The way Blade tells it, the early days of New York subway graffiti were a cake walk. You’d post up in the train yard or at a layup Friday and Saturday nights, drink beer, smoke weed, play the radio and paint the trains all evening with no fear of serious reprisals. Big productions were the norm in those days, growing quickly from crude tags to whole car masterpieces by 1975. Competition was thin, style was in the process of being invented, and while the meeting of two or more city teens is never without its prevailing tension, the New York graffiti scene was a collaborative effort, pursued by pubescent runaways and prep school students alike, mastered by young kids of every ethnicity and from nearly every corner of New York City. Lee spent entire weekends at layups, sleeping in darkened subway cars under a fine mist of spray paint. Skeme stole from his mom’s apartment in the dead of night to paint trains, then returned to tell her all about it. Graffiti was kid’s stuff, a rite of passage so insulated from working society that it seemed unassailable. A victimless crime, except for the rush hour victims who had to stand asses-to-elbows in marked train cars the next day.
Then graffiti blew up. There’s probably no other event or artifact that can be directly linked to graffiti’s mainstream exposure more than the seminal documentary Style Wars by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. Around the same time, there were other efforts to show people what was happening to New York City’s subways: the book Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant practically dropped the graf scene in everyone’s laps, while SoHo art galleries clamored to show spray painted canvases in their cramped, hot spaces. Rap music gained exponential popularity in the early 80s and partially brought graffiti into the limelight as a matter of course. We can look back now and say this all culminated in 1983, with the big screen debut of Style Wars and its subsequent airings on public television. In an instant, everyone knew how these graffiti writers were getting over on the transit authority, and they wanted in on the fun. Suddenly, available space became severely limited.
The graffiti that followed, the last generation of subway writers whose work ran regularly on the lines, was the ethical foundation for my early understanding of graf. You pick yourself a name and then put it up as much as possible, as big and ubiquitously as you can, using as many different styles and media as you are able to comprehend. It was a given that you’d catch beef, that ultimately you would get fame the fastest by going over someone else, and that by doing this you could become more revered than if you’d painted one massive, colorful production that might run for five working days. Cap taught us that. Graffiti and violence were almost synonymous to me, and the writers in my generation (the early 90s) were more respected for their daring and visibility than their can control. While I was too young to ever effectively write on the subway, graf having been defeated by a new MTA policy and seeding of stainless steel subway cars that could be easily washed, I knew well about this tough aspect of graffiti’s history. It wasn’t enough to be a talented artist when I was in high school. You also had to know how to intimidate others and get physical if necessary.
Paul “CAVS” Cavalieri’s book From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989 is the best account of this final generation of New York subway graf that I’ve ever seen. Packed with dozens and dozens of photos of pieces, tags, and throw ups that ran during the era, it easily tells the story of a scene that grew in numbers by a factor of ten and resulted in everyone going over one another, jockeying for position as Kings of the Line. It shows how “retired” writers came back to reclaim their titles, and how even they had to eschew masterpiece productions that might take all night in favor of two-color bombs more suited to the fast pace of late 80s graffiti. Unconsciously and without apology, the book shows page after page of styles cribbed directly from Dez and Dondi and past masters of the rolling stock. It is the last gasp of a movement, and anyone interested in pursuing the history of graffiti cannot do without this book. For every writer today who thinks there should be unity, every person who thinks that Banksy stencils should be protected and Saber AWK should be allowed to redo his Guinness record-holding piece on the L.A. river banks, this book has the answer: you’re wrong. Any retard can pick up a marker and scrawl something on the wall, or a truck, or the outside of a subway train. You imposed a stylistic standard on the medium that most practitioners of the art don’t recognize, and that’s your bad.