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Physical Graffiti: Breaking is Hard to Do

To The Beat Y’all

Chico and Tee and their friends from 175th Street in the High Times crew were breaking in the subway and the cops busted them for fighting.

“We’re not fighting. We’re dancing!” they claimed. At the precinct station, one kid demonstrated certain moves: a head spin, ass spin, swipe, chin freeze, “the Heli­copter,” “the Baby.”

An officer called in the other members of the crew, one by one. “Do a head spin,” he would command as he consulted a clip­board full of notes. “Do ‘the Baby.’ ” As each kid complied, performing on cue as unhesitatingly as a ballet dancer might toss off an enchainement, the cops scratched their heads in bewildered defeat.

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Or so the story goes. But then, like ballet and like great battles (it shares elements of both), breaking is wreathed in legends. “This guy in Queens does a whole bunch of head spins in a row, more than 10; he spins, stops real quick, spins … ”

“Yeah, but he stops. Left just goes right into seven spins, he never stops.”

“There’s a 10-year-old kid on my block learned to break in three days.” ‘

‘The best is Spy, Ronnie Ron, Drago, me [Crazy Legs], Freeze, Mongo, Mr. Freeze, Lace, Track Two, Weevil … ”

“Spy, he’s called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy.”

“Spy, man, in ’78 — he was breaking at Mom and Pop’s on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet,”

“I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance: All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, ‘That was luck.’ So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn’t see it I would never have believed it.”

The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and end­lessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial specta­cle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture — graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping­ — breaking is a public arena for the flam­boyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favor­ite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibili­ty and budding sexuality of the gangly male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of op­posites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.

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For current generation B Boys, it doesn’t really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a com­petitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist’s improvised bridge be­tween melodies. For the B Boys, the his­tory of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx. maybe in Har­lem. It started with the Zulus. Or with· Charlie Rocle. Or with Joe, from. the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught:it to Charlie Rock. “Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a ·style for yourself.” In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring or onlookers drops to the floor, circles around. his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.

Fab Five Freddy Love, a graffiti-based artist and rapper form Bedford Stuyvesant, remembers that breaking began around the same time as rapping, as a physical analogue for a musical impulse. “Everybody would be at a party in the park in the summer, jamming. Guys would get together and dance with each other, sort of a macho thing where they would show each other who could do the best moves. They started going wild when the music got real funky” — music by groups like Super Sperm and Apache. As the beat of the drummer came to the fore, the music let you know it was time to break down, to free style. The cadenced, rhyming, fast talking epic mode of rapping, with its smooth surface of sexual braggadocio, pro­vides a perfect base for a dance style that is cool, swift, and intricate.

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But breaking isn’t just an urgent re­sponse to pulsating music. It is also a ritual combat that transmutes aggression into art. “In the summer of ’78,” Tee remem­bers, “when you got mad at someone, in­stead of saying, ‘Hey man, you want to fight?’ you’d say, ‘Hey man, you want to rock?’ ” Inside the ritual frame, burgeon­ing adolescent anxieties, hostilities, and powers are symbolically manipulated and controlled.

Each segment in breaking is short — ­from 10 to 30 seconds — but packed with action and meaning. The dancing always follows a specific format: the entry, a stylized walk into the ring for four of five beats to the music; the footwork, a rapid, circular scan of the floor by sneakered feet while the hands support the body’s weight and the head and torso revolve slowly — a kind of syncopated pirouette; the freeze, or stylized signature pose, usually preceded by a spin; the exit, a return to verticality and to the outside of the circle. The length of the “combination” can be extended by adding on more footwork-spin-freeze se­quences. The entry, the footwork, and the exit are pretty much the same from dancer to dancer — although some do variations, like Freeze from the Breakmasters crew, who stuffs a Charleston into his entry, and then exits on pointe. But it is largely in the freeze that each dancer’s originality shines forth, in configurations that are as in­tricate, witty, obscene, or insulting as pos­sible. A dancer will twist himself into a pretzel. Or he will quote the poses of a pinup girl. He might graphically hump the floor, or arch up grabbing his crotch. Someone else might mime rowing a boat or swimming or emphasize acrobatic stunts like back flips and fish dives. Sometimes two breakers team up for a stunt: imitating a dog on a leash, or a dead person brought back to life by a healthy thump on the chest. According to Rammellzee, a DJ who’s gotten too tall to break, the set of sequences adds up to a continuing pantomimic narrative. It is each dancer’s re­sponsibility to create a new chapter in the story. “Like if you see a guy acting like he’s dead, the brother who went before him probably shot him.”

When you choose your moves, you not only try to look good; you try to make your successor look bad by upping the ante. That’s one way to win points from the crowd, which collectively judges. Going first is a way to score a point, but so is coming up with a cool response, chilling out. Through the freeze, you insult, challenge, and humiliate the next person. You stick your ass in his direction. You hold your nose to tell him he stinks. You put a hand to your spine, signaling a move so good it hurts. But the elegant abstract dancing that co.uches these messages counts, too. B Boys from the Bronx and Manhattan look down on the “up rock” prevalent in Brooklyn, a mere string of scatological and sexual affronts without the aesthetic glue of spinning and getting down on the floor.

