In 2014, New York City’s subway cars look mostly homogenous, with exteriors of blank steel and interiors decorated with the smiling faces of Venmo Lucas and Dr. Zizmor. But in the late 1970s, when the city was bankrupt and crime-ridden, subway cars were chaotic canvases for graffiti artists. With the constant threat of police raids or paint theft by rival crews, artists worked in conditions that resembled a war zone more than a studio.
Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now, a new book by Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins, presents the first-person accounts of 12 infamous graffiti writers of the 1970s. Going by their easily taggable code names–Bil Rock, Breezer, Daze, Jon One, Kel, KR, Lady Pink, Sak, Sharp, Skeme, Spin, and Team–these artists told their stories to Jenkins, a journalist and former graffiti writer. Illustrating their accounts are photographer Henry Chalfant’s panoramic images of painted trains, which he made by taking overlapping shots along a train’s length. “There’s a story to go with every painting,” Chalfant writes in the book. Between 1977 and 1984, Chalfant took trips every weekend to the elevated stations on the 2 and 5 train lines in the Bronx, eventually gaining the trust of graffiti writer crews and accumulating more than 800 photographs of subway art.
Graffiti culture thrived in the city before the era of ubiquitous video surveillance and digital escapism. Writes Jenkins in “Of Kings and Blue-Collar Writers,” the book’s introductory essay:
Back when New York didn’t have much, the kids had to figure out what to do with themselves. This was before video games, before that black hole we call the World Wide Web emerged. The kids who ran through the cool fire hydrant blasts that sprayed temporary relief in the tar-boiling summers were adventurers, explorers, archaeologists, Picassos, and to a certain extent—ahem, cough cough–vandals. What do bored big-city kids do when they’re looking for swashbuckling adventures inside a concrete jungle? They write their names inside subway trains and, eventually, on the exteriors of said trains.
At its loudest, graffiti writing offers a window into how lettering uses shape, line, and color to communicate. These artists, called “kings,” created a kind of typographic language of the streets. As Jenkins puts it:
That arrow, that #1 with the curly flourish that makes the digit look like a capital “L” in script, that smooth halo that lives above a signature and protects it, that drippy star that resides to the left and right of a signature: these are accoutrements that scream, ‘I am here. You can’t ignore me. I am different. I stand out. I am the best. Battle me and you will be defeated. Test me at your own risk.’
Tags turned into guerrilla logos of sorts, “as familiar as the Colgate and Afro Sheen advertisements often seen hugging the side of a crosstown bus,” Jenkins writes. “Their ‘brands’ would become household names, while the expression itself would evolve, growing from stylized signatures to full-blown Technicolor dreamscapes.” They worked in ad hoc mediums, like markers made from “your mother’s deodorant and the eraser from your math class.”
Here, the work of five 1970s New York City’s “kings” and snippets of their stories, from the time Jean-Michel Basquiat tagged a train yard while high on peyote to Lady Pink’s tales of stealing paint and sneaking out bedroom windows in Queens.
Hailing from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Bil Rock led the Rolling Thunder Writers, a crew that became “one of the most respected collectives ever in [all] modes of aerosol expression,” as Jenkins puts it. Bil Rock tells of “the one time Jean-Michel [Basquiat] ever went to a train yard,” in the winter of ’78, at 214th Street. “Me and Jean-Michel were wacked out of our brains on peyote,” Rock says. “We bombed the trains–like an entire train, every car on the insides. I wish I had pictures of it.”
Born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, Lady Pink became the most iconic female graffiti artist in New York City. “Pink, however, has always been more interested in being an artist and writer first, stretching beyond the ‘female’ box that men have spent so much time constructing,” Jenkins writes. Her work explores surreal, otherworldly themes–spray-painted murals of dead rock stars’ gravestones; a pink Statue of Liberty with a monkey chained to her neck.
Starting in junior high school, Lady Pink would escape out her bedroom window in Queens, jump 10 feet to the ground with a bag of paint, and meet her friends in subway tunnels in the middle of the night–then sneak back in before her mother woke up. “I was completely uncontrollable as a teenager,” she says. “I was awesome at stealing paint–I could go into a shop and walk out with 14 cans . . . The feminist movement was catching up with me. Us girls were busy proving we could do anything the guys could do and there was no stopping us.”
While growing up first in Crown Heights, then Roosevelt Island, Daze was a comic-book art fanatic. This later turned him into a student at New York’s famous LaGuardia High School of Art & Design by day and a graffiti writer by night. He describes the high-pressure, hit-and-run process of graffiti writing: “There are all these different elements you’ve got to contend with when you go to the train yard. You go there with an outline and you hope to pull something off that’s acceptable. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Every time I went to a lay-up, it was trial and error. I came close to getting caught many times; there were a lot of chases, but I was never actually caught.”
Jon One became obsessed with graffiti writing while commuting to high school every day. “I would look around and read the writing on the trains: tags by Quik, Zephyr, Rasta, Mackie, SE 3, Futura. It felt like those guys had brands,” he says. He trained himself by imitating their tags. “Imitate, imitate, imitate. I used to fill my notebooks and schoolbooks with their tags.” Soon, he was creating wild works that “reflected on shoddy politics and the side effects of angel dust,” Jenkins writes.
Decades after its golden age, graffiti art has become commercialized. Clothing brands like Stussy have co-opted New York’s homegrown lettering style–and individual artists’ brands–to sell t-shirts. “Companies are using [graffiti] to promote their labels, to promote their products,” Jon One says. “It has become a business.”
“Definitely a high, without even being high,” Kel, who grew up in the South Bronx and took his name from his love of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, says of sneaking into train yards and tagging cars. In high school–“two or three times a day, 365 days a year”–Kel would visit the Writer’s Bench, in the Bronx at Grand Concourse, where “the who’s who of the graf community” hung out. He describes the bench as a social network: “There were so many writers at the bench–easily 50 or so, at any given time.” Then he’d paint every night after his mom cooked him dinner, leaving the house and sneaking into train yards around 10 o’clock, after transit workers finished cleaning and collecting the garbage. Kel wasn’t allowed to keep paint or markers in the house–“We didn’t have extra money to buy that stuff,” and he couldn’t tell his mother he’d stolen the supplies–but Kel thinks his mother secretly “found it exciting, seeing her son’s paintings on the trains.”
Click the slide show above for the work of seven more subway artists.
Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now is available from Thames & Hudson here for $15.