A Filmmaker's Origins; Part 2

The 80's
The end of the seventies brought about Reaganomics, the Space Shuttle, and the beginning of the end for "Nu Yawk Style Graffiti." At its peak in destructive notoriety and artistic genius, graffiti entered the 80's with a bang but... left with a whimper.

The new decade brought forth new challenges for the graffiti writer (aka graffiti "artist") who welcomed the opportunity to make their art stand out above the rest. Images from mass media, pop culture, and from their own imaginations began to emerge onto the subway lines. Below are a just a few examples of what was a daily event for the NYC subway canvas.

Donkey Kong

"Donkey Kong"

125th St. & Broadway
I.R.T. # 1

Manhattan, 1983

"Sherlock Holmes"

I.R.T. lay-ups @
180th Street

Bronx, circa 1978

Sherlock Holmes
As stated earlier, an artist conveys a message or idea in their work and graffiti was no different. Writers used the "subway canvas" to express their thoughts on family, religion, and politics.

Mom by SEEN
"Mom" by SEEN (early 80's)

Happy Holidays by JASON, SEEN
"Happy Holidays" by JASON, SEEN (early 80's)

Stop The Bomb by LEE
"Stop The Bomb" by LEE (1978-79)

Unfortunately, the city of New York and the MTA never embraced graffiti as the official art form of the Big Apple and were fighting an ongoing battle against graffiti and those who created it. For years, the NYPD and graffiti writers were at odds with one another and in order for many of the pieces you see here (or elsewhere) to be created, a great amount of risk was taken by the artist. Not only was it illegal to mark up or paint the subway lines (penalties included fines and / or imprisonment) but writers also risked electrocution, dismemberment, and even death. This was the REAL graffiti.

Memorial car for CAINE1 by MIDG; circa 1982
"Memorial car" for CAINE1 by MIDG; circa 1982

Mass cleansing in the 80's, coined The Buff, would eventually wipe out NYC subway graffiti for good. Other than scarce photos and fading memories, this "Nu Yawk Style Graffiti" would cease to exist. The graffiti kings such as BLADE, LEE, COMET, DONDI, SEEN, and countless others would now have to seek out alternative means of expression.

* Read how COMET helped to encourage (and even salvage) my destiny as a creative artist.

LEE's 1980 epitaph
LEE's 1980 epitaph. 180th Street train yards, Bronx.

The 90's and beyond
Today, graffiti has spread across 6 of the 7 continents (Antarctica is just too damn cold!) and has made its way into the mainstream as an acceptable art form. Many of the great kings from the 70's & 80's have ventured into the commercial world of art shows, mural paintings and mass media. Today, we see graffiti imagery sprayed across album covers, video games, and beyond the realm of the real world into cyberspace. Hundreds (1000s?) of web sites have emerged from all parts of the globe. Also emerging are the many misconceptions about the art form which I attempt to tackle (below).

1) Graffiti is the product of illiterate juvenile delinquents

Not exactly. Though much of this present day art form evolved from the confines of the inner city, it does not mean those responsible were products of a broken family or an educational system gone astray. Graffiti has quickly been associated with "thug-life" simply because the internet is full of fallacies which are repeated over and over until eventually they appear genuine. While I was a graffiti writer, I did not come from a broken home, ever see the insides of a prison cell, nor drop out of school. The same goes for many other writers who now have careers as artists, businessmen, scholars, servicemen in the Armed Forces and government officials.

2) Graffiti is the product of the Hip-Hop culture

Wrong again. Though it appears that the music world (particularly Hip-Hop/Rap) has embraced facets of graffiti in their imagery and lyrics, it is not a by-product of such. During the early 70s, those who developed the art form were moved by the R&B sounds of MoTown, the trendy disco-pop themes ala "Saturday Night Fever" or from the metallic sounds of KISS and other bands. No one rapped. No one rhymed. NO ONE broke into a break-dance while piecing a train. MTV and record company execs are to blame for creating "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Graffiti had nothing to do with it.

It seems the primary misconception that these two entities are linked is due to the close proximity in which they developed. Both were nurtured and refined in the Bronx back in the 70s and indeed several early pioneers of Hip Hop were also graffiti writers but the two movements were independent of each other. Many old-school writers feel that the term "Hip Hop Graffiti" is an oxymoron - and rightly so. "Graffiti as a part of Hip Hop is as false as a Disney smile. It is a purchase, a fabrication, packaged for consumption."

3) Graffiti is alive and well today

The very heart of graffiti was in its risk. Risk of being caught - by the authorities or other rival writers. It was a game. A game played around live wires, darkened tunnels and dangerous machinery. When the illegal aspect of graffiti was taken away and made into a safe art form, the very essence of what was once "graffiti" greatly diminished. With much respect to all those who continue to paint walls, build websites, or create mass-media graffiti, I believe I speak for many from the old school that, while "Nu Yawk Style Graffiti" can be reproduced or imitated, it can never be "repeated."

So how did this crazy underground art form evolve into filmmaking? Well, it didn't happen overnight but after leaving NYC in 1983, I focused my zeal for creativity towards another art form [comic books] which became my first school of filmmaking. Many may not realize but comic books are basically a blueprint for film aka the "storyboard." Thanks to such Silver Age artists as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and modern artists like Frank Miller, I began to see how a story could be told visually.

Of course, comics aren't just pictures so I began to analyze the basics of storytelling by the man responsible for creating some of Marvelís greatest icons - Stan Lee. Eventually these two forms of visual and written expression merged and developed into a passion for photography and journalism. Some years later, I would once again review my objectives which lead me to film & video production and screenwriting. In more recent years, the process has further evolved into web design and web authoring. Its a never ending process it seems.

While the canvas has changed, the reasoning behind creating graffiti (then) and screenplays/films (now) is still one in the same. To mix "words" [graffiti = screenplay] with "motion" [subway train = film reel] to create an "e-motion."

Well, this ends the "Origins of a Filmmaker" tale. I thank you for reading and welcome your feedback. I'd also like to take this moment to dedicate this theater to all the writers of the I.R.T. (and those other lines) from back-in-the-day.

A can of paint.
A moving canvas.
An imagination gone wild.

...a simpler time.

BIG UPDATE: Hey graffiti fans! Check out THE CRAZY FIVE SCREENPLAY. Coming soon to a theater near you??

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