Naming and performing the freezes you invent are ways of laying claim to them, though some poses are in the public do­main. A lot of breakers are also graffiti artists, and one way to announce a new freeze is to write it as graffiti. Speed and smoothness are essential to the entire dance, but in the freeze humor and dif­ficulty are prized above all. “You try to put your head on your arin and your toenails on your ears,” says Ken of the Breakmas­ters. “Hard stuff, like when I made up my elbow walk,” says Kip Dee of Rock Steady. “When you spin on your head.” ·”When you do ‘the Baby’ and you balance on one hand and move your legs in the air.” “When you take your legs and put them in back of your head out or the spin.”

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During the summers the B Boys gravitate to the parks, where DJs and rappers hang out. Younger kids learn to break by imitating the older kids, who tend to out­grow it when they’re about 16. Concrete provides the best surface for the feet and hands to grip, but the jamming is thickest in the parks, where the DJs can bring their mikes and amplifiers. During the winters, breakers devise new moves. Crazy Legs, of Rock Steady, claims the win which he sits on doubled-back legs, was an accident. “Once I was laying on the floor and I kicked my leg and I started spinning,” says Mr. Freeze, of Breakmasters. But invent­ing freezes also demands the hard daily work of conscious experiment. “You got to sweat it out.” You don’t stop, even when you sleep. “I have breaking dreams,” sev­eral B Boys have told me. “I wake up and try to do it like I saw it.” Kip Dee dreamed he spun on his chin, “but I woke up and tried it and almost broke my face.”

Part of the macho quality of breaking comes from the physical risk involved. It’s not only the bruises, scratches, cuts, and scrapes. As the rivalry between the crews heats up, ritual combat sometimes erupts into fighting for real. And part of it is impressing the girls. “They go crazy over it,” says Ken. “When you’re in front of a girl, you like to show off. You want to burn the public eye, because then she might like you.”

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Some people claim that breaking is played out. Freddy Love disagrees. “The younger kids keep developing it, doing more wild things and more new stuff. We never ·used to spin or do acrobatics. The people who started it just laid down the foundations. Just like in graffiti — you make a new style. That’s what life in the street is all about, just being you, being who you are around your friends. What’s at stake is a guy’s honor and his.position in the street. Which is all you have. That’s what makes it so important, that’s what makes it feel so good — that pressure on you to be the best. Or to try to be the best. To develop a new style nobody can deal with. If it’s true that this stuff reflects life, it’s a fast life.” ■

On May 3 at 3 p.m., the Breakmasters and Rock Steady crews will break, to rapping by Fab Five Freddy Love and Rammellzee, at Common Ground, 29 Wooster Street at Grand. Their performance ofi Graffiti Rock was organized by sculptor­1 photographer Henry Chalfant. For reser­vations, call 431-5446.  

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HEAVY HITTERS

In this summer blockbuster season, you can still take in genre thrills without settling for more infantilizing spoon-feedings of the latest superhero regurgitation. Get down with the freaks of the East, as this year’s New York Asian Film Festival promises more than 60 outrageous, gnarly, and too-cool features, kicked off by the world premiere of the Hong Kong horror anthology Tales From the Dark: Part 1. Beloved HK auteur Johnnie To’s visceral mainland policier Drug War and Taiwanese singer-actor Jay Chou’s FX-heavy, martial-arts musical The Rooftop will screen in a sidebar spotlight on Texas-based Asian distributor Well Go USA, with further tributes to the New Filipino Cinema, Taiwanese pulp, and Korean actor Ryoo Seung-beom (Bloody Tie). Bruce Lee’s seminal Enter the Dragon, which turns 40 this year, will be honored with a panel discussion between MC Yan (of Cantonese hip-hop group LMF) and rap pioneer Fab 5 Freddy.

Mondays-Sundays, noon. Starts: June 28. Continues through July 15, 2013

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Classic Hip Hop Documentary Wild Style Gets a Week at Film Forum

Originally released in 1983, Charles Ahearn’s classic hip-hop film, Wild Style, laid out from the start a lot of the overlapping issues that continue to plague hip-hop culture: the tensions sparked when artists try to stay true to their outsider or artistic roots even as mainstream validation beckons; the potentially corrupting effects of the media’s contextualizing of the art and artists; the struggle to sustain authenticity. A documentary-style film that doesn’t have much in the way of conventional plot or structure, Wild Style follows Zoro (played by OG graffiti artist Lee Quinones) as he navigates his way from the bombed-out streets of the Bronx to art-world Manhattan while simultaneously working through his complicated feelings for fellow graffiti artist Rose. The acting is often laughably stiff, but that’s part of the charm of a film whose real value is as a time capsule unlocked. A who’s who of early hip-hop appears on-screen (including Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Rock Steady Crew, Cold Crush Brothers, and a blink-and-you-miss-her club shot of Angie B./Angie Stone), while background shots of the war-zone streets that birthed hip-hop, long shots of beautifully and meticulously tagged subway trains, and in-your-face performance scenes set in palpably hot, sweaty makeshift clubs combine to give Wild Style an artful vibrancy that remains undiminished.

