Extreme Graffiti

Xanax and dust 40 feet up, inside NYC subway tunnels, and "fucking up the city" (Continued)

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WHEN JA TALKS ABOUT GRAFFITI, HE'S reluctant to offer up any of the media-ready cliches about the culture (and he knows most of them). He's more inclined to say, "Fuck the graffiti world," and scoff at graf shops, videos, conventions and 'zines. But he can be sentimental about how he began -- riding the No. 1, 2 and 3 trains when he was young, bugging out on the graffiti-covered cars, asking himself, "How did they do that? Who are they?" And he'll respectfully invoke the names of long-gone writers he admired when he was just starting out: SKEME, ZEPHYR, REVOLT, MIN.

JA, typical of the new school, primarily bombs, covering wide areas with throw-ups. He treats graffiti less as an art form than as an athletic competition, concentrating on getting his tag in difficult-to-reach places, focusing on quantity and working in defiance of an aesthetic that demands that public property be kept clean. (Writers almost exclusively hit public or commercial property.)

And when JA is not being cynical, he can talk for hours about the technique, the plotting, the logistics of the game like "motion bombing" by clockwork a carefully scoped subway train that he knows has to stop for a set time, at a set place, when it gets a certain signal in the tunnels. He says, "To me, the challenge that graffiti poses, there's something very invigorating and freeing about it, something almost spiritual. There's a kind of euphoria, more than any kind of drug or sex can give you, give me . . . for real."

JA says he wants to quit, and he talks about doing it as if he were in a 12-step program. "How a person in recovery takes it one day a time, that's how I gotta take it," he says. You get burnt out. There's pretty much nothing more the city can throw at me; it's all been done." But then he'll hear about a yard full of clean sanitation trucks, the upcoming Puerto Rican Day Parade (a reason to bomb Fifth Avenue) or a billboard in an isolated area; or it'll be 3 a.m., he'll be stoned, driving around or sitting in the living room, playing NBA Jam, and someone will say it: "Yo, I got a couple of cans in the trunk. . . ." REAS, an old-school writer of 12 years who, after a struggle and a number of relapses, eventually quit the life, says, "Graffiti can become like a hole you're stuck in; it can just keep on going and going, there's always another spot to write on."

SAST is in his late 20s and calls himself semiretired after 13 years in the graf scene. He still carries around a marker with him wherever he goes and cops little STONE tags (when he's high, he writes, STONED). He's driving JA and me around the city one night, showing me different objects they've tagged, returning again and again to drug spots to buy dust and crack, smoking, with the radio blasting; he's telling war stories about JA jumping onto moving trains, JA hanging off the outside of a speeding four-wheel drive. SAST is driving at top speed, cutting in between cars, tailgating, swerving. A number of times as we're racing down the highway, I ask him if he could slow down. He smiles, asks if I'm scared, tells me not to worry, that he's a more cautious driver when he's dusted. At one point on the FDR, a car cuts in front of us. JA decides to have some fun.

"Yo, he burnt you, SAST," JA says. We start to pick up speed. "Yo, SAST, he dissed you, he cold dissed you, SAST." SAST is buying it, the look on his face becoming more determined as we go 70, 80, 90 miles an hour, hugging the divider, flying between cars. I turn to JA, who's in the back seat, and I try to get him to stop. JA ignores me, sitting back perfectly relaxed, smiling, urging SAST to go faster and faster, getting off, my fear adding to his rush.

At around 4 a.m., SAST drops us off on the middle of the Manhattan Bridge and leaves. JA wants to show me a throw-up he did the week before. We climb over the divider from the roadway to the subway tracks. JA explains that we have to cross the north and the southbound tracks to get to the outer part of the bridge. In between there are a number of large gaps and two electrified third rails, and we're 135 feet above the East River. As we're standing on the tracks, we hear the sound of an oncoming train. JA tells me to hide, to crouch down in the V where two diagonal braces meet just beside the tracks.

I climb into position, holding on to the metal beams, head down, looking at the water as the train slams by the side of my body. This happens twice more. Eventually, I cross over to the outer edge of the bridge, which is under construction, and JA points out his tag about 40 feet above on what looks like a crow's-nest on a support pillar. After a few moments of admiring the view, stepping carefully around the many opportunities to fall, JA hands me his cigarettes and keys. He starts crawling up one of the braces on the side of the bridge, disappears within the structure for a moment, emerges and makes his way to an electrical box on a pillar. Then he snakes his way up the piping and grabs on to a curved support. Using only his hands he starts to shimmy up; at one point he's hanging almost completely upside down. If he falls now, he'll land backward onto one of the tiers and drop into the river below. He continues to pull himself up, the old paint breaking off in his hands, and finally he flips his body over a railing to get to the spot where he tagged. He doesn't have a can or a marker with him, and at this point graffiti seems incidental. He comes down and tells me that when he did the original tag he was with two writers; one he half carried up, the other stopped at a certain point and later told JA that watching him do that tag made him appreciate life, being alive.

