All photos by Chris Kennedy
Writer's Block is a frequent column that takes a low-brow approach to profiling various street bombers and modern-day vandals with a mixture of stories, off-the-cuff interviews, and never-before-seen pictures.
It was early afternoon on a Saturday last October when I found myself in the parking lot of Pumps, a seedy strip club in Brooklyn that I used to frequent before they changed the age requirement to 25. I wasn't there to see some titties; I was waiting to meet Sabe—the veteran graffiti writer and New York thoroughbred who gained notoriety in the early 90s for pushing a new style that embraced images over words.
Just as I started to become nostalgic with the fond memories of college girls and C-section scars, Sabe approached me. He was with Kaze, a long time affiliate and fellow KST crew member. Once we were all acquainted, we started to make our way to a spot they've been keen on redecorating—a highway underpass with massive sheet metal fences.
To most people this trek might seem like a hassle, but for someone like Sabe, it's business as usual. Within the last couple of years, he's painted in Beirut, explored the volatile nature of spray cans through conceptual vandalism, graced the cover of Dune magazine, and is close to compiling an anime blackbook wherein heavy hitters like KAWS and Reas will have their long exposure tags come to life on an authentic anime storyboard.
As we headed deeper and deeper into an industrial area rife with Chinese takeout factories and box trucks, blue collar workers turned a blind eye to the vandals who were catching some of their signature one-flow tags. Sabe told me about the time he jumped off a three-story building in DC, when he and Kaze bombed the Bowery Mural during the 2012 blackout, and the time he got shot with an assault rifle over a writing beef.
VICE: When did you start writing graffiti?
Sabe: I started writing in 1992. I left home at a really early age—I was 14. School wasn't an option, and that's how I was able to write so much. I had no real authority or supervision. I was free to do whatever I wanted, and writing on walls was one of those things.
Why is that?
At first, I did it to defy authority. Laws against graffiti were so lenient at the time, so I also did it because I could. After trains died out in the 80s, street bombing really started to pick up.
Can you describe the transition that took place?
I think the sociological and technological advancement of the 90s had a hand in the way we started to paint, we had Street Fighter and pirated cellphones—it was a whole different world than it was in the 80s. Other writers started to embrace graffiti outside the yard.
Which ones in particular were really pushing the new street bombing movement?
In my opinion, Joz and Easy laid the foundation and formula for what we call street bombing today. They were just bringing it non-stop to every hood and other writers were following suit.
When you first started getting up, you were recognized because of the character you drew. What was the thought process behind that?
I thought that painting a character could be more effective in the long run since people tend to resonate with pictures more than words. I use to draw that face in blackbooks and eventually I hit the streets with it. The more I painted it, the more it took on a life of its own.
Aside from commodification, how has the game changed since?
A lot of the writers I grew up with gave it up for different reasons. Either they can't get up in the middle of the night to go bombing, or they have a job or family, or can't afford to get locked up. I think it's a privilege that I'm able to keep writing, so I exercise that liberty whenever I can. Probably the most notable change is the drastic drop in violence. Looking back, I was involved in some pretty serious beefs back then.
A friend of mine cut this other kid's ear off with hatchet over some graffiti nonsense. I was 17 at the time and we lived together in a two-story house in the Bronx. He was one of those kids who didn't really think about the consequences of his actions and didn't make a big deal about it. But, I knew for a fact that this kid would come around eventually, so I went out and came back with an M16 assault rifle.
How'd you manage that?
A mutual friend put me in touch with a friend of his. He let me borrow the rifle which was stolen from a military base. The guy literally had an empty apartment full of guns and grenades. This was in 1995.
This doesn't seem so far-fetched. This kid ever come looking for closure?
Yeah, sure enough. And the kid came with his crew. I went outside to talk to them since my friend wanted a fair fight with the kid, but they kept insisting on jumping him. So he grabbed the rifle and lit up the whole block from the top of our stoop. It was like a movie. Everybody started hitting the corner and I ran down the block until I felt this cold heat.
So you caught a stray?
Yeah… Once everyone scattered and I saw the blood, I knew I was shot. And once my friend realized he just ran—he threw the gun in the backyard and took off. When the police discovered the weapon, his prints were all over it and he ended up doing two years. Like I said, he never really thought anything through. Luckily the bullet missed my heart and got lodged in my solar plexus.
Did you reevaluate your involvement in graffiti around this time?
Not really. The only thing that's been almost successful in convincing me to stop writing [is a woman]. A woman can really break a man in that respect. There was a period in the early 2000s where I practically stopped bombing in order to focus on other art projects.
Tell me about your time abroad.
I've painted all over—places like Beirut, Manila, and Tokyo. It was different you know. For example, in Beirut, there's no laws against graffiti. As long as you don't write on nice things they don't care. When I got stopped by the military, they were more concerned about me taking pictures of them than the writing. The cops have worse things to worry about like car bombings and assassinations.
What's the fine line between art and graffiti, especially in places like Beirut where a lot of their vandalism is politically driven?
They're totally different things, but they intersect at various points. I think speed is the essential theme in my other works. For example, when I used that method for a series of paintings I did on vans, the work had the energy and visceral effectiveness of street bombing, but it also has the aesthetic as a "piece" of art in terms of color and composition.