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ALL CITY

“I’ve gotten chased so many times, but the knuckleheads never get to catch me,” says graffiti artist Zoro (played by the legendary Lee Quinones) in Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, the very first hip-hop movie shot in the South Bronx in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In celebration of Wild Style’s 25th anniversary, Film Forum is doing special late-night screenings of a fresh 35mm print for just one week: From the rivalries to the DJs to the breakdancers to the dangers of writing in the subway tunnels, the film is a fascinating look into those innocent early days of hip-hop and its superstars, including Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Caz, and the Rock Steady Crew. Tonight and Saturday at 9 p.m., Ahearn and surprise guests sign copies of Wild Style: The Sampler, the new behind-the-scenes book about the making of the movie. Starts today, through November 20, Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110, filmforum.org, $11 ANGELA ASHMAN

Nov. 14-20, 2008

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Yo! YouTube Raps

Someone needs to compile a 10-minute YouTube retrospective of “lame white people” scenes in rap videos. Tell me you’re not watching this. Who among us wouldn’t benefit from revisiting, say, Dr. Dre’s “Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” in which a stuffy cadre of honky air-traffic controllers are at first befuddled but eventually seduced by Dr. Dre’s anthemic majesty, dancing in time-honored lame-white-people style as Chris Tucker literally steals a plane? The Iconz’ “Get Crunked Up” is similarly instructive; N.W.A.’s canon is basically a more sinister version of Reno 911! with better mustaches. It’s enough to make you pine for Yo! MTV Raps, for the halcyon days of Fab 5 Freddy.

Also pining for the halcyon days of Fab 5 Freddy: Fab 5 Freddy. The iconic star of stage, screen, and subway car stands on a lazy Monday afternoon in the library at New Design High School on the Lower East Side, teaching impressionable high schoolers how to make rap videos. He briefly summarizes his formidable résumé—Downtown 81, Wild Style, and most notably his Yo! hosting gig, effectively making him among the first public faces of hip-hop for thousands of miles of flyover country. Back in 1988. “Some of y’all wasn’t even born,” he notes. Most of y’all.

Fab 5 Freddy has directed around 70 music videos himself. He lists the basic types—the “performance video” is your standard stage/street/club setting, highlighting the rapper’s live show. But Freddy prefers the “concept video,” with actors, a narrative, a dramatic arc. This latter type, he notes ruefully, is rarer now. “Not many stories,” he says. He feels that Southern music’s influence has resulted in simpler records—”This Is Why I’m Hot,” “Throw Some D’s,” what have you. “A lot of chicks wearing not a lot of clothes.” Also, “cars with big rims.” His era had more of an “anything goes” feel, he concludes. “Videos were more creative when the music was more creative.”

The 30 or so kids nod. Freddy is here as part of Master Classes, a months-long program treating multiple high schools to arts-based instruction delivered by celebrities, at the behest of the nonprofit group Working Playground, along with the usual slate of corporate sponsors. All the kids wear black T-shirts with what looks like a gun sight on the back. Advertising Target, not Public Enemy. The library was packed earlier when all the students were consolidated—dance, theater, fashion, animation. Talib Kweli is now off in some other classroom holding forth on spoken word; Sway, a more recent MTV entity, is lecturing on, uh, cool hats or something. Michael Ealy, an actor from Sleeper Cell whom the girls seem to find particularly attractive, evokes the loudest shrieks; Law & Order: SVU‘s Mariska Hargitay (who at one point announces, “Mariska’s in the house!” for no apparent reason) joins Matthew Lillard in the acting class to much similar shrieking. Matthew is the event’s most popular celeb overall. Freddy and Talib have some pull, of course, but they don’t have shit on Scooby Doo.

That scrum now pared down to music-video enthusiasts, Freddy shows them his most famous directing clip—”One Love,” by Nas, appropriately enough an artist whose last record is titled
Hip Hop Is Dead and who berates people for not knowing who Big Daddy Kane is. Was. Is. “One Love” is a concept video, footage of Nas rapping semi-enthusiastically mixed with scenes that sketch out the song’s “letters to friends in prison” conceit. (When Nas raps “I hate it when your moms cries,” Freddy furnishes a shot of a woman crying.) It ends when one of the inmates’ girlfriends is accidently shot—a visualization, Freddy explains, of the line “Mistakes happen/So take heed/Never bust up in the crowd/Catch him solo/Make the right man bleed.” Other than Nas’s dreadful overalls, the clip has aged pretty well.

Freddy’s it-was-all-better-back-then rhetoric is pretty mild, and there is some truth to it, though the video for “This Is Why I’m Hot” is appalling because it’s boring, not because it’s particularly vapid. And he’s not so much angry at music-video culture today as he is jealous—prohibitively expensive equipment back then is Best Buy (sorry—Target) discount fare now, and YouTube is the great equalizer, where anyone can see and be seen without MTV’s approval.

