In NYC, I’ve been watching graffiti ebb and flow since I was a kid. In fact, I was riding one the last 1970’s throwback subway cars one summer in the 80’s…traveling real slow on the “Jungle J” between Canal Street and East New York, Brooklyn…being bad, sweating with no AC…cars covered in graffiti, me covered in tattoos. Those were the days.
By the late 90’s and early 2000’s, “Graffiti Artist” became a colloquialism in New York: Once the rebellious expression of street kids scaling fences in the South Bronx, graffiti was moving into the mainstream arts culture. Chelsea galleries featured old-school graffiti artists, and museums like El Museo del Barrio had notable purveyors in their permanent collections.
What I love about street art is that, as it has entered the wider art scene in New York, it continues apace on the streets of every borough and around the world.
In order to bridge the distance between brick walls and steel subway cars, some ingenious graffiti artists are making their work accessible to people far beyond the city limits. To understand how this is possible and what it is about New York City that transcends generations and inspires both the artist and admirer of graffiti, I spoke with one of the best: Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro:
“I would never trade the time and place where I grew up in Astoria. I knew so many people, no matter where I went there was somebody who either knew me, or one of my brothers. I felt free and I think that sense of freedom influenced me in that when I saw graffiti art I just naturally and freely gravitated toward it.
Due to the location of the Astoria train line, I was able to view all of the MTA as opposed to guys who lived, let’s say all the way uptown in Manhattan or the Bronx. They would usually only pay attention to the lines coming through their neighborhood. I, on the other hand, only need to go from Broadway in Astoria to 59th and Lex, to 42nd Times Square and see the whole IRT division. To see the BMT division I didn’t need to go anywhere because all of the BMT lines switched tracks, so eventually the L, M, N and J all came through Astoria when those lines switched with the RR’s. For the IND’s…Steinway St and Q-Boro plaza had them all; the whole MTA within 5 miles of tracks. I absorbed it all and was influenced by the whole city.”
We spoke about the artists that influenced him and the uniqueness of NYC graffiti:
“[T]here were [s]o many great artists that I grew up watching. I was fortunate enough to see Don 1 Mafia, Dean, Son and Pro, Dondi, Seen, Blade, Kel 139, Cos 207, the RTW crew, Part, Chain3, KB TSS, Johnny “B”. It was a great education.
“[T]here def[initely] is a uniqueness in the graffiti that comes from NYC as opposed to other places… I think that style has spread so fast with the advent of the Internet and social media. I mean, I could do a piece in my backyard and post it and a kid in Australia could see it, literally minutes after completion. That amount of speed, traveling that distance is incredible. As opposed to when trains were being hit, the speed had to be in your eyes and brain to absorb a piece as it went by, stopped for a few minutes and then was gone.
NYC’s homegrown artists have the fact that they are from within the nucleus of graffiti writing’s origins. That may have an effect on the attitude and stylistically as well.”
I am in love with the miniature MTA trains he uses as canvases for his art. I had to know how he came up with the idea:
“I’ve been doing them for a really long time; since 1980. Someone gave me a freight train model as a gift and soon as I saw it I just thought wow!, this would look so cool with a mini piece on it; like a collectable of sorts. Everyone seems to like them and I certainly love painting them.”
I also had to know how all of the changes NYC has lived through over the past twenty years have affected him and his art form. He spoke with me about the changes, his likes and dislikes and the loss of the legendary 5 Pointz:
“I think it’s hard for any artist to really get by doing art for a living. There are so many talented people out there and sometimes it’s not only the pure talent that gets by, there are so many variables. Having to be able to actually afford to live in NYC is one battle; to sell your art to make that money to afford it; it’s an incredible battle. That fight may be one of the things that makes the creativity and expression flow.
[One of the changes I like about NYC today,] … is the Museum of The City of New York. I mention this because finally, a museum, in New York City has taken Graffiti Art and presented it as a true art form. This is a big deal. Being an original American art form, having a worldwide influence like no other art form before. It truly belongs in a museum; In NYC; where it was born.
Along with being an artist, I am also a musician. Playing drums for 30 years and seeing places like CBGB’s, the Limelight, the Cat Club, Tramps, Wetlands, Coney Island High, Bleeker Bob’s all disappear is quite disturbing. So much originality that also influenced the world was born in those places. It’s sad really. I thank God that was a part of all of that, but wish they were still happening.
[For example,] I am so proud to be a part of the history of 5 Pointz. I was lucky enough to paint there on many occasions. I started going there in the 90’s when it was still the Phun Phactory. It was truly an amazing place and I am very sad to see it go. I’ve interviewed its curator, my friend MERES 1 many times over the years. I would like to think that NYC would eventually have another place like it since graffiti history has its origins here. It would seem fitting. NYC invented what the world learned as Graffiti Art. I’d love to have another place like 5 Pointz to go to and paint freely. It’s a dream for many.”
Louie has recently completed a book, and it’s amazing and well worth a read if you are interested in the history of graffiti art. Here is some info he shared about the project:
“Don 1, The King From Queens, The Life story and photos of a Transit Graffiti Master is available now on Amazon and in mid-March in bookstores as well.
Don 1 Mafia (Masters Administration For Incredible Artists) was an amazing, very influential graffiti artist from Astoria, Queens. I grew up watching his pieces fly by in styles and colors that were way ahead of the pack. He wrote from 1973-77 and in that time frame influenced many soon to be top writers like Dondi, Daze, and Dean.
The book spans those years with over 200 never before seen photos taken by Don 1 himself using a 35 mm camera when he was majoring in photography at NYC ‘s H.S> of Art and Design.
You can learn more about Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro at: