. So there’s the social part of it, interaction that was really critical and important, and I miss that. As you get older and more individualistic as an artist you don’t have that same kind of drive for public opinion.”
However, the benefits of being a young, free-roaming artist came at a cost. “While I don’t know where I’d be without it,” MARE told us, “I also know that if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t, at the risk of certain things that were very important to me. My relationship to my mother, my education and the violence and things that I had to deal with and so on. But that said, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t, so it’s a catch-22.”