“One Love” is available online, of course. And so is the latest project from our other marquee presenter today: Pharoahe Monch, who, like Nas, is a rapper prodigy from Queens. And just as Nas famously wrote from the perspective of a gun, Monch’s latest track—the video for which is banned from television, he notes (almost brags), but flourishing on YouTube—is told from the perspective of a bullet. “Gun Draws” is Monch’s directorial debut. He warns the kids that it’s “provocative” and that he “didn’t give in to what the rules say.” The clip takes a while—all right, two minutes—to warm up, opening with an awkwardly acted domestic violence scene that doesn’t make the
Law & Order cut. But once Monch himself shows up (wearing his dad’s police uniform, he notes), it regains its footing, mixing real JFK/John Lennon/Malcolm X/Biggie and Tupac footage to create a disturbing carnival-violence air, unnervingly goofy and deeply grim. It ends with news reports of the Sean Bell shooting.

“Gun Draws” is meant to stir up interest in Monch’s new album, Desire, due in May—the video seems to have been made with the intent of getting loudly booted off regular TV. (His label, he says, dug the clip and supports it, though not officially, of course. “They knew it would get attention,” he explains.) It won’t win any acting awards, but if Fab 5 Freddy wants more concept videos, there you have it.

It’s unclear what the Master Classes kids are supposed to learn from all this. They’ll meet regularly for five months or so, and at the end compile the poetry and songs they write into one video project. After Freddy and Monch’s presentations, they read their own poems, with titles like “American Dream” and “Passion Flower,” and then discuss images therein that’d make good video footage. Someone wonders whether you can take cameras on subways post-9/11. Freddy muses about how much film school used to cost, and how immediately and cheaply available all the equipment and knowledge are now. If the kids have an abiding interest in cars with rims and chicks wearing not a lot of clothes, they don’t mention it now.

And then the classes all merge again, and it’s time to shriek more for Scooby Doo. Freddy doesn’t seem too bothered, though. He silences the din briefly and thunders that for every superstar, there are 15 workers in the background—directors, producers, tech experts, worker bees. So learn to do it all. The perils of Southern hip-hop notwithstanding, he doesn’t seem too curmudgeonly about the future, so long as there’s a certain respect for the past. There are worse things to teach kids than nostalgia.

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Brilliant and Boring

Since the Tribeca doc plucked only the most colorful moments from this late-’70s-early-’80s cable access show made by, for, and about Lower East Side pop artistes and the junkies who obsessed over them, the release of these two full-length episodes offers two crucial facts. One, Glenn O’Brien was more brilliant than we think. Two, his show was really, really boring. In 2005, TV Party‘s pace lags. The dead space and script lack grate. The guests (Fred Schneider, Debbie Harry, Basquiat, James Chance, Mick Jones), beyond their historical existence on tape, never say or do anything particularly interesting. Unscreened callers ask O’Brien if his refrigerator’s running, and the pointedly (pointlessly) artistic camerawork hardly distracts from O’Brien’s baptism by fire. But hey, that’s just the premiere. By ’81 O’Brien’s turned his lazy talk show send-up into layers-deep performance art, no longer a host so much as a participant in the semi-improvised mayhem: Walter Steding and “Monk of Funk” Fab Five Freddy lead a band in medieval protest punk, O’Brien spouts pseudo-hippie liberalese, and Basquiat grafs the screen with real-time teleprompt Krylon. The effect’s dizzying: audience members on-screen trying to make sense of O’Brien’s “special message,” and audience members years later at home, with the freedom of cable access television unspeakably foreign, understanding that message a bit too well—and with quite some envy.

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Phone Home, Michael Zilkha

Quite a time, those early ’80s in this here New York. The subways were dangerous, the clubs weren’t, and you could still shoplift refillable markers from Pearl Paint. Artsy-fartsy types danced to live bands, and sometimes there were people of color on the stage and in the audience. The DJs edutained us by playing what they wanted to play, and clubs like the Ritz played videos like they were something special to look forward to. (I am not making this up.) Misty, revisionist nostalgia? Or was the bang bang boogie qualitatively different then? Get yourself some digitized past and make the call yourself. At the very least, you can figure out why so many Brooklyn bands in 2002 are trying to party like its 1982.

Without encumbrance of plot or character, the film Downtown 81 (Virgin import) documents, pretty accurately, the Lower East Side and Tribeca and the tenants on their way to boldface: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Deborah Harry, Arto Lindsay, Kid Creole, Fab 5 Freddy, and many Mudd Club regulars I swear I see at the Grand Union now. The soundtrack, blessedly inexpensive but weirdly unnoticed, captures a cross section of the NY hybrid strain. You get Basquiat’s band, Gray, playing their one great abstraction, “Drum Mode”; some sweet tango from Pablo Calogero; essential live tracks from Kid Creole and the Coconuts (now performing a ’70s disco revue in Hamburg, sigh—Ohwhatanight.com); refusenik noise from Lydia Lunch and Suicide; and three of the most important songs of the era: Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern,” DNA’s “Blonde Redhead,” and Rammelzee & K. Rob’s gob-stopping “Beat Bop,” which backpackers will continue to not reproduce for years to come.

