Breaking and entering, theft and trespassing were all without question if you wanted to get off the bench and play the sport. Crime soars, corrupt officials are posted on every block, low income facilities, drugs and the underground and yet boys were all able to befriend one another over these common interests as well as the holy three: Rap, graffiti, and breaking. In case it has not become apparent already, the scene is New York City in the late seventies and early eighties in the upper Bronx of Manhattan. A political war, sanitary improvements, incarceration, discoveries and an art form that will continue to live on long after its innovators and pioneers disappear as they begin to.
Whether or not you consider graffiti to fit the definition of art, whatever that may be, it is certainly an art in that it was not for everyone. Some of the prominent early writers are known as: Tracy 168, Haze, Stay High 149, Seen UA, Iz the Wiz to Min one, Freedom and Lady Pink. A girl you say, but how? There is no definitive answer other than graffiti was an escape mechanism used by many. Considering the fact that writers would roam the underground tunnels of the subway, hangout in abandoned stations to escape the harsh reality and society that lay above them; art is an expression of oneself and this certainly applies to graffiti because although some just enjoyed painting others were out to fight “the system”. There was an ongoing war between Ed Koch and Vandal Squad against the writers. The Vandal Squad was a group of undercover cops whose assignment was to arrest writers by infiltrating their crews, patrolling layups (areas where trains parked for the night), the subway and train lots. Many of their marks can still be seen throughout the city, in fact, on our trip to lower Manhattan, we concluded our tour in china town and on a ledge we rested on was a Stay High 149 tag fading long after being written.
Long after these writers pass away, as some have already, their legends continue to live on throughout new writers showing respect and tributes and dedications throughout the world. They also continue to live on in major ways that would not be imaginable at their time. Haze, for example has multiple collaborations with Nike, Heineken, and Stussy. Running along the west side highway a tunnel going up to 125th street all the way downtown is known as Freedom Tunnel. The tunnel was originally used by Amtrak and is still presently, yet in the 80’s and 90’s it was inhabited by the homeless community of New York who were able to surprisingly survive with electricity, hot water, and decent living conditions. Freedom was the first writer to explore and painted various iconic murals throughout the upper half. Since then it has been dubbed Freedom Tunnel due to his first marks. Stay High 149 recently passed away and since then there have been numerous t-shirt collaborations with well known streetwear brands such as Staple NY and others as well. Walking the streets of the five boroughs and keeping a keen eye out can lead to new and old secret discoveries every day.
*All of the artists mentioned in the article have tags on the door featured in the Luce Center*