Except for one bystander who managed to snap a photo of a spray painted M train earlier this year, New York's subway passengers rarely get to see or ride a graffiti bombed train. For decades, the city has implemented a strict policy of taking painted trains out of service as an attempt to discourage and ultimately stop writers from scrawling on the underground cars. On September 13, however, those in Kingston, New York will have a rare opportunity to see one of these gems up-close and witness the actual painting of a subway car.
Mass Appeal and Red Bull are joining forces at the Trolley Museum of New York for a live graffiti battle and exhibition titled “The Burning of Kingston” this Saturday. The event, curated by Mass Appeal Creative Director Sacha Jenkins and esteemed artist and historian David “Chino” Villorente, pays tribute to the graffiti battles of the past. The name comes from when the British marched into Kingston and burned the city to the ground during the Revolutionary War in 1777.
“For years and years, people would see these elaborate and beautiful subway cars pull into the train station,” Jenkins says, referring to the days before the city began cracking down on painted cars. “...They never saw the trains being created or how they were being made. So at this event on the 13th, people will have the opportunity to see first-hand what went into painting a train.”
Eight talented artists, T-Kid, CES, Doves, Ribs, Dero, Bio, Doc TC-5, Revolt, Dmote, Cope2, and YES 2, will be divided into two teams. Each team will then have five hours to complete a “burner” (which in graffiti culture simply means “a superior work of art”) on the exterior of a subway train, to be judged by a panel of judges.
We spoke to Jenkins about this event, in addition to the “Graffiti for Designers” course he’s teaching at Pratt, his upcoming book, his thoughts on the evolution of graffiti culture, and the impending demolition of 5 Pointz.
I know you grew up with graffiti. What makes the art form so intriguing to you, and what is it about graffiti that you are able to connect with after all these years?
What I equate the whole thing to is language. Language is something that we use every day. It’s intrinsic to us as human beings to communicate with one another, and graffiti is another way of communicating. As I walk down the street, I can see what’s going on in the shop window or I can see passersby, but I also notice what’s written on the walls. And to me, that’s a level of communication; it’s like the deep web or whatever.
There’s a whole level of the Internet that I don’t know about or that I’m afraid of, and I think graffiti is the equivalent for everyday people. They know it’s out there, but a lot of people don’t pay much attention to it. But because of the success a lot of the folks who’ve come out of the culture have had, and because, on some level, there’s money to be made—be it in a gallery or as graphic designers or whatever else—more people are paying attention to it, and more people are having respect for it.
Do you think graffiti is a more authentic language than everything else that’s out there?
That’s an interesting question. When I was growing up in New York in the ’70s and ’80s, graffiti was something that was passed down from the older guys in my neighborhood. Someone gave me a magic marker, someone taught me certain things. By studying what other people did, that’s how I developed my vocabulary. That’s how a lot of kids in New York developed their vocabulary, by learning from people who were masters or people who were more advanced than them.
.So in terms of authenticity, when kids were doing it back then, they weren’t doing it for money. They weren’t doing it because they wanted to have a cool clothing line. They weren’t doing it because they wanted to be famous on the Internet. They were doing it to A) Express themselves, and B) To be ghetto celebs—be famous in their neighborhoods or through a train and [become] famous outside of their neighborhoods. There were no cell phones, and there was no Internet. The subway itself was the information superhighway…The train was the conductor of information.
The subway itself was the information superhighway … The train was the conductor of information.
So that authenticity—I’m not saying it’s not there anymore. I just think people weren’t doing it for money. They were doing it to express themselves or to compete with other young people. Now the playing field is [different], you’re not just competing with other people in your neighborhood. You’re competing with people around the world. You can paint something in Brooklyn today that goes up on the web and is seen in Bangladesh. It may have an influence on someone over there and vice versa.