Anti NY (Gomma import) compiles seven downtown rarities, pads the album with five Euro remixes, and puts our buddy Ba$quiat on the cover. Sounds like some Hamburger Helper aggregation of justly forgotten curios looking for cred, but it works. The subsection here is a clump of bands that played Mudd Club and Hurrah, or imagined they did. The celeb quotient will pull some—Gray, again; an early track by Rammelzee (not yet set free from human cadence); and a tune by Jim Jarmusch’s band, Del/Byzanteens, co-written by Luc Sante (literate, new wavy, kinda dope)—but the unknowns hold it together. Ike Yard’s rough electro piece is so Right Now you’ll think the surface noise is a plug-in. Sexual Harassment’s monotone come-on sounds like an answer to the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” except this guy’s not very scary: “If I gave you a party, would you come? If I offered all my loving, would you run? Well, I’m throwing you a party, please come.” And then everybody has a party! In the background! Photographer-writer Vivien Goldman’s sole 99 Records single, “Launderette,” is a disarming lil’ dub song about dating and washing recorded with members of Aswad and PiL: “I wanted 10 pence for the dryer/Yes, that was how we met/My laundry bag was broken/My clothes were soaking wet/I felt I needed hugging/You needed board and lodging.” “Launderette” exhibits two of the attributes bringing people back to this music: a sense of fun that didn’t instantly drag wacky and dumb along for the ride, and an artless approach to cultural borrowing that favored party-starting over impressing trainspotters. Samplers hijacked that process a few years later, but it’s not like folks weren’t looking for ways out of the rock box.

But where would New York be without England to remind us of our successes, without New Order and A Certain Ratio to appreciate Man Parrish more than we did? (For starters, notice that none of the comps discussed here are on U.S. labels.) The thesis of In the Beginning There Was Rhythm (Soul Jazz import) is that punk met funk over in old Blighty and something beautiful happened. Compared to the NY culture clash, the U.K. results have a higher quotient of politics and Jamaican ingredients and a wider spread of scores, too. A Certain Ratio’s cover of Banbarra’s breakbeat classic “Shack Up” still sounds like somebody’s dad trying to catch wreck; Human League’s “Being Boiled” got better when it became Visage’s “Fade to Grey”; and the difference between Throbbing Gristle’s probably very subversive 20 Jazz Funk Greats and Gray’s equally boring but sensually pleasurable “Drum Mode” is probably the difference between England and America. (The difference between “Drum Mode” and This Heat’s “24 Track Loop” is the difference between luck and genius, though.) But there’s always a Led Zeppelin—an English group that can find a sweet spot between Euro and African American rhetoric that we just can’t. In 1981, they were called the Gang of Four, and if you’ve never heard “To Hell With Poverty,” I wish I could be there when you do. You’ll be forming a band within the week, even if you’re the mayor. And if you’re Kenneth Lay, you’re already singing it! If it’s white boys on funk we’re after, Mark Stewart and his Pop Group (or Maffia) seem to be aging better than, say, James White and his Blacks (or Contortions). It’d be nice to think it was their early anti-globalization stance that pulled the kids, but more likely “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” appeals to kids because the caterwauling and feedback are a more comfortable road into the funk than, say, putting on a sharkskin suit and punching people. (If it’s not white boys you’re after, be warned: This history is looking whitewashed. Either Defunkt or James “Blood” Ulmer coulda smoked everybody here with their black/white cookies, but neither are being name-dropped. No, not at all.)

By the ’90s, all this folderol was forgotten. Dance music could no longer contain both a song and a beat, rock bands were redirected instantly to Wetlands if they essayed a dance number, and non-narrative lyrics became the status quo for indie bands. You can turn back the clock and live larger than that. They had a party, so why don’t you go?

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In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below

In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below
December 24–30, 1980

John Lindsay hated graffiti. He vowed to wipe it off the face of the IRT, and allocated $10 million to its obliteration. But the application of vast resources is no match for disciplined determination, as we should have learned in Vietnam. Graf­fiti survived Lindsay’s defoliation plan, and it has thrived on every subsequent attempt to curb its spread.

In 1973, there may have been a few hundred ghetto kids writing in a few definable styles. Now thousands call themselves “writers.” They come from ev­ery social stratum and range in age from nine to 25. Their signatures — called “tags” — have transformed the subway into what the Times calls “some godawful forest.” And now that the perpetrators have moved above ground, trucks and elevators, monuments and vacant walls look as if they have suddenly sprouted vines.

It is, says Claes Oldenburg, “a big bouquet from Latin America.” It is, says Rich­ard Ravitch of the MTA, “a symbol that we have lost control.”

***

 

The great debate over graffiti, and what ought to be done about it rests on the assumption that its intention is to defile. “It’s the feeling that an antisocial element has been in the system and had its way,” says an MTA spokesman, defending his department’s annual $6.5 million an­ti-graffiti budget — money, after all, that might otherwise be used for repairs. The Times has rounded up the usual assort­ment of social workers and shrinks to bolster its contention that graffiti is “an effort to deal with deep feelings of fear by seeking out an experience that involves facing that fear.” Psychologists who treat these incipient felons “believe their pa­tients, virtually all of whom have less­-than-perfect relationships with their fathers, are intent on defacing his car, the car of authority.”

