KEVIN HELDMAN lives in New York. This is his first piece for "Rolling Stone." (ROLLING STONE,FEB 9,1995)
THE FIRST TIME I meet JA, he skates up to me wearing Rollerblades, his cap played backward, on a street corner in Manhattan at around midnight. He's white, 24 years old, with a short, muscular build and a blond crew cut. He has been writing graffiti off and on in New York for almost 10 years and is the founder of a loosely affiliated crew called XTC. His hands, arms, legs and scalp show a variety of scars from nightsticks, razor wire, fists and sharp, jagged things he has climbed up, on or over. He has been beaten by the police -- a "wood shampoo," he calls it -- has been shot at, has fallen off a highway sign into moving traffic, has run naked through train yards tagging, has been chased down highways by rival writers wielding golf clubs and has risked his life innumerable times writing graffiti -- bombing, getting up.
JA lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment. There's graffiti on a wall-length mirror, a weight bench, a Lava lamp to bug out on, cans of paint stacked in the corner, a large Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) sticker on the side of the refrigerator. The buzzer to his apartment lists a false name; his phone number is unlisted to avoid law-enforcement representatives as well as conflicts with other writers. While JA and one of his writing partners, JD, and I are discussing their apprehension about this story, JD, offering up a maxim from the graffiti life, tells me matter-of-factly, "You wouldn't fuck us over, we know where you live."
At JA's apartment we look through photos. There are hundreds of pictures of writers inside out-of-service subway cars that they've just covered completely with their tags, pictures of writers wearing orange safety vests -- to impersonate transit workers -- and walking subway tracks, pictures of detectives and transit workers inspecting graffiti that JA and crew put up the previous night, pictures of stylized JA 'throw-ups' large, bubble-lettered logos written 15 feet up and 50 times across a highway retaining wall. Picture after picture of JA's on trains, JA's on trucks, on store gates, bridges, rooftops, billboards -- all labeled, claimed and recorded on film.
JA comes from a well-to-do family; his parents are divorced; his father holds a high-profile position in the entertainment industry. JA is aware that in some people's minds this last fact calls into question his street legitimacy, and he has put a great deal of effort into resisting the correlation between privileged and soft. He estimates he has been arrested 15 times for various crimes. He doesn't have a job, and it's unclear how he supports himself. Every time we've been together, he's been high or going to get high. Once he called me from Rikers Island prison, where he was serving a couple of months for disorderly conduct and a probation violation. He said some of the inmates saw him tagging in a notebook and asked him to do tattoos for them.
It sounds right. Wherever he is, JA dominates his surroundings. With his crew, he picks the spots to hit, the stores to rack from; he controls the mission. He gives directions in the car, plans the activities, sets the mood. And he takes everything a step further than the people he's with. He climbs higher, stays awake longer, sucks deepest on the blunt, writes the most graffiti. And though he's respected by other writers for testing the limits -- he has been described to me by other writers as a king and, by way of compliment, as "the sickest guy I ever met" -- that same recklessness sometimes alienates him from the majority who don't have such a huge appetite for chaos, adrenaline, self-destruction.
When I ask a city detective who specializes in combating graffiti if there are any particularly well-known writers, he immediately mentions JA and adds with a bit of pride in his voice, "We know each other." He calls JA the "biggest graffiti writer of all time" (though the detective would prefer that I didn't mention that, because it'll only encourage JA). "He's probably got the most throw-ups in the city, in the country, in the world," the detective says. "If the average big-time graffiti vandal has 10,000 tags, JA's got 100,000. He's probably done -- in New York City alone -- at least $5 million worth of damage."
AT ABOUT 3 A.M., JA AND TWO OTHER WRITERS go out to hit a billboard off the West Side Highway in Harlem. Tonight there are SET, a 21-year-old white writer from Queens, N.Y., and JD, a black Latino writer the same age, also from Queens. They load their backpacks with racked cans of Rustoleum, fat cap nozzles, heavy 2-foot industrial bolt cutters and surgical gloves. We pile into a car and start driving, Schooly D blasting on the radio. First a stop at a deli where JA and SET go in and steal beer. Then we drive around Harlem trying a number of different dope spots, keeping an eye out for "berries" -- police cars. JA tosses a finished 40-ounce out the window in a high arc, and it smashes on the street.
