Street art has enjoyed a steady resurgence in rap over the last few years, with Kanye West and the Clipse jostling to let KAWS design their album and magazine covers, 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes appearing in music videos featuring the work of Brooklyn’s Destroy & Rebuild, and Pharrell Williams starting the online community ARTST. But as a mode of expression, its style and swagger was forged by a wave of pioneering artists who took to New York City’s streets and subway lines in the early ’70s. That moment is profiled in the current Down By Law: New York’s Underground Art Explosion, 1970s-1980s exhibition at the Eric Firestone Gallery, which documents how the subculture successfully moved from the train yards to the corporate world, ingratiating itself with hip-hop music along the way.
Blade and Coco 144 are two of the first-generation graffiti icons profiled in the exhibition. After coming to prominence in the ’70s by painting his name on over 5,000 subway trains, Blade is certified graffiti royalty. Along with Andy Warhol, Blade is also the only living artist to have his work appear on the cover of the Sotheby’s catalog. Fellow trailblazer Coco 144 made the train yard at Broadway and 137th Street his playground during the same era while also creating the world’s first stencil movement–an invention that helped him swiftly spread his name throughout the city. With both artists on hand to offer expert commentary, here are ten pioneering examples of the development of New York City street art.
Dubbed “the Marcel Duchamp of graffiti” in Jack Stewart’s Graffiti Kings tome, Coco 144 has been painting since the earliest years of the 1970s and founded the United Graffiti Artists association with Hugo Martinez in 1972. Says his pal Blade: “In 1971 he was a Broadway writer, which meant if you rode a number 1 or 3 train between 1971 and 1973 then you’d see Coco’s work.” His on-canvas piece in the exhibition hails from 1974.
“Blade was the king–he’s still the king,” exclaims Coco 144, referring to the 5,000-plus subway trains that Blade has painted. At large since the early ’70s, Blade fondly recalls graffiti’s nascent years: “By 1973 we had 10,000 teenagers running about the city, all being respectful to each other, all expressing themselves. Every day for us was like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn–you were just having this incredible adventure around the whole of underground New York City.” Blade’s two pieces in the Down By Law exhibition are remnants from his first one-man graffiti gallery show in 1984: “All my paintings there sold, except two, which I’ve held in my personal collection until now.”
“Dondi was the beginning of the hip-hop movement towards the end of the ’70s,” says Blade. With the MTA taking ever more draconian steps to prevent graffiti on the subway system, the East New York-raised White embraced the over-ground, successfully transitioning to canvas while retaining his vivid style. As Coco 144 testifies, “He did his damage on the trains as much as on canvas. He was ahead of his time.” Known for incorporating comic book artist Vaughn Bode’s cartoon figures into his later work, as well as appearing in the video for Malcolm McClaren’s influential electro single “Buffalo Girls,” White passed away in 1998, leaving behind an influence still detectable to this day.
Coco 144 remembers Keith Haring’s early forays into the NYC graffiti scene fondly: “I got to see a number of pieces he did in chalk. They’d put blank black paper on the unsold advertisement boards, like black ’em out, and he did his chalk pieces there.” Keeping with the underground theme, this early example of Haring’s art uses another aspect of the subway system for a canvas, with three of his signature broad-outlined figures taking their place on a tagged-up light fixture.
Wild Style is hip-hop’s most iconic film. Released in 1983, director Charlie Ahearn was granted access to subway train yards by the MTA and rounded up a cast that included Grandmaster Flash, the Cold Crush Brothers, the Rock Steady Crew, Fab 5 Freddy, and Busy Bee. The flick’s introductory sequence includes an animated version of the Wild Style logo, designed by Zephyr and inspired by an earlier subway car piece painted by Dondi White. “Both Dondi White and Zephyr were really into the hip-hop music movement,” recalls Blade.
Keeping with the Wild Style theme, Ecuador-born but Queens-raised graffiti artist Lady Pink saw her profile rise after snagging a co-starring role in the film. While not the first female to roam the streets with a spray can in her hand, she came to define an era when she started to paint in 1979. Coco 144: “Lady Pink was representing the women who were painting at that time. Her work is dynamic.” Blade: “One of the best artists I ever saw paint.”
Recently departed gothic-futurist Rammellzee expressed himself in both music and painting, as if beaming in thoughts and ideas from another star system. In between preparing treatises pontificating on the symbolism of the alphabetic, Rammellzee also found time to grab a cameo in Wild Style, swaggering around on stage nursing a shotgun in one hand and a mic in the other. Blade: “He was further out there than the rest of us and expressed that in his work–you can always pick it out in a crowd because of the abstract angle. I was inspired by a lot of the madness that he was creating. He took the work into a totally different dimension to say the least.” Coco 144: “Pretty much everything about Rammellzee wasn’t about painting a name but about the abstract ideas behind his thinking.”
“I remember Basquiat was writing his name as SAMO at one point, but I feel that he was in the right place at the right time to execute what he wanted to do,” says Coco 144 of Basquiat’s rise from street artist to darling of the downtown gallery scene. “I wouldn’t say that he didn’t execute it on the streets, because he did, but he also had a dialogue with Andy Warhol that allowed him to take the genre to another level. He was able to then execute his work in a studio setting.” Furthering Basquiat’s legend, he collaborated with Rammellzee and K-Rob for 1983’s “Beat Bop”–a 12-inch release regularly lauded as the world’s rarest and most expensive vinyl hip-hop record, due to Basquiat’s cover artwork and the low number of copies pressed up. (Rumor also has it that Basquiat intended to rhyme on the track, until Rammellzee vetoed the idea.)
Just as the trio of Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay helped herald a new era of hip-hop, favoring sparse beats and abrasive rhyming over the disco-influenced party agenda of the old school, so their logo signaled the start of what Coco 144 calls “the incorporation of street culture, or subway culture, into the commercial world.” There’s a degree of mystique about who created their logo–it’s sometimes attributed to Haze; other rumors suggest it was formulated by someone at the group’s record label–but its iconic power is undisputed. Today it’s a staple for hip spin-off tees (“Run-LES”), and there’s even a Run-DMC logo generator online.
When it comes to the art of the golden-era hip-hop logo, Haze is king. After paying dues painting the same Broadway line trains as Coco 144, he transferred his skills into the graphic design realm, took advantage of hip-hop music’s increased corporate set-up, and sketched out logos and album covers for Tommy Boy Records, EPMD, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys. Among his portfolio is the Cold Chillin’ logo (pictured), which helped give a recognizable stamp of quality to releases from Marley Marl and his Juice Crew associates (Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace, Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, MC Shan).