The casual rider might conclude that perp and victim share an inability to con­trol the danger in their lives. Says the indefatigable Ali, who, like many graffiti writers, has a ready capacity to articulate the ideas behind his work: “Graffiti takes away the placenta, and reminds people of how violent the subway is. The real van­dalism is what you’d see if you scraped the windows clean.”

The debate over graffiti has been con­ducted by people who are unwilling to decipher the message it conveys. Once you learn to interpret the medium, it becomes clear that no single intention is involved. Some kids do write to deface — to “bomb” a car, as they say; but the wholesale ob­struction of windows and maps is a sure way to perpetuate your status as a novice, what serious writers call “a toy.”

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Entering a graffiti zone — and these now include schoolyards, stairwells, and selected intersections — is like reading a newspaper. A writer can tell who has been there, which parts of the city are repre­sented, how long since the site has been buffed, and whether there are any star­tling innovations — “isms” — he wishes to incorporate. This communicative func­tion, says Ali, puts graffiti in “the griot tradition” of African storytelling — whether or not you grew up close to your dad.

But tagging is only the most elemen­tary form of graffiti, and the insides of cars are a practice zone in which aspiring writers fashion the techniques they will need to do “a piece” — i.e., masterpiece. The idea is to impose yourself on an entire car, to move from “a throw-up” to the carefully delineated blend of tints and lines graffiti writers call “a fade.” This riotous effect can be achieved on the car while the paint is wet, or in midair, when a writer sprays two cans at once to see the fade as it forms in the mist.

From the time a surface is sighted — ­usually a train laid up on the center track — it can take 12 hours to complete a piece. Often working from sketches prepared in advance, a writer and his “crew” may spend a weekend in tunnel light, drinking, smoking, listening to the radio. Most writers return with cameras to document their work, since the TA’s buffing ma­chines can reduce the most ambitious ef­fort to a swampy blur. In graffiti, the dimensions of space and time are beyond control. All things must pass, usually within a month.

There are two ways to look at this stuff. From the platform, mammoth letters roll by like frames in a stereopticon. Seen a block from the el, bands of color undulate like the tail of a kite: At that speed and distance, one becomes aware of how im­portant motion is to the spirit of graffiti. A willful transformation occurs as the rav­ished train is forced to boogie. The harder trick is to throw something up that looks good standing still.

Among writers, Lee is regarded as a master of freehand rendering, perhaps the first to execute a top-to-bottom, full-car design. But on the Lower East Side, where some graffiti aficionados are too young to frequent the subways, Lee is regarded as a prophet. He works anonymously, in the dead of night, covering handball courts with apocalyptic messages and monu­mental imagery. If you want to glimpse the future of this form, run right down to the playground on Madison Street, off Clinton. A bilious dragon awaits you, hov­ering over a skyline on the verge of erup­tion. Talk about Gulley Jimson: This vision was executed by a teenager with a ladder and a little paint.

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Iconography has figured in graffiti since the early ’70s, when Stay High pilfered the stick figure logo from The Saint and appended it to his tag. But a growing segment of this movement would like to see graffiti abandon representation for an open assault of color, a fauvism-on-wheels. Futura 2000, who took his name from a Ford, serves up a fade that resembles cosmic soup. Within this Day-Glo cauldron, triangles glide by — the edges carefully defined with the aid of masking tape — and clusters of circles that clearly suggest Kandinsky, perhaps because that’s where Futura first encountered these shapes.

Graffiti draws from every form of pictorial information that has entered the ghetto over the past 20 years: billboards, supergraphics, wall murals, underground comics, and custom car design. Sci-fi il­lustration — especially the lurid roman­ticism of Frank Frazetta and Vaughn Bode — was an early source of inspiration, but now that the most ambitious writers are taking classes in drafting and going to museums, there is a deliberate attempt to work in references to artists who command respect. Lost to the buffers now is Blade’s rendition of Edvard Munch’s scream, and Fred’s assemblage of Campbell’s soup cans. It is possible to imagine a car decked out to resemble something Jackson Pollack dreamt (although, to accomplish that, a writer would have to overcome the traditional graffiti disdain for drips). Or figures out of Klee riding shotgun on the IRT. These artists share with graffiti an interest in what Kandinsky called “the effect of inner harmony” in a childish line.

A writer appropriates an image made famous by an artist the way he in­corporates another writer’s line. It’s all out there, like cans of paint waiting to be “racked.” But image-theft is not the only reason writers raid the museums. A subway Munch raises the heady possibility that art can happen anywhere. Like conceptual art and Pop, graffiti questions the context in which art is appreciated. It renews the dream of work for its own sake, the idea of creation as a democratic process — in short, radical humanism. Ali speaks of “taking responsibility for your environ­ment” by creating a surface on a subway train. “The production of art,” wrote Jean Dubuffet in 1947, “can only be conceived as individual, personal, and done by all.”