At different points, JA gets out of the car and casually walks the streets and into buildings, looking for dealers. A good part of the graffiti life involves walking anywhere in the city, at any time, and not being afraid -- or being afraid and doing it anyway.
We arrive at a spot where JA has tagged the dealer's name on a wall in his territory. The three writers buy a vial of crack and a vial of angel dust and combine them ("spacebase") in a hollowed-out Phillies blunt. JD tells me that "certain drugs will enhance your bombing," citing dust for courage and strength ("bionics"). They've also bombed on mescaline, Valium, marijuana, crack and malt liquor. SET tells a story of climbing highway poles with a spray can at 6 a.m., "all Xanaxed out."
While JD is preparing the blunt, JA walks across the street with a spray can and throws up all three of their tags in 4-foot-high bubbled, connected letters. In the corner, he writes my name.
We then drive to a waterfront area at the edge of the city -- a deserted site with warehouses, railroad tracks and patches of urban wilderness dotted with high-rise billboards. All three writers are now high, and we sit on a curb outside the car smoking cigarettes. From a distance we can see a group of men milling around a parked car near a loading dock that we have to pass. This provokes 30 minutes of obsessive speculation, a stoned stakeout with play by play:
"Dude, they're writers," says SET. "Let's go down and check them out," says JD. "Wait, let's see what they write," says JA. "Yo -- they're going into the trunk," says SET. "Cans, dude, they're going for their cans. Dude, they're writers. "There could be beef, possible beef," says JA. "Can we confirm cans, do we see cans?" SET wants to know. Yes, they do have cans," SET answers for himself. "There are cans. They are writers." It turns out that the men are thieves, part of a group robbing a nearby truck. In a few moments guards appear with flashlights and at least one drawn gun. The thieves scatter as guard dogs fan out around the area, barking crazily.
We wait this out a bit until JA announces, "It's on." Hood pulled up on his head, he leads us creeping through the woods (which for JA has become the cinematic jungles of Nam). It's stop and go, JA crawling on his stomach, unnecessarily close to one of the guards who's searching nearby. We pass through graffiti-covered tunnels (with the requisite cinematic drip drip), over crumbling stairs overgrown with weeds and brush, along dark, heavily littered trails used by crackheads.
We get near the billboard, and JA uses the bolt cutters to cut holes in two chain-link fences. We crawl through and walk along the railroad tracks until we get to the base of the sign. JA, with his backpack on, climbs about 40 feet on a thin piece of metal pipe attached to the main pillar. JD, after a few failed attempts, follows with the bolt cutters shoved down his pants and passes them to JA. Hanging in midair, his legs wrapped around a small piece of ladder, JA cuts the padlock and opens up the hatch to the catwalk. He then lowers his arm to JD, who is wrapped around the pole just below him, struggling. "J, give me your hand, "I'll pull you up," JA tells him. JD hesitates. He is reluctant to let go and continues treadmilling on the pole, trying to make it up. JD, give me your hand." JD doesn't want to refuse, but he's uncomfortable entrusting his life to JA. He won't let go of the pole. JA says it again, firmly, calmly, utterly confident: "J give me your hand." JD's arm reaches up, and JA pulls JD up onto the catwalk. Next, SET, the frailest of the three, follows unsteadily. They've called down and offered to put up his tag, but he insists on going up. "Dude, fuck that, I'm down," he says. I look away while he makes his way up, sure that he's going to fall (he almost does twice). The three have developed a set pattern for dividing the labor when they're "blowing up," one writer outlining, another working behind him, filling in. For 40 minutes I watch them working furiously, throwing shadows as they cover ads for Parliament and Amtrak with large multicolored throw-ups SET and JD bickering about space, JA scolding them, tossing down empty cans.
They risk their lives again climbing down. Parts of their faces are covered in paint, and their eyes beam as all three stare at the billboard, asking, "Isn't it beautiful?' And there is something intoxicating about seeing such an inaccessible, clean object gotten to and made gaudy. We get in the car and drive the West Side Highway northbound and then southbound so they can critique their work. "Damn, I should've used the white," JD says.
The next day both billboards are newly re-covered, all the graffiti gone. JA tells me the three went back earlier to get pictures and made small talk with the workers who were cleaning it off.
