the secret history of new york’s punk graffiti artists
Hip-hop was the exclusive soundtrack to graffiti in the 1980s, right? Wrong. On the other side of the tracks, Sabbath-listening, CBGB-frequenting punks of NYC’s hardcore scene were developing an inimitable style of their own.
This article was originally published by i-D UK.
A long time ago, before it was used as a way of selling hamburgers and luxury property developments — graffiti was New York City's most direct embodiment of youth culture. Although the artform as we know it first originated in Philadelphia in the 1960s, it was in the New York of the 1970s and 1980s — particularly the city's Washington Heights and Bronx neighborhoods — in which it truly found its voice; a time when leading names would compete to tag walls, shopfronts, and, most famously, subway trains.
It is, of course, a style most closely associated with the city's hip-hop heritage. But by the mid to late-80s, graffiti had become an important part of the visual aesthetic of New York's hardcore punk scene too — demo covers, show flyers, and logos for bands like Crumbsuckers, Outburst, or Pagan Babies, displaying a frenetic and rough-edged style that was as much CBGB as B-boy. The basis of a new book — Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore by author and documentarian Freddy Alva — it is a scene largely undocumented; one in which band members would hit the streets in their boots and braces to tag the whole night through. Here, Freddy talks us through a few of the most prolific graffiti artists.
Mackie Jayson (pictured above)
Mackie Jayson aka HYPE/HYPER is a graffiti legend from the mid-1970s, affiliated with the notorious RTW (Rolling Thunder Writers) grafitti crew. He went on to become "King of the #1 line" by 1978 due to his relentless pursuit of getting up. Noted subway graffiti photographer Henry Chalfant captured HYPE pieces and they were featured in gallery exhibitions. Mackie played drums in the first NYHC band in 1981 made up of graffiti writers, called Frontline, as well as going on to the Cro-Mags, Bad Brains, The Icemen, Shelter, and Hazen St. His pioneering work in blending both of these subcultures has earned him an exalted position in the pantheon of writers that went on to play in NYHC bands and it's right for him to be the lead interview in the first chapter of the book.
SANE SMITH are two brothers that grew up in Uptown Manhattan, started tagging in the mid-1980s, and really hit their stride at the tail end of the train era by 1989. They accomplished this by moving on to large scale productions on city landmarks, most famously on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1990. Their non-stop tagging campaign brought them to widespread scrutiny by the authorities, leading to SANE becoming the first graffiti writer to be arrested and charged with third-degree criminal mischief. All charges were subsequently dismissed following SANE's untimely passing in October of 1990. The book celebrates his contribution to the graffiti and hardcore synthesis by featuring an interview with SMITH as well as photographs of his classic collaborations with NYHC writers HUSH, JERE, and NATZ.
MQ (Most Qualified) aka MKUE is a noted writer affiliated with the DMS crew, made up of members from the NYHC scene, and was instrumental in transitioning graffiti onto bridges, highways, and the streets once the tagging of trains finished in 1989. By the 1990s he built up a reputation of being a fearless tagger, willing to religiously get up on any surface, whether it be in NYC or the world over. MQ continues to paint the same as ever, making him one of the few remaining taggers from the 1980s to actively do so. There are a number of notorious pieces he's done throughout the years in the book as well as work representing NYHC bands like Madball and Sub-Zero.
SMOG aka Satanic Majesty Of Graffiti grew up attending some of the earlier hardcore matinees at CBGBs and started tagging trains in 1986, famously using a character lifted from the NYHC band Crumbsuckers to accentuate his pieces. He continues to write in this present era; whether on freight trains, highways, walls, or plastering stickers all over town. SMOG is a member of the well-respected RIS (Rocking It Suckers) crew as well as starting his own ROT (Ratz On Tracks) crew, both of which count a good number of members from the NYHC scene.
FCEE aka Forever Crushing Everything Everywhere is a Queens native that was an original member of fellow NYHC graffiti writer Chaka Malik's Stagedive skateboarding team in the late 1980s. They continued a long standing tradition in NYC of fusing Graffiti, Hardcore, and Skating into a unified whole. FCEE still paints on a regular basis, in the book you'll find his pieces representing NYHC bands Burn, Skarhead, and Dmize.
Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York is available to buy here.