Urban Scrawl

"A graffiti tag in the virtual world doesn't make one pop up in the real world," says Marc Ecko in defense of his new video game. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 13, 2006

NEW YORK Last summer, the celebrated urban-wear designer Marc Ecko wanted to throw a block party to promote his new video game. The problem? "Getting Up," in stores this week, is all about graffiti.

Local pols were upset.

Peter Vallone Jr., a Queens councilman, led the outcry, asking the city to revoke the permit for a bash that would allow graffiti artists -- or "graffiti vandals," as Vallone calls them -- to strut their stuff on 48-foot-long replicas of subway cars that ran in New York in the '80s. The event, Vallone argued, would encourage vandalism. Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed, noting that "graffiti is just one of those things that destroys our quality of life." Things got ugly. The city revoked the soiree's permit; Ecko sued the city; lofty talk about censorship and freedom of expression was tossed around.

Then Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled in favor of Ecko. In his decision, Rakoff wrote: "By the same token, presumably, a street performance of 'Hamlet' would be tantamount to encouraging revenge murder. . . . As for a street performance of 'Oedipus Rex,' don't even think about it."

A stalwart aficionado of graffiti -- it's always been a part of his designs -- Ecko is grinning about the whole episode now.

"That was fun times, fun times," says the 33-year-old, who started Ecko Unltd. in 1993 and sits as the youngest member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. As ever, he's wearing a baggy black shirt, comfy Nike Dunks, and his baseball-cap slightly askew. "People gotta understand that a graffiti tag in the virtual world doesn't make one pop up in the real world. Answer honestly: If 'Getting Up' was a film or a book, would people all of a sudden say, 'Oh my goodness, there is going to be a graffiti epidemic!'?"

So why is the king of a multimillion-dollar empire -- with T-shirts, sweaters, blazers, caps, shoes, leather wear, underwear, you name it, sold in more than 5,000 stores in the United States, including JC Penney and Bloomingdale's -- breaking into the video game business?

"I grew up with games, yo. Everybody did. When you boil down this sweat shirt that I sell, or this track jacket, or this game, and you boil it down to its essence and you get it in a little beaker, it's the same thing. The same thing. It's like, it's like, it's cool. It's relevant from a lifestyle point of view," says Ecko, taking off his cap for a second, then putting it back on -- slightly to the side, of course. "If you're youth-culture minded, if you're into hip-hop culture, skateboarding culture, it's that, it's that essence, it's that chi , it's that thing that defines us."

* * *

With his boyish face, beefy build and don't-mess-with-me demeanor, Ecko could easily pass for A.J. Soprano's big brother. Then he cracks a smile. He ain't tough. He just looks it. Snacking on a green apple, lounging in his second floor office here in Chelsea, he gives a bit of a graffiti lesson:

Call it street art or graf art, whatever, the graffiti style as we know it in America -- the stylized "tag" (a signature), the "throw-up" (a more intricate work), the "piece" (short for the masterpiece, a large, multi-color design) -- was born in Philly in the late 1960s, says Ecko, though some argue that it was in the 1970s in New York, especially in the Bronx, where it really caught on. Many of the graf artists in the Bronx were also DJs, Ecko explains, and graffiti was the visual aspect of their evolving music, which was hip-hop.

Those were the glory days, the late '60s to the late '80s, a time when a graf artist could hang out on an elevated platform and take pride in seeing his work sprayed all over passing subway cars, says Jeff Ferrell, a professor in the sociology department of Texas Christian University and one of the leading graf historians in the country.

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