Now there’s also money to be made. When I was growing up, everyone had a tag. Everyone had an alias. There were people who wrote graffiti who weren’t artistically inclined at all. All they had was their tag, but eventually, through repetition, inside of the aesthetics of graffiti, these people became good. It was like a skilled trait that you could practice, and through working with a master, eventually your language skills would become advanced and respected . . . But now there are a lot of young people who are artistically inclined, who know “Well, Eric Haze was a graffiti artist, and he wound up doing all this artwork for the Beastie Boys.” People who are artistically inclined see that there’s a clear path . . .
More and more, we see graffiti making its way into contemporary art. Now, a lot of writers are showing in galleries, whereas people in the past may not have regarded graffiti as art. Can you speak on that a little bit?
Well it’s just like anything else, just like skateboarding. There was a time when skateboarding happened, then it got really popular, then it kind of faded out. People have been showing “graffiti” in galleries since the early ’70s, since 1973.
There was a real interest in the early ’70s until maybe the end of the '80s, and then it died down for three or four years. And then it picked up again in the galleries, and then it died again in the late ’80s, and then it picked up again in the middle of the ’90s…So there was always interest in it. There were people primarily in Europe who recognized that these graffiti writers had something to say, and that there would one day be value in graffiti. So the Europeans made bets on giving folks like Lee Quinones shows as early as 1979 in Italy.
There has always been a contingent of the “art world establishment” that recognized the value in what was coming from the streets. I mean, look at someone like Jean-Michel Basquiat and what his paintings are worth, what they mean to the world.
This renewed interest or what seems to be a graffiti/street art bonanza is just a culmination of these things that happened in the past connecting with technology. Also, more people have the ability to experience and appreciate the art, and there are more platforms for the art to be shown in.
I’m curious about your thoughts on what’s happening with 5 Pointz and how, as this city changes, graffiti and culture are affected.
I thought 5 Pointz was amazing. To have a place on that scale do what was done is just incredible and a real benefit to New York City. It was a real attraction for lots of tourists.
I grew up not far from there; the Queens Bridge Housing Projects, where all these great rappers came from, is not far from 5 Pointz. But ultimately that [area] was an industrial wasteland that no one gave a shit about for many years, and it was the artists who came in and made it an attraction. You have MoMA PS1 right there. So you can’t deny the impact and effect that art, particularly graffiti and street art, had on that whole community and how it transformed it.
Now, the owner of the building was kind enough to give the artists the space for many years. And I commend the owner of the property for doing that. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we are in America, and capitalism rules everything around us. C.R.E.A.M.
The dude wanted to get paid, so what can you do? I can’t necessarily be mad at that guy for wanting to make a dollar, but I would hope that New York City would step up and say, “What a wonderful opportunity 5 Pointz was, what an important place it was. What can we do to create something new: the new 5 Pointz?”
So what inspired the upcoming Burning of Kingston graffiti battle that’s taking place on Saturday?
Last year, we did an event up there, which was an extension of this program I created with help from Red Bull called “Write of Passage.” I’ve been going to Kingston, New York for many years. I have many friends who live in the Kingston/Woodstock area, where I noticed this lone subway car in a train yard. It took me a while to realize that it was the Trolley Museum, and I’d passed by it for years.
I’d always wanted to find a way to paint it. Finally, because of this event we were doing last year, we approached them and said “Hey, look, we want to do this event.” We convinced them. We had support from Red Bull, and that made a difference. The event went really well, so much so that I am now on the board of the Trolley Museum of New York, which I take great pride in. My goal is not only to improve the programs of the museum, because that museum has so much important American transit artifacts, but my other goal is to make Kingston a Cooperstown. What Cooperstown is to baseball, I would love to make Kingston have that same relationship with graffiti.
New York City subway cars are the holy grail of the culture. That’s where the art was born. To have a place, an institution that is savvy , forward-minded enough, [and] sophisticated enough to say, “Hey, there’s something here. It’s a global movement, there’s interest in it, it is an art form, and we’d like to do these events." That gives me hope that we can create something to pay tribute to the culture and also educate people on where it came from.