There’s a lot of positive mythology floating around what some writers call “the graffiti community.” Aspiration runs high when you’re living in a project on Columbus Avenue, 10 blocks north of the gentry line. You walk into Fiorucci and mutter, I can draw like that. At the same time, there’s a feeling that graffiti is some sort of revolutionary act. A writer hauls out a book of Soviet art to show me photos of what he calls “a propaganda train.” These cars rumbled across the coun­tryside, decked out in heroic iconography designed by artists who were committed to the revolution. The graffiti writer is clear­ly impressed by one tableau, featuring a rising sun. “Look at that fade,” he sighs.

***

Graffiti is a setting from which art may emerge, as was rock ‘n’ roll back when ev­eryone on my block sang doo wop with an absurd intensity, and some of us got respect for it. Mourning John Lennon, it is hard to remember that rock musicians were once commonly regarded as delin­quents, or if you were liberal, rebels without a cause. The music didn’t cover up subway maps, but there was aggression to burn among its staunchest fans. Alan Freed was arrested after a riot at one of his shows, and charged with incitement to anarchy. Ten years later, the music inspired a more visionary insurrection.

SE3, a/k/a Haze looks a bit like Buddy Holly, black hair spilling over his brow — ­but neatly. The son of a West Side analyst, he took to the Bronx at an im­pressionable age, commuting to hang out. But to get over, he had to earn respect in the subway yards, swimming upstream with all the other toys. One night, SE3 was busted in the South Bronx. “We have your son on a graffiti charge,” said the cop at 4 a.m. The ride home from the station house was silent — like an iceberg — but the fric­tion it produced sent SE3 into exile at a school in Massachusetts. He was forced to pass up acceptances from the high schools of Art and Design, Music and Art, and Brooklyn Tech. In New England, he repressed his interest in graffiti, studied architecture, worked in oils; but once back on the pavement, SE3 returned to hanging out. He renewed the old connections — ­with Dondi, Crash, Zephyr, Futura, Ali­ — and began incorporating his fine-arts training into graffiti. This was like Buddy Holly playing the Apollo. SE3 had become what Zephyr calls “a pioneering white boy.”

The big lie is that graffiti is confined to “antisocial elements.” Increasingly, it is the best and brightest who write on sub­way walls, tenement halls. They travel in bands with names like Crazy Inside Art­ists (CIA), Children Invading the Yards (CITY), Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW), Out to Bomb (OTB). Unlike the news­paper that has called for their demise, these bands are racially integrated, which gives writers access to the same cross-­cultural energy that animates rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the graffiti sensibility has a musi­cal equivalent in “rap records” — another rigid, indecipherable form that can sus­tain great complexity. I’m sure Ali would agree that rap records are also part of the griot tradition.

For me, the real mystery about graffiti is why this generation has chosen to ex­press its ambitions in pictorial terms. The answer may lie in the changing nature of prestige in New York. This has become a visual city, with photography, video, and graphic design emerging as hip cultural forms, and with Soho replacing Greenwich Village as the paradigmatic neighborhood. Thousands of visual artists migrated to New York in the ’70s, many settling in high-graffiti neighborhoods. There is an unvoiced connection between these groups, as there was in the ’60s between bohemians and rock musicians. With little formal training or access to galleries, how does one get in on the art action? One shows on the subway.

***

“I sold a piece tonight. For $200.”

Futura is dressed in downtown formals — a white Lacoste over baggy black slacks and clean white sneakers. He’s accom­panied by his father, his cousin, and his girlfriend Rennie. They’re standing before a monumental fresco in a spray paint, bearing the unimpeachable Futura logo. The crowd is in a pre-Christmas, buying mood.

Sígame,” says 16-year-old Lady Pink, one of the few female writers to have earned respect. She leads her father, who is holding an Instamatic, by the hand. She wants him to take a picture of her piece­ — fluorescent orchids — which hangs next to one in which Ali has borrowed Stay High’s stick figure and placed it on a Dali cross. These canvases suggest the sentimentality graffiti is prone to when it tries to go imagistic, but also the extraordinary use of color, and that “effect of inner harmony” — is it in the paint, the way it’s applied? The secret is safe with Ali, who roams through the gallery in the baggiest of slacks, the floppiest of jackets, a chino rainhat, and wrap-around silver-slitted specs, cruising girls who could be Debbie Harry.

Clearly, this is not a typical opening at the New Museum, the visual extension of the New School annex, where you might expect to find an enigma in aluminum and sand but not an original Lee. Through January 8, however, the New Museum is throwing open its doors to Fashion Moda, an international art conspiracy located in the South Bronx. The resulting show is unlikely to strike Hilton Kramer as having anything to do with art. But New Wave is about cross-cultural referencing, if it is about anything. With its ghetto rep and its eclectic eye, graffiti is an authentic element in New Wave aesthetics. Says one artist, “It’s our reggae.”