GRAFFITI HAS BEEN THROUGH A NUMBER OF incarnations since it surfaced in New York in the early 70s with a Greek teen-ager named Taki 183. It developed from the straightforward writing of a name to highly stylized, seemingly illegible tags (a kind of penmanship slang) to wild-style throw-ups and elaborate (master) "pieces" and character art. There has been racist graffiti political writing, drug advertising, gang graffiti. There is an art-graf scene from which Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiac, LEE, Futura 2000, Lady Pink and others emerged; aerosol advertising; techno graffiti written into computer programs; anti-billboard graffiti; stickers; and stencil writing. There are art students doing street work in San Francisco ("nonpermissional public art"); mural work in underground tunnels in New York; gallery shows from Colorado to New Jersey; all-day Graffiti-a-Thons; and there are graffiti artists lecturing art classes at universities. Graffiti has become part of urban culture, hip-hop culture and commercial culture, has spread to the suburbs and can be found in the backwoods of California's national forests. There are graffiti magazines, graffiti stores, commissioned walls, walls of fame and a video series available (Out to bomb) documenting writers going out on graffiti missions, complete with soundtrack. Graffiti was celebrated as a metaphor in the 70s (Norman Mailer's "The Faith of Graffiti"); it went Hollywood in the '80s (Beat Street, Turk 182!, Wild Style); and in the '90s it has been increasingly used to memorialize the inner-city dead.
But as much as graffiti has found acceptance, it has been vilified a hundred times more. Writers are now being charged with felonies and given lengthy jail terms -- a 15-year-old in California was recently sentenced to eight years in a juvenile detention center. Writers have been given up to 1000 hours of community service and forced to undergo years of psychological counseling; their parents have been hit with civil suits. In California a graffiti writer's driver's license can be revoked for a year; high-school diplomas and transcripts can also be withheld until parents make restitution. In some cities property owners who fail to remove graffiti from their property are subject to fines and possible jail time. Last spring in St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Antonio and Sacramento, Calif., politicians proposed legislation to cane graffiti writers (four to 10 hits with a wooden paddle, administered by parents or by a bailiff in a public courtroom). Across the nation, legislation has been passed making it illegal to sell spray paint and wide-tipped markers to anyone under 18, and often the materials must be kept locked up in the stores. Several cities have tried to ban the sales altogether, license sellers of spray paint and require customers to give their name and address when purchasing paint. In New York some hardware-store owners will give a surveillance photo of anyone buying a large quantity of spray cans to the police. In Chicago people have been charged with possession of paint. In San Jose, Calif., undercover police officers ran a sting operation -- posing as filmmakers working on a graffiti documentary -- and arrested 31 writers.
Hidden cameras, motion detectors, laser removal, specially developed chemical coatings, night goggles, razor wire, guard dogs, a National Graffiti Information Network, graffiti hot lines, bounties paid to informers -- one estimate is that it costs $4 billion a year nationally to clean graffiti -- all in an effort to stop those who "visually laugh in the face of communities," as a Wall Street Journal editorial raged.
The popular perception is that since the late 1980s when New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority adopted a zero tolerance toward subway graffiti (the MTA either cleaned or destroyed more than 6,000 graffiti-covered subway cars, immediately pulling a train out of service if any graffiti appeared on it), graffiti culture had died in the place of its birth. According to many graffiti writers, however, the MTA, in its attempt to kill graffiti, only succeeded in bringing it out of the tunnels and train yards and making it angry. Or as Jeff Ferrell, a criminologist who has chronicled the Denver graffiti scene, theorizes, the authorities' crackdown moved graffiti writing from subculture to counterculture. The work on the trains no longer ran, so writers started hitting the streets. Out in the open they had to work faster and more often. The artistry started to matter less and less. Throw-ups, small cryptic tags done in marker and even the straightforward writing of a name became the dominant imagery. What mattered was quantity ("making noise"), whether the writer had heart, was true to the game, was "real." And the graffiti world started to attract more and more people who weren't looking for an alternative art canvas but simply wanted to be connected to an outlaw community, to a venerable street tradition that allowed the opportunity to advertise their defiance. "It's that I'm doing it that I get my rush, not by everyone seeing it," says JA. "Yeah, that's nice, but if that's all that's gonna motivate you to do it, you're gonna stop writing. That's what happened to a lot of writers." JD tells me: "We're just putting it in their faces; it's like 'Yo, you gotta put up with it.'"
