Dondi CIA

Obituary and Biography

by Zephyr New York City October 8, 1998

In front of Futura 2000 and Zephyr bus

Original Children of the Grave sketch

Zephyr and Dondi

Photos copyright © 1998 Zephyr, all rights reserved.

The graffiti community has recently lost one of its most influential and respected members. It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Dondi.

Born Donald J. White, to Italian and African-American parents, Dondi was the youngest of five sons. He was born April 7th, 1961 in Manhattan and was raised in the East New York section of Brooklyn. As a youngster he attended Catholic school, the influence of which subsequently emerged in his paintings.

He was a highly creative child and pursued an array of interesting hobbies including maintaining and flying pet pigeons. In the early '70s he began his graffiti career as NACO, a member of a Brooklyn-based crew known as "The Odd Partners," which included MICKEY 729 (aka TO), MOVIN' (aka TI 149), HURST (aka OI), JEE 2 (aka JAMES), IK (aka HULK), DIKE and UPS 2, among others. The Odd Partners dominated the M, J and LL lines in the mid-seventies. Dondi often cited MICKEY, HURST, SLAVE and NOC 167 as major influences in his development as a graffiti artist.

In 1977 he created his own graffiti clique, CIA, an abbreviation for CRAZY INSIDES ARTIST. Consisting of those members of TOP still active and some newer recruits, the CIA crew continued TOP's tradition of BMT domination but began to focus its attentions on the Number 2 IRT line as well. A short list of some of CIA's members in the late seventies includes: SID, KIST, DURO, LOVIN 2 (aka AERON), PETE, ERIC (aka DEAL), Z-RO, GREG 167, RASTA CIA and KID 56, among others.

Dondi subscribed whole-heartedly to the apprenticeship system common in graffiti society. He was quick to provide guidance and advice to friends and cohorts. He crafted outlines for his fellow crew-members and often aided them in the execution of their pieces. Over the years he helped foster the talents of countless graffitists, many of whom made their own significant contributions to the culture.

In 1979, Dondi befriended the noted photographer Martha Cooper. She began photographing his work and went on to document his painting of the whole car entitled Children of the Grave Part 3 in the New Lots train yard on May 31, 1980. These photos, which appeared in the now legendary book Subway Art (Thames & Hudson, 1984), were the first to feature a graffitist "behind enemy lines" and represented a huge risk by exposing the writers' secret world. Although controversial, they were beautiful and important shots which sucessfully revealed much of the mystery surrounding train painting in a most elegant manner.

In the summer of 1980, Dondi participated in a project called "Esses Studio." It was a two-month endeavor in which the top artists of the time were invited to paint canvases in a studio setting. The project was funded by an art patron named Sam Esses. The concept of the project was simple: to preserve the amazing work being done on the subways. Soon after he discovered graffiti art, Esses was appalled to learn that the work was being systematically removed by the MTA. Subsequently, through the urging of his friend KEL139, DONDI came and painted at the studio. The New York graffiti culture at that time was somewhat fragmented and writers were isolated from one another. Interborough alliances were rare as many old rivalries persisted. With 20/20 hindsight It becomes clear that the "Graffiti 1980 Studio" catalyzed the graffiti renaissance of the '80s; in part because it functioned as a massive networking convention from which new energies, alliances and focuses sprung forth. In two short months, a great deal of the isolation felt by the different writing factions was erased.

Dondi emerged from the studio with a new direction. Two specific groups at the time, "The Soul Artists" and "Fashion Moda," were involved in moving graffiti into the galleries. Dondi did much of his very finest train paintings in this period (late 1980 and '81); but also focused his attention on creating his first canvases. Through his association with The Soul Artists, he became part of the celebrated East Village art explosion of the early to mid '80s. He exhibited at a variety of small East Village galleries, most significantly "The Fun Gallery," which also exhibited the likes of FUTURA, CRASH, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab-Five Freddie and Kenny Scharf.

His paintings and drawings are meticulously rendered works, often featuring "studies" of letters, figures and symbolic icons such as StayHigh 149's {saintly} stick figure. He described his own plight through inscriptions on his canvases (e.g.: "Gladiators of a dark continent continue to battle above ground until cure for blindness"). He recalled childhood memories through images of tricycles and penny-farthings. He was inspired by the work of Leonardo DaVinci and was apt to "reference" DaVinci's work amidst his own.

Dondi was also a regular on the downtown club scene, frequenting "The Roxy" and "Negril," the first clubs to introduce hip-hop music to down-towners. He did art for the Rock Steady Crew in their early years and did the album cover for Malcolm McClaren's sojourn into hip-hop, Buffalo Gals. He was featured in all the "action" sequences in the film Wild Style, posing as ZORO, the main character, when LEE opted to lay low. He also painted the "ZORO" train featured in the film. The Cooper series previously mentioned, as well as Henry Chalfant's photos of his whole-cars, were featured in Subway Art. Although these whole cars have come to represent him, it was actually his work in redefining "wild style" lettering where Dondi White made his most significant contributions to the culture.

Working with a seemingly endless list of pseudonyms, DONDI reappraised the notions of style. Some of the names he used on the trains included: BUS 129, MR. WHITE, PRE, POSE, ROLL, 2 MANY, and ASIA. His work emphasized the dynamics of lettering and its forms over meaning, focusing on shape and juxtaposition. Dondi was lovingly referred to as "The Style Master General," as it was commonly accepted that he was the artist who set the standards for graffiti art in his time. He crafted letters that were both acrobatic and aerodynamic in nature and commited them to metal with remarkable precision.

By 1983, Dondi was showing his canvases regularly in Europe. He was represented by the Dutch art dealer, Yaki Kornblit, for a number of years and went on to exhibit his paintings throughout Europe for much of the eighties. In May 1992, he was featured in "The Legacy," a retrospective exhibit at The Rempire gallery in Soho and later the same year was honored by the "Groninger Museum" in Groningen, Holland in a ten-year retrospective. In 1995, he was part of the "Fifteen Years Aboveground" print portfolio and exhibit organized by CRASH. Over the last few years, Dondi created collages, pain-stakingly detailed works that combined his beautiful pencil drawings with blueprints of the subway system. He spent months on each, and the results were spectacular.

Dondi was the best and was loved by many. He touched so many of us with his life, his love and his fantastic art work. Part of his legacy is the wonderful artwork left for us to enjoy and to learn from. Dondi White left us Friday October 2nd. He died at home in the company of family and friends, after a long illness.

ZEPHYR New York City October 8, 1998


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