How did your class at Pratt Institute, "Graffiti For Designers," come into being?
"Write of Passage," the event we [Mass Appeal] produced last year at the Red Bull Studios here in New York City, was a show that consisted of paintings from as far back as 1972, [spanning] up to today’s contemporary stuff. 12 students who were awarded fellowship were able to attend the workshops that we put together. Some of the folks from Pratt [attended], and I gave them a tour. One of the folks from Pratt is a guy named William Carrero, who is a former graffiti artist and on the academic side. He had been pushing internally to get something going, and he called me up afterwards and said, “Hey they were impressed with your tour and all the things you had to say, and we’re interested in putting together a class.” So that’s how it came together.
What are some of the things the students will be studying? Will there be guest speakers?
Graffiti for me is always about the folks behind it. It’s always about the characters. It’s always about the risk-takers. So many important folks have come out of that world. Todd James started out painting trains and [he's] now designing Miley Cyrus’ entire stage design for her crazy tour.
Todd James is a really well-known artist now. I knew him as "REAS." We were actually on the opposite sides of a friendship. When we first met, we were kind of adversaries, and we became friends over the years. He’s someone who’s super influential. There’s a guy like Eric Haze, who was an art director for many years, and who has done so many logos and designs dunks for Nike. He actually made the transition from “graffiti artist” to graphic designer.
The class is for graphic designers who want to learn about the aesthetics of graffiti and figure out how to incorporate elements of it [into their work]. There have been so many times when you see stuff in movies or advertisements, where you can tell whoever did this looked at a photo of graffiti but didn’t understand where it was coming from, and it just looks cheesy and wrong. Where we are in terms of human history, there’s no reason for stuff like that to happen anymore. There are enough people who are really interested and excited to learn about how to do it the right way.
Going back to what I said before, things have changed. You don’t have generations of graffiti writers living in Astoria where I grew up passing down the information that I received, partially because kids don’t even play outside anymore. They’d rather play video games. So you don’t have this street culture in New York that used to be, that really fostered this community, this language, and this communication. That’s ok, but I think now that the culture is 40-something years old, the time has come to put, I don’t want to say “an academic spin” on it, but a spin that lots of people can learn from—coming from folks who are of the culture, an insider’s perspective, and broadening that perspective to include more people.
What do you hope your students take away from the class?
Ultimately I’d love for my students to get a real sense of what New York was like and the climate that created the art now popular around the world. It had nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook or how many likes you had. It had to do with not being afraid to take a chance and step on the piece of wood that covers the dirt rail, not being afraid to go in a dark tunnel, far away from the safety of mommy or your Spiderman comforter.
It had to do with not being afraid to take a chance and step on the piece of wood that covers the dirt rail, not being afraid to go in a dark tunnel, far away from the safety of mommy or your Spiderman comforter.
It’s interesting, because I’m a fan of history, and you learn about history, you read history. I’m a fan of Jimi Hendrix and so and so, but the Jimi Hendrix of graffiti is still alive. These people have really interesting stories to tell, and I think in these stories, these other aspiring artists will hopefully find inspiration. Hopefully that’s what people will get from the class.
What can people expect from your book that’s coming out?
Well Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now is by myself and Henry Chalfant. Henry is responsible for basically the bible of all this stuff, which is Subway Art [co-authored with Martha Cooper]. Once that book was published in 1984, once that book went around the world, so many people were inspired to pick up a can of spray paint. But that book was very heavy on photography, and there were no words from the artists. So Training Days has really in-depth interviews with 12 really influential graffiti artists, reminiscing on what it was like back then. I wanted people to read the book and come away knowing what it smells like to be in a train yard or what it feels like to be bouncing around on an elevated track when a train is coming your way. When I get on the subway, there are certain smells that trigger these memories for me, but they wouldn't trigger these memories for someone who wasn't there or doesn't understand it. So my goal was for this book to transport people to a moment in time that is long gone.