Newspapers have now settled on the term "graffiti vandal" rather than "artist" or "writer." Graffiti writers casually refer to their work as doing destruction." In recent years graffiti has become more and more about beefs and wars, about "fucking up the MTA," "fucking up the city."
Writers started taking a jock attitude toward getting up frequently and tagging in hard-to-reach places, adopting a machismo toward going over other writers' work and defending their own ("If you can write, you can fight"). Whereas graffiti writing was once considered an alternative to the street, now it imports drugs, violence, weapons and theft from that world -- the romance of the criminal deviant rather than the artistic deviant. In New York today, one police source estimates there are approximately 100,000 people involved in a variety of types of graffiti writing. The police have caught writers as young as 8 and as old as 42. And there's a small group of hard-core writers who are getting older who either wrote when graffiti was in its prime or long for the days when it was, those who write out of compulsion, for each other and for the authorities who try to combat graffiti, writers who haven't found anything in their lives substantial or hype enough to replace graffiti writing.
The writers in their 20s come mostly from working-class families and have limited prospects and ambitions for the future. SET works in a drugstore and has taken lithium and Prozac for occasional depression; JD dropped out of high school and is unemployed, last working as a messenger, where he met JA. They spend their nights driving 80 miles an hour down city highways, balancing 40-ounce bottles of Old English 800 between their legs, smoking blunts and crack-laced cigarettes called coolies, always playing with the radio. They reminisce endlessly about the past, when graf was real, when graf ran on the trains, and they swap stories about who's doing what on the scene. The talk is a combo platter of Spicoli, homeboy, New Age jock and eighth grade: The dude is a fuckin' total turd. . . . I definitely would've gotten waxed. . . . It's like some bogus job. . . . I'm amped, I'm Audi, you buggin . . . You gotta be there fully, go all out, focus. . . . Dudes have bitten off SET, he's got toys jockin' him. . . .
They carry beepers, sometimes guns, go upstate or to Long Island to "prey on the hicks" and to rack cans of spray paint. They talk about upcoming court cases and probation, about quitting, getting their lives together, even as they plan new spots to hit, practice their style by writing on the walls of their apartments, on boxes of food, on any stray piece of paper (younger writers practice on school notebooks that teachers have been known to confiscate and turn over to the police). They call graffiti a "social tool" and "some kind of ill form of communication," refer to every writer no matter his age as "kid." Talk in the graffiti life vacillates between banality and mythology, much like the activity itself: hours of drudgery, hanging out, waiting, interrupted by brief episodes of exhilaration. JD, echoing a common refrain, says, "Graffiti writers are like bitches: a lot of lying, a lot of talking, a lot of gossip." They don't like tagging with girls ("cuties," or if they use drugs, "zooties") around because all they say is (in a whiny voice), You're crazy. . . . Write my name."
WHEN JA TALKS ABOUT GRAFFITI, HE'S reluctant to offer up any of the media-ready cliches about the culture (and he knows most of them). He's more inclined to say, "Fuck the graffiti world," and scoff at graf shops, videos, conventions and 'zines. But he can be sentimental about how he began -- riding the No. 1, 2 and 3 trains when he was young, bugging out on the graffiti-covered cars, asking himself, "How did they do that? Who are they?" And he'll respectfully invoke the names of long-gone writers he admired when he was just starting out: SKEME, ZEPHYR, REVOLT, MIN.
JA, typical of the new school, primarily bombs, covering wide areas with throw-ups. He treats graffiti less as an art form than as an athletic competition, concentrating on getting his tag in difficult-to-reach places, focusing on quantity and working in defiance of an aesthetic that demands that public property be kept clean. (Writers almost exclusively hit public or commercial property.)
And when JA is not being cynical, he can talk for hours about the technique, the plotting, the logistics of the game like "motion bombing" by clockwork a carefully scoped subway train that he knows has to stop for a set time, at a set place, when it gets a certain signal in the tunnels. He says, "To me, the challenge that graffiti poses, there's something very invigorating and freeing about it, something almost spiritual. There's a kind of euphoria, more than any kind of drug or sex can give you, give me . . . for real."
