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.
The city finally managed, about 25 years ago, to clean the cars and keep them clean. And in the mid-'90s, Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time, created the Mayor's Anti-Graffiti Task Force and launched a crusade to eradicate graffiti from other municipal surfaces. "Graffiti creates an impression of disorder and of lawlessness," he said in a speech. "A city tainted by vandalism invites more vandalism and more serious crime because it sends the message that the city doesn't care and isn't paying attention."
Still, graffiti is all around us, and not all of it is vandalism. In the past few years, Nike, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and most recently, Sony -- advertising its game-playing, movie-playing, music-playing PlayStation Portable -- have bought wall spaces and hired graf artists to spray-paint on them as a part of their marketing campaigns.
In the beginning, it was mostly folks in the inner cities, black and brown faces, who wrote on walls and subway cars to make a mark, claim something as their own, says Ferrell. Today, it's everyone, black, white, brown and yellow, rich, poor and middle class, trying to leave personal logos in streets full of c orporate logos. Trying to stick out. Take John Tsombikos, aka "Borf," the 18-year-old self-described anarchist from affluent Great Falls who indefatigably wrote his tag all across the District. Last week, he was sentenced to 30 days in D.C. jail and to pay $12,000 in restitution.
Ecko has never heard of Borf.
"I'm not defending what this Borf guy has done, but I could empathize. . . . This selfish kind of journey of wanting notoriety. This desire: I have nothing. I want people to know me," Ecko says, taking another bite of the apple. "Look, I've been everywhere. When you travel the world and ride subway cars or trains in major cities, you realize that graf has become the universal language of teen angst and teen culture. It's cool. It's not just a black thing. It's very eclectic. It's for the hip-hop crowd. It's for the skateboarding crowd."
He was that kid in Lakewood, N.J., who, unlike his black and Latino friends, couldn't rhyme or break-dance to save his life. But, hey, he could tag. He kept a black book, the sketchbook of graf artists, carrying it with him at all times, drawing, experimenting, finding his style. He never considered himself a graf artist -- he wasn't good enough to be a graf artist, he says -- but through his designs, he's continually adopted graf's motif and aesthetic.
"Ecko is respected in the underground graf community. They know he's been around. They know he's for real," says Ferrell, the graf historian and author of "Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality." Graf is at a critical moment, warns Ferrell. Is it staying true to its roots, a product of the counterculture, proudly rebellious and illicit? Or is it being co-opted into the cultural stockpile of this multimedia world, and all of a sudden you can play it on the TV screen?
"It's going to be interesting how authentic graf artists view this game, especially since it's coming from Marc," says Ferrell.
* * *
The game called "Getting Up" -- graf lingo for getting your work up on something -- has been in the works for seven years.
It was Ecko's creation -- "my graffiti opus," he says, "a love letter to all the taggers out there" -- from the very beginning. Trouble was, many game publishers who year in and year out churn out the latest versions of hit franchises ("Madden NFL" the biggest among them) and depend on tried-and-true titles ("50 Cent: Bulletproof" and "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" are basically cousins) didn't know what to do with a graffiti game. Innovative as it is, the game industry, much like the film, music and television industries, also plays it safe, Ecko discovered. Electronic Arts, the publishing giant, home to "The Sims" and "The Lord of the Rings" titles, passed. Thanks, but no thanks.
Ecko is still bitter about the rejections. "There was a lot of 'You're not looking at how buyers are reacting to what's selling'; 'You don't know what you're talking about,' " he says of the game publishers he met with. Finally, Atari Corp., the company that brought us "Pong," signed on to publish "Getting Up."
"This game for me is a wake-up call," says Bruno Bonnell, chief of Atari. "It's saying, 'If our industry wants to sell $50 of the same old soup -- the same thing, the same experience -- we'll alienate potential consumers and we'll end up being really troubled."
"Getting Up" is set in the fictional city of New Radius, derivative of New York, where a young Dominican named Trane, who's considered a "toy," or beginner, by other graf artists, tries to make it as All City King, the most reputable of all graf artists. (Trane, by the way, is short for Coltrane, as in John. Ecko is a jazz buff. ) Trane meets other graf writers throughout the game who serve as his mentors, and these mentors -- Cope2, FUTURA and T-kid 170 among them -- are real-life graf artists, all friends of Ecko. But the story forces Trane to duke it out with rival crews, fight the corrupt mayor and the city's Civil Conduct Keepers, all the while working to reach the "heaven spots" -- areas so high up that if you fall, good luck. In the game, the player wields a spray can the way the player of a first-person shooter game uses a gun. A well-placed tag brings respect and fame all over New Radius.
Is Ecko Trane? Is the regime Bloomberg's? Is the game promoting illegality? (Dennis Butler of the D.C. Department of Public Works, who manages the three two-man crews that clean up graffiti in the District, is not looking forward to its release. "I don't want to have to chase the kid who's gonna learn about graffiti from this game," says an exasperated Butler.)
Ecko says no to all three.
"Trane is a composite of many characters -- graf artists and non-graf artists -- that I've known, you know, over the years. The story is fiction. It's not some sort of tirade against Bloomberg," Ecko says, furrowing his brow. "Look, I own property, I'm not into the idea of someone coming in and spray-painting on my property." He shares a palatial two-story villa in Bernardsville, N.J., with his wife and their two toddlers: Sage Isabella, 3, and Alexander Jazz, 18 months.
"Is William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' a brilliant narrative or not? After all, it is taught to high school kids all across the world. A story about alpha-male-dom. A story about kids killing kids," Ecko continues. "What if William Golding never told that story by way of a book? What if it was a video game? 'Getting Up' is just a game."
Not for long. MTV Films is now developing a big-screen adaptation of it.