The point of departure for “graffiti as an alternative to standard art” was pro­vided by a New Wave musician named Jean-Michel Basquiat, who joined forces with two friends a few years ago to tag Soho and the Village with phrases like the one above. Samo, as this crew called itself, combined rants against consumerism with assertions about textual ambiguity — all of it copyrighted. It’s unclear whether con­ceptual artists began picking up on Samo’s strategy, or whether Samo bor­rowed its m.o. from conceptual art. At any rate, a number of young artists are under­taking phantom installations that can only be called graffiti. Keith Haring began by drawing crawling people and dogs in black marker; lately, he has taken to em­bellishing Johnny Walker ads with flying saucers. Last summer, when Ronald Rea­gan spoke in the South Bronx, he pointed to a wall that said BROKEN PROMISES, and expounded at length on what could have driven the residents to write such a thing. The actual perpetrator was John Fekner, a conceptual artist who transfers phrases onto abandoned autos and tene­ment walls.

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When asked to comment on graffiti, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers were unavailable, but Andy Warhol con­fided, “I like it.” Curatorial types were also queried. “I have no feelings about it, one way or another,” said Thomas Hoving. “I really don’t know enough to make a statement,” added Alicia Legg at the Museum of Modern Art. When a photo from the series that accompanies this piece was submitted by MOMA’s publications department for use as a Christmas card, Kathleen Westin, co-chairman of the museum’s Junior Council, put her foot down. “I thought it was the most revolting idea that ever came up,” she volunteered. “The people who do graffiti ought to be shot at dawn.”

But a number of galleries — the Razor, the O.K. Harris, the 112 Workshop — have shown work by writers, and the movement may soon make its debut in Paris and on 57th Street, under the aegis of the Pierre Cardin galleries. There are at least three graffiti documentaries making the rounds of distributors, and New Wave filmmaker Charles Ahearn is now working on a film with Fred. Fred and Lee are stalwarts of the Fabulous Five, a group that writes on the number five line of the Lexington Avenue IRT. When I caught up with Fred, this 24-year-old veteran expressionist was en route to Milan, for a show at the Paolo Seno gallery. This is his second Italian exhibition; the first was warmly received by Unita, the Communist Party paper, which suggested that the Fabulous Five be hired to paint the Victor Emmanuel mon­ument (built by Mussolini and contemptuously known as “the wedding cake”).

“My art is like an artifact,” Fred says. “Like, the paintings I do, I want people to look at them as an art based on graffiti.” He has started reading Artforum. He has developed a fondness for Dada. He has cut a rap record. “With a little time and paint,” Fred says, “anything is possible.”

***

The Soul Artists, an amalgam of 21 writers, including many of the best to have surfaced underground, want the MTA to give them carte blanche on the outsides of cars. In exchange, they propose to regulate what goes on inside and to impose a ban on writing over windows and maps. Pas­sengers might welcome such a compromise — assuming it could be enforced, since graffiti inspires a lot of very independent toys. Imagine a contest in which the best artists select the most original designs submitted by graffiti writers, creating a new emblem for New York, attracting tourists from all over the world, and freeing millions of dollars now used to buff the stuff.

With or without the MTA’s coopera­tion, we may soon be inundated with graf­fiti, as the Soul Artists attempt to trans­pose the form onto fabric, video, posters. Writers are beginning to regard graffiti as something you can do on paper, or in a book. A lot of these kids carry “piece books,” the kind you used to whip out in high school for autographs at the end of the year. At special events like the New Museum opening, they stand around tag­ging each other — but not the walls. The best writers copyright their major pieces. Many carry portfolios; a few have even begun to buy their paint.

Though some writers would agree with Fred that “graffiti dies when it’s legal­ized,” the possibility of a career in fashion, graphic design, or even art is making in­roads into traditional assumptions about what graffiti is. Or might be. Graffiti may enter the commercial mainstream and bestow itself on haberdashery, like punk. Or its simultaneous discovery by artists and kids at large could change the way we think of public space. Imagine workshops dotting the ghettos, and in the quiche districts, thousands of otherwise benumbed adults taking to the streaks.

You can collect graffiti, wear graffiti, make graffiti. It’s not a form, but an attitude toward form. “Thunderism,” Fred calls it. Imagine! ■

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Where To See Graffiti

Given the MTA’s churlishness (a John Lennon memorial car, executed last week, has already been buffed), the best way to evaluate the potential of graffiti is to seek it out on walls. “Monumental graffiti works” by Lee are viewable on handball courts scat­tered across the Lower East Side: on Madison Street between Clinton and Montgomery, Cherry between Clinton and Montgomery, and Cherry between Pike and Market streets. The Bronx Graffiti Disco, on 204th Street and Jerome Avenue, features a facade by Crash, Medi, Mitch, and Noc. Con­nie’s Supermarket, at 148th Street and Brook Avenue (near Fashion Moda), has been embellished by Crash. Closer to quiche, Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway near Bleecker has a piece by Lee. And a half-dozen graffiti can­vases are at the New Museum, Fifth Avenue corner La Catorce. (If you’re driving home to — or past — Ohio stop at the Canton Art Institute, for an audio-visual graffiti spectacular, fea­turing photos by Henry Chalfant and a rap-tape by Fred.) R.G.