5/24/10 – Writing on the Walls Again

May 26 ,2010

I wanted to reminisce about the days of my youth in Philly and the inner city youth culture which I grew up in. I was especially thinking of the days and times of the graffiti writers.

I became a teenager in Philly in the 80’s and so that’s where my journey in life and manhood began. I truly think that young people come into themselves around the age of 15 and so those early teenage years I spent really had an impact on who I am, what I do and what I like today. In my crew there was always something new every year. It went, Basketball, Skateboarding, Break Dancing back to Skateboarding, B-ball and Hip Hop, back again to skateboarding, graffiti writing, city biking, and then music, the interest of which was definitely fueled by marijuana and the spirit of teenage rejection of the “normal” path in life. I could definitely write a whole story on each phase and I guess I will but today I’ve been itching to write about my days as an aspiring and unfortunately, lousy graffiti writer.

Kadism, LM, Spel, Braze, Espo, Sere, Mr. Blint, Credit, Daze, Soda, Mesk, Tok and Clad, Cub, Cem, Bose, NM, Dane, Meez, Baka, Chicago, Lover, ICY, i2i, WP, NP, SP the list goes on and on. These were the names of the hustling, Philly kids, crews and neighborhoods whose tags literally coated the poor walls of Philadelphia.

A new kid whose name was Jeff came to my school in 8th grade. Jeff, wrote Cub, and he was from the rough and tough streets across the Schukyll River, West Philly. From him we learned where to score 40s of Bartles & James wine coolers and Crazy Horse, buy spray paint as minors, get Trizzy’s (fake SEPTA transpasses to ride the subway for free), sneak into the underground and of course pick a graffiti name. Jeff spent a whole math class demonstrating numerous styles to practice writing my tag over and over and over again. During Math, English, History and any other class where we had a pen and a piece of paper, we were steady tagging loose leaf.

I was never such a good artist, but the little hand that I do have was from practicing my tag. I wrote LOOK. I sucked! I wrote that word hundreds of times a day. Skateboarding had been cool but this was a whole new level of rebellion and expression, a purpose to sneaking around. It was catching too. There were probably 5-10 of us at school who wrote and we had a small school. Graffitti was such a huge, huge problem in Philly in the 80s. It was costing the city money, lots and lots of money to clean up.

There were laws passed so minors couldn’t buy spray paint or fat paint pens and magic markers without an adult. We would have to go to the art supply store and get a stranger to buy paint for us like it was beer or just lift it. My boy Fed (who is now my manager!) and I, found a paint supplier, an old timer, Mr. Zinny, who would sell us paint. Mr. Zinny was an old Italian shopkeeper who had a small, dusty, disorganized art supply store on the 1600 block of Pine St. We would go in, these 2 the innocent looking 15 year old boys, and convince Mr. Zinny that we needed spray paint for this and that. He would always say, “You kids are good kids right? Yous ain’t writing graffiti right?” and we would say, “Of course not Mr. Zinny, that’s just awful, we would never do that, this is for art class!”

I will never forget the nervous pit in my stomach sitting in my room on a Friday night, listening to the Beastie Boys “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” blaring on my crappy stereo. My little sister having a sleepover, my parents getting ready to go out to dinner and me getting ready to meet my boys on South St. to stalk the streets, drink Jolt cola and write our names on the walls.

There was this old abandoned building on 22nd St. right by the commuter rail line…its condos now but back then it was simply known as The Factory. We would skate, bike or bus it uptown and meet up there. Climbing up the gutted stairways of the trash infested shell of a building, probably breathing asbestos and all kinds of shit, we would kick it on the rooftop. Hanging wide eyed by the water tower coughing on cigarettes and trying to fit in with the best writers in town. It was there I smoked weed for the first time. It was around those tracks we would run from the cops, paint cans and markers jangling like a hundred keys in our pockets, ditching and running. Writing for a while, a can of paint or two, then heading off to Rittenhouse Sq to drink 40’s in the park or our friend’s parent’s lux apartment.