JA says he wants to quit, and he talks about doing it as if he were in a 12-step program. "How a person in recovery takes it one day a time, that's how I gotta take it," he says. You get burnt out. There's pretty much nothing more the city can throw at me; it's all been done." But then he'll hear about a yard full of clean sanitation trucks, the upcoming Puerto Rican Day Parade (a reason to bomb Fifth Avenue) or a billboard in an isolated area; or it'll be 3 a.m., he'll be stoned, driving around or sitting in the living room, playing NBA Jam, and someone will say it: "Yo, I got a couple of cans in the trunk. . . ." REAS, an old-school writer of 12 years who, after a struggle and a number of relapses, eventually quit the life, says, "Graffiti can become like a hole you're stuck in; it can just keep on going and going, there's always another spot to write on."
SAST is in his late 20s and calls himself semiretired after 13 years in the graf scene. He still carries around a marker with him wherever he goes and cops little STONE tags (when he's high, he writes, STONED). He's driving JA and me around the city one night, showing me different objects they've tagged, returning again and again to drug spots to buy dust and crack, smoking, with the radio blasting; he's telling war stories about JA jumping onto moving trains, JA hanging off the outside of a speeding four-wheel drive. SAST is driving at top speed, cutting in between cars, tailgating, swerving. A number of times as we're racing down the highway, I ask him if he could slow down. He smiles, asks if I'm scared, tells me not to worry, that he's a more cautious driver when he's dusted. At one point on the FDR, a car cuts in front of us. JA decides to have some fun.
"Yo, he burnt you, SAST," JA says. We start to pick up speed. Yo, SAST, he dissed you, he cold dissed you, SAST." SAST is buying it, the look on his face becoming more determined as we go 70, 80, 90 miles an hour, hugging the divider, flying between cars. I turn to JA, who's in the back seat, and I try to get him to stop. JA ignores me, sitting back perfectly relaxed, smiling, urging SAST to go faster and faster, getting off, my fear adding to his rush.
At around 4 a.m., SAST drops us off on the middle of the Manhattan Bridge and leaves. JA wants to show me a throw-up he did the week before. We climb over the divider from the roadway to the subway tracks. JA explains that we have to cross the north and the southbound tracks to get to the outer part of the bridge. In between there are a number of large gaps and two electrified third rails, and we're 135 feet above the East River. As we're standing on the tracks, we hear the sound of an oncoming train. JA tells me to hide, to crouch down in the V where two diagonal braces meet just beside the tracks.
I climb into position, holding on to the metal beams, head down, looking at the water as the train slams by the side of my body. This happens twice more. Eventually, I cross over to the outer edge of the bridge, which is under construction, and JA points out his tag about 40 feet above on what looks like a crow's-nest on a support pillar. After a few moments of admiring the view, stepping carefully around the many opportunities to fall, JA hands me his cigarettes and keys. He starts crawling up one of the braces on the side of the bridge, disappears within the structure for a moment, emerges and makes his way to an electrical box on a pillar. Then he snakes his way up the piping and grabs on to a curved support. Using only his hands he starts to shimmy up; at one point he's hanging almost completely upside down. If he falls now, he'll land backward onto one of the tiers and drop into the river below. He continues to pull himself up, the old paint breaking off in his hands, and finally he flips his body over a railing to get to the spot where he tagged. He doesn't have a can or a marker with him, and at this point graffiti seems incidental. He comes down and tells me that when he did the original tag he was with two writers; one he half carried up, the other stopped at a certain point and later told JA that watching him do that tag made him appreciate life, being alive.
We walk for 10 minutes along a narrow, grooved catwalk on the side of the tracks; a thin wire cable prevents a fall into the river. A few times, looking down through the grooves, I have to stop, force myself to take the next step straight ahead, shake off the vertigo. JA is practically jogging ahead of me. We exit the bridge into Chinatown as the sun comes up and go to eat breakfast. JA tells me he's a vegetarian.
