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The Crime Issue

The VICE Guide to New York Graffiti

New York's graffiti scene in 2001 is made up of some of the most reckless drug users in America.

Photos by Ryan McGinely

These are the people I’m here to profile, but do I have to do it now? Anyway, I hear a rumor that Sacer has fled to Texas, where Dubya stands on the TV in front of me.

As we watch the Knicks game, a stream of Jersey boys revolve through the apartment. They all talk in advanced homese so sometimes I feel like a visitor from a foreign country, which I suppose I am. Whenever the door buzzer rings you have to be careful to see who it is. A couple of weeks ago the cops busted in during the night and dragged Ryan down to central booking for some outstanding warrants. He got into a little altercation during his day and a half jail visit, from which he is still sporting a bandage on his hand, and says he doesn’t want to ever repeat the experience. We finally drag ourselves out of the apartment at 3AM and go to a neighborhood dive gay bar where we encounter a fag who works for Honcho, the porn mag to which I frequently contribute. That’s where my memory ends. The next day I go to the excellent fag novelist Bruce Benderson’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. party, but I’m pretty burned out so I leave at around 11PM. On my arrival back at the apartment, who should I find but Ryan, Sacer, Earsnot and Marc, all in full party mode. The first thing that catches your eye when you see these kids is gold. Gold fronts, gold chains with gold tanks hanging off them and gold rings. Bling bling. After that it’s an expensive combination of high end Gucci hats and low end Nike Uptowns. They are all very high. Well, when in Rome, do coke, special K, Vicodin and Budweiser, I always say. Semen drops by and, as it’s his birthday, we’re compelled to get even higher. We’re watching the patterns you can create by playing CDs on a Sega Playstation, an option, I was just reading in the newspaper, developed in cahoots with NASA scientists to control the brainwaves of hyperactive children, which most, if not all, graffiti writers surely are. The song we’re playing, appropriately, is “Paint it Black.” I decide it’s time to clean up their act so, with a shaky hand, I reshave Sacer’s hair into a Mr. T modified Mohawk in the bathroom as Ryan snaps photos. Sacer is nineteen, married, diminutive and cute as a fucking button, with epic tattooage and a killer smile. The first night I met him he and Earsnot snuck me into a very exclusive Ford model party at Lotus, where Kate Moss was spinning (she was also DJing). Sacer bought me drinks and told me about his tragic life, something about his parents dying in a bizarre ritualistic murder-suicide when he was a kid. Earsnot also filled me in on his sordid past, but I got the feeling that their personal bios are as fluid and transient as their tags. Earsnot is tall and handsome and has a big smile, but has been passed out about 73 percent of the time I’ve seen him. He’s a fag and has a preference for that burly, hairy, 40-plus subgenus known as the “bear.” He hibernates in the Bronx with just such a noble creature. The fact that both Ryan and Earsnot are openly fag in the circles in which they travel is pretty remarkable, but it’s something you don’t really think about when you hang with them because they are so unfaggy. There’s a certain amount of machismo in the graffiti world. If you paint over another writer’s tag or write “toy” over it, the ultimate dis, you better be prepared to drop your paint cans and put up your dukes. And most writers aren’t really down with the gay thing, so it’s pretty brave for this crew to be so “fuck you” about it, even though only one of their members is a card-carrying faggot. Sacer and Ryan and I amble on up to the roof to get some fresh air. Ryan is covered in a multicolored Indian blanket, looking like a cross between Howard Beale, Tiny Tim and the cutest white homeboy ever. Sacer is in tout camouflage and with his Mr. T do resembles a hot militia member. With a can of Bud in his hand,Sacer jumps up on the front ledge of the building and peers seven floors down into the black abyss as Ryan and I snap pictures. As Sacer dances and prances and does a jig on the precipice of death, I discover I don’t have the stomach for this. For a moment I think it’s a classic case of the Heisenberg principle—the presence of a “journalist” influencing the behavior of his subject, causing him to take risks in a way he normally wouldn’t—but then I realize I’m flattering myself. The adrenaline, the flirtation with death or jail or bodily harm, is as natural for these kids as peeing. Sacer is poised to lob a snowball at a passing car fifty feet below and as I fear that the momentum of the throw will send him over, I choose to retreat back to the apartment. I wait in anticipation for Ryan to come running down from the roof yelling that Sacer has gone over, is gone forever, but after a few minutes the two of them come stumbling into the room laughing. Ha ha. The next night we all end up at a trendy place where, at various points in the evening, I see George Stephanopolous, a woman who looks like Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, three Hell’s Angels with some loose models and a bunch of young artists and spraypainters. Sacer is underage, but he’s drinking for free and we’re doing lines right off the tables. Believe it or not, there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on that I can’t even write about, but ultimately, on the way home, a member of the Irak crew who shall remain nameless accidentally on purpose torches a huge bundle of Christmas trees propped up on the street in front of the bar. The flames are shooting twenty or thirty feet high as Ryan and I snap photos. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me, but after someone calls 911, Ryan convinces us that we should bust out fast so we hop in a cab and book. Dismissing the little incident as a harmless prank, we go to a friend’s restaurant and drink wine till the wee hours. At one point I get all weepy thinking of Sacer last night on the roof, plummeting into the void, supernova-ing. He pats my shoulder consolingly. He’s too beautiful a soul in an ugly world to burn out like that, but I suppose that’s why his life has to be constantly on the verge of sacrifice to make that point. The next day, Ryan and I go to check out the damage outside the bar. Apparently a car caught fire and may have slightly exploded or something. It does look a little charred, like something you might have seen in Beirut in the 70s. The Irak crew member in question has to get out of town before sundown, heading, appropriately, south of the border into the sunset. So I guess that’s the end of my reportage. I have accompanied the kids on bombing expeditions before and it’s pretty much what you might expect. Every square inch of the city is a potential target for their tags, every store a wealth of free goods. At this point their behavior is compulsive, an addiction and definitely not something that they can articulate, nor should they be expected to. I see them as antibodies attacking the infections of the modern world: corporatization, materialism, brainwashing, conformity, mass indifference. Graffiti is one of the last forms of rebellion left, and it looks pretty, so shut up. I call the refugee Irak pyromaniac in Texas and he’s having a helluva time. He’s bombed some major billboards and at least sixty railroad cars. And he’s bringing me back a pillowcase full of pills from Mexico. So shut up.