You could control the flow of the paint from a spray paint can by switching the cap. It was always the thing to do after school, go raid the hardware and grocery store for fat caps and thin caps. The caps would be on cans of cleaners. Just wait till no one was around pop the cap in your pocket and nonchalantly put the can of Marble Magic back on the shelf. Back then you could hardly buy a can of aerosol based cleaner that had a cap left on it. My parents freaked out in utter confusion when they discovered an Altoids tin full of turpentine and paint caps in my desk. Oh shit. We had this big sit down. They were asking me how I used these caps. They were certain I was doing drugs with them. They though I was huffing gas or something crazy. I could barely keep a straight face. I just told them they were a collection of caps, “everyone collects them Dad!” If he only knew… My Dad was not cool with breaking the law trust me.

One day on the train tracks we ran into Mesk, Tok and Clad. A 3 man crew that had a lot of rep, tags everywhere. I swear it was like seeing a famous person. Another time, I was riding the 42 bus and scratching up the back window with a rock (this was called a scratch tag, a wonderful way to permanently ruin a pane of glass). On the bus jumps Kenny Meez and LM. LM was one of the most famous writers. He was a dirty little Puerto Rican kid with a mullet and a bad attitude. He probably had a knife but I felt I could kick his ass. I was probably wrong. Kenny Meez was a kid I knew from hanging around Spikes Skates back in the day. Kenny was a real nice guy, a freestyle skateboarder the last time I saw him, now he was just an asshole. He came right up to me and asked me did I write LOOK. He acted like he didn’t even know me from skating to impress LM. I said yeah, “I’m Look”, he went on to accuse me of crossing out a scratch tag of his on the D bus. This of course was total bullshit…trust me, I never have been and never will be the type of kid to start beef. I said I didn’t do it and they warned me not to do it again saying I was bullshit and all this and that. LM busted a scratch tag and they rolled off the bus.

This was a kind of dangerous spit to be in for me because the kids from the real hood were tough and the kids from the city, nice and good skateboarding kids, were starting to try act real tough and here I was, a real nice kid that was all tall and lanky, the perfect target for someone who wanted to start shit just to prove they were tough. Luckily, I’ve always been quite adept at reasoning my way out of potentially violent confrontations. Later that week I ran into Sere on the R8 commuter train in Germantown and told him my predicament. I told him I was pretty sure I could, if forced to, kick the shit out of Meez and that he should tell Meez I was innocent and that Meez and his mulleted sidekick should leave me the fuck alone. Sere was real cool and agreed that Meez was just starting shit for no reason. He said he would talk to him. Sere was a dope piecer a real art kid so he got respect. That was the end of that.

Anyways, so many stories and crazy nights. Finally, my good friend Soda who is a gifted artist, got into writing and he put some huge pieces with all of our names up on the Wall of Fame on I76. It was like we made the big time man! The pieces were buffed a couple weeks later but our shit was up there with the best. And they looked damn good too. It was like we were famous for a second.

When my interests mellowed towards marijuana, music and basketball I still never lost the habit of writing my tag and I still do it to this day. Later my tag became G. Love and Special Sauce and I made sure to write that shit everywhere.

Some of the Philly writers we grew up with have become profound artists check out ESPO. Just Google Steve Powers, his paintings sell for big money now and he is widely collected and shown around the world. Also Sere aka Barnaby Furnas is huge and widely shown gallery and museum artist. My boy Soda did art at Lost surfboards and made a bunch of our early shirts (the famous Lemonade girl was a design of his). A lot of the writers went into music. Bose became a producer, Meez became a DJ; Cem, became a DJ as well, he actually did the cuts on our track “Dreamin”.

As I’ve grown up and started collecting art, my tastes still favor the street-smart art of the refined graffiti writers, people like Shepard Fairy, Banksy, Greg Haberny and Steve Powers. I wrote a song about it on the G. Love “Oh Yeah” record called, “Writing on the Walls”. My parents were utterly ashamed and disappointed when they realized I was de facing public property and now as a tax payer looking back I see their point…but, I wouldn’t give up those high anxiety times for a second. These days where ever I go I’m always scoping out the graffiti and the street art. True, some is just scribble but most of it is the colorful voice of the youth splashing our concrete jungles with vision and expression.

“Cap my can, my paint in hand, I’m writing on the walls again…”

Peace!

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