IF YOU TALK TO SERIOUS GRAFFITI writers, most of them will echo the same themes; they decry the commercialization of graf, condemn the toys and poseurs and alternately hate and feel attached to the authorities who try to stop them. They say with equal parts bravado and self-deprecation that a graffiti writer is a bum, a criminal, a vandal, slick, sick, obsessed, sneaky, street-smart, living on edges figurative and literal. They show and catalog cuts and scars on their bodies from razor wire, pieces of metal, knives, box cutters. I once casually asked a writer named GHOST if he knew another writer whose work I had seen in a graf'zine. "Yeah, I know him, he stabbed me," GHOST replies matter-of-factly. "We've still got beef." SET tells me he was caught by two DTs (detectives) who assaulted him, took his cans of paint and sprayed his body and face. JA tells similar stories of police beatings for his making officers run after him, of cops making him empty his spray cans on his sneakers or on the back of a fellow writer's jacket. JD has had 48 stitches in his back and 18 in his head over "graffiti-related beef." JA's best friend and writing partner, SANE SMITH, a legendary all-city writer who was sued by the city and the MTA for graffiti, was found dead, floating in Jamaica Bay. There's endless speculation in the grafworld as to whether he was pushed, fell or jumped off a bridge. SANE is so respected, there are some writers today who spend time in public libraries reading and rereading the newspaper microfilm about his death, his arrests, his career. According to JA, after SANE's death, his brother, SMiTH, also a respected graffiti artist, found a piece of paper on which SANE had written his and JA's tag and off to the side, FLYING HIGH THE XTC WAY. It now hangs on JA's apartment wall.
One morning, JA and I jump off the end of a subway platform and head into the tunnels. He shows me hidden rooms, emergency hatches that open to the sidewalk, where to stand when the trains come by. He tells me about the time SANE lay face down in a shallow drainage ditch on the tracks as an express train ran inches above him. JA says anytime he was being chased by the police he would run into a nearby subway station, jump off the platform and run into the tunnels. The police would never follow. KET, a veteran graffiti writer, tells me how in the tunnels he would accidentally step on homeless people sleeping. They'd see him tagging and would occasionally ask that he "throw them up," write their names on the wall. He usually would. Walking in the darkness between the electrified rails as trains race by, JA tells me the story of two writers he had beef with who came into the tunnels to cross out his tags. Where the cross-outs stop is where they were killed by an approaching train.
The last time I go out with JA, SET and JD, they pick me up at around 2 am. We drive down to the Lower East Side to hit a yard where about 60 trucks and vans are parked next to one another. Every vehicle is already covered with throw-ups and tags, but the three start to write anyway, JA in a near frenzy. They're running in between the rows, crawling under trucks, jumping from roof to roof, wedged down in between the trailers, engulfed in nauseating clouds of paint fumes (the writers sometimes blow multicolored mucous out of their noses), going over some writers' tags, respecting others, JA throwing up SANE's name, searching for any little piece of clean space to write on. JA, who had once again been talking about retirement, is now hungry to write and wants to hit another spot. But JD doesn't have any paint, SET needs gas money for his car, and they have to drive upstate the next morning to appear in court for a paint-theft charge.
During the ride back uptown the car is mostly quiet, the mood depressed. And even when the three were in the truck yard, even when JA was at his most intense, it seemed closer to work, routine, habit. There are moments like this when they seem genuinely worn out by the constant stress, the danger, the legal problems, the drugging, the fighting, the obligation to always hit another spot. And it's usually when the day is starting.
About a week later I get a call from another writer whom JA had told I was writing an article on graffiti. He tells me he has never been king, never gone all city, but now he is making a comeback, coming out of retirement with a new tag. He says he could do it easily today because there is no real competition. He says he was thinking about trying to make some money off of graffiti -- galleries. canvases, whatever . . . to get paid.
"I gotta do something," the writer says. "I can't rap, I can't dance, I got this silly little job." We talk more, and he tells me he appreciates that I'm writing about writers, trying to get inside the head of a vandal, telling the real deal. He also tells me that graffiti is dying, that the city is buffing it, that new writers are all toys and are letting it die, but it's still worth it to write.
I ask why, and then comes the inevitable justification that every writer has to believe and take pleasure in, the idea that order will always have to play catch-up with them. "It takes me seconds to do a quick throw-up; it takes them like 10 minutes to clean it," he says. "Who's coming out on top?"