We walk for 10 minutes along a narrow, grooved catwalk on the side of the tracks; a thin wire cable prevents a fall into the river. A few times, looking down through the grooves, I have to stop, force myself to take the next step straight ahead, shake off the vertigo. JA is practically jogging ahead of me. We exit the bridge into Chinatown as the sun comes up and go to eat breakfast. JA tells me he's a vegetarian.

IF YOU TALK TO SERIOUS GRAFFITI writers, most of them will echo the same themes; they decry the commercialization of graf, condemn the toys and poseurs and alternately hate and feel attached to the authorities who try to stop them. They say with equal parts bravado and self-deprecation that a graffiti writer is a bum, a criminal, a vandal, slick, sick, obsessed, sneaky, street-smart, living on edges figurative and literal. They show and catalog cuts and scars on their bodies from razor wire, pieces of metal, knives, box cutters. I once casually asked a writer named GHOST if he knew another writer whose work I had seen in a graf'zine. "Yeah, I know him, he stabbed me," GHOST replies matter-of-factly. "We've still got beef." SET tells me he was caught by two DTs (detectives) who assaulted him, took his cans of paint and sprayed his body and face. JA tells similar stories of police beatings for his making officers run after him, of cops making him empty his spray cans on his sneakers or on the back of a fellow writer's jacket. JD has had 48 stitches in his back and 18 in his head over "graffiti-related beef." JA's best friend and writing partner, SANE SMITH, a legendary all-city writer who was sued by the city and the MTA for graffiti, was found dead, floating in Jamaica Bay. There's endless speculation in the grafworld as to whether he was pushed, fell or jumped off a bridge. SANE is so respected, there are some writers today who spend time in public libraries reading and rereading the newspaper microfilm about his death, his arrests, his career. According to JA, after SANE's death, his brother, SMiTH, also a respected graffiti artist, found a piece of paper on which SANE had written his and JA's tag and off to the side, FLYING HIGH THE XTC WAY. It now hangs on JA's apartment wall.

One morning, JA and I jump off the end of a subway platform and head into the tunnels. He shows me hidden rooms, emergency hatches that open to the sidewalk, where to stand when the trains come by. He tells me about the time SANE lay face down in a shallow drainage ditch on the tracks as an express train ran inches above him. JA says anytime he was being chased by the police he would run into a nearby subway station, jump off the platform and run into the tunnels. The police would never follow. KET, a veteran graffiti writer, tells me how in the tunnels he would accidentally step on homeless people sleeping. They'd see him tagging and would occasionally ask that he "throw them up," write their names on the wall. He usually would. Walking in the darkness between the electrified rails as trains race by, JA tells me the story of two writers he had beef with who came into the tunnels to cross out his tags. Where the cross-outs stop is where they were killed by an approaching train.

The last time I go out with JA, SET and JD, they pick me up at around 2 am. We drive down to the Lower East Side to hit a yard where about 60 trucks and vans are parked next to one another. Every vehicle is already covered with throw-ups and tags, but the three start to write anyway, JA in a near frenzy. They're running in between the rows, crawling under trucks, jumping from roof to roof, wedged down in between the trailers, engulfed in nauseating clouds of paint fumes (the writers sometimes blow multicolored mucous out of their noses), going over some writers' tags, respecting others, JA throwing up SANE's name, searching for any little piece of clean space to write on. JA, who had once again been talking about retirement, is now hungry to write and wants to hit another spot. But JD doesn't have any paint, SET needs gas money for his car, and they have to drive upstate the next morning to appear in court for a paint-theft charge.

During the ride back uptown the car is mostly quiet, the mood depressed. And even when the three were in the truck yard, even when JA was at his most intense, it seemed closer to work, routine, habit. There are moments like this when they seem genuinely worn out by the constant stress, the danger, the legal problems, the drugging, the fighting, the obligation to always hit another spot. And it's usually when the day is starting.

About a week later I get a call from another writer whom JA had told I was writing an article on graffiti. He tells me he has never been king, never gone all city, but now he is making a comeback, coming out of retirement with a new tag. He says he could do it easily today because there is no real competition. He says he was thinking about trying to make some money off of graffiti -- galleries. canvases, whatever . . . to get paid.

"I gotta do something," the writer says. "I can't rap, I can't dance, I got this silly little job." We talk more, and he tells me he appreciates that I'm writing about writers, trying to get inside the head of a vandal, telling the real deal. He also tells me that graffiti is dying, that the city is buffing it, that new writers are all toys and are letting it die, but it's still worth it to write.

I ask why, and then comes the inevitable justification that every writer has to believe and take pleasure in, the idea that order will always have to play catch-up with them. "It takes me seconds to do a quick throw-up; it takes them like 10 minutes to clean it," he says. "Who's coming out on top?"