Downstairs, on the wall of the building, there was the usual unsavory scrawl--DJ PACO 1BX and KAY SYS--but upstairs, at Graphiti Productions Gallery here the other day, graffiti had been elevated to art.
The florid signatures and logos, usually viewed by hostile New Yorkers on their subway cars, had been done on canvas and numbered nicely, with prices starting at $300. Nibbling cookies and mingling with the guests were the artists--Lady Pink, Phase, Freedom--who, living somewhat outside the law, are not often seen on such genteel turf. Crash, whose work was featured, had not yet arrived, but the gallery owner was busy extolling his gift.
"That one piece, 'Crash Explosion,' is priced rather heavily, $2,000, because it was written up in Art Forum," said Joyce Tobin, the agent. Letter From Greenwich Village
"Artists wait their whole lives to get into Art Forum. Crash also has received funding from the Public Arts Fund to do a piece on 42nd Street.
"Crash isn't here yet, but you'll be able to spot him when he arrives. He's just turned 20--he's been doing this for years--and yet he has a certain charisma. There are people surrounding him all the time."
"Police?" a hostile New Yorker wondered.
"No," Tobin said, after a pause, "though the police do know most of the boys. There are two especially, Hickey and Ski, who work the trains. We invited them the police to one show, but we asked them to call first so anyone who wanted to get out first could. Actually, they have a very warm feeling for the boys."
A warm feeling for graffiti artists is something you do not generally find in New York. The subway trains are covered, inside and out, with dripping spray-paint scrawls, and although occasionally there is a finely wrought graffito, ask most New Yorkers what they think of the "art" and they will tell you it is swill.
The keepers of the subway system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, have been battling graffiti writers for years, throwing up fences around the subway yards, adding guards, and for the most part losing the battle.
An occasional perverse New Yorker likes the stuff. Norman Mailer, who has a place in Brooklyn Heights, years ago wrote that graffiti were "the beginning of another millenium of vision." The consensus was that Norman would have changed his tune had the millenium been scrawled across his wall.
A visitor wondered out loud how the graffiti writers at the show would have felt had someone whipped out a can of paint and scrawled a signature across a canvas. Hearing this, Freedom--one of the older artists--looked truly shocked.
"If someone did that, if they just go over another artist, it's the ultimate insult. It means either they have no respect for his work or they've been fighting," he said, so upset he tumbled over his words. "It's happened, it's happened to the best, but to just toy out somebody's stuff--yeah, that's to go over it, to say you're a toy is to say you're no good--my God, people would go crazy."
Freedom is retired. At 21 he thought it was time, and anyway he was tired of getting arrested. In this crowd, he is something of a freak--old for a graff writer, and on top of that, a WASP. Still, having written graffiti since he was 13, he lends a fine historical perspective as he explains the ways of the graff writer. One always "racks" (steals) paint. ("I don't rack paint, not any more, but if that were to get into print, I'd look silly".) One often chooses part of a street address for one's signature or "tag." (Gallery co-owner Mel Neulander, who handles the business end and lives on 64th Street, has been christened "BIZ 64.")
Then again, Freedom explained, a tag may have nothing to do with the street. Sometimes a writer takes as his tag the letters he can do best, and sometimes the tag is just a nickname. Crash was a computer and marketing major in high school and got his tag from the argot for computer failure.
"When graff began, it was not so much desecration as a challenge," Freedom said, recalling the names of graffiti greats of bygone times.
"With Taki-183, it was just tagging, getting his tag up there. By '73, people like Stay Hi-149 were doing the first top-to-bottom, end-to-end pieces. Also, he was adding an incredible flourish--people became aware of style . . . . In '73, you also had people like Top Cat-126. He's gone down in history. He brought in the Broadway style of lettering, from Philadelphia."
"The other major development, which people could legitimately complain about maybe, was the throw-up; getting your name up fast. It wasn't so much a skill as a way of getting up and getting famous."
Freedom's work has been of another sort. He has a huge portrait of James Dean on a wall near Riverside Park, and a 25-foot-high copy of the Mona Lisa in a tunnel at 99th, which, he said, you can see from the grating. He has also done portraits on canvas at the gallery.
Nonetheless, he does not think the gallery approach, which provides a workshop and paint one does not have to steal, will work for most graffiti writers.
"A lot of the work was done at the most bizarre hours, one, two in the morning . . . . You can't say to someone, can't say to any artist, you couldn't say to Andy Warhol, 'Be a genius now and do something that's really coming out of your brain, and not out of a can of spray paint.' "
There is also the particular attraction of the trains.
"I've retired," Freedom said, as if reminding himself, "but I have some ideas for some top-to-bottoms for Christmas. I'd love to do an April Fool Day car and paint the cars upside down . . . . I've retired . . . but there's something about that huge space and the medium of spray paint that once you've done it well, you want to do it again . . . ."
Gallery owner Neulander, of a philosophical bent, said, "I don't really like graffiti--I don't like the fact that society has lost control. But to survive, you have to accept whatever the environment throws out, and I'd rather see the kids do this here, and get some exposure, or something for it."
And what if they took their art to the front of his building?
"I'd take a baseball bat and break their hands."