What Happens When a Legendary Graffiti Writer Grows Up
SKUF YKK, who achieved fame for his style and the ubiquity of his work in New York City, has transcended the beefs of his youth to become an elder statesman of sorts.
Writer's Block is a semi-regular column about graffiti legends, street bombers, and vandals with a mixture of stories, off-the-cuff interviews, and never-before-seen pictures. This article originally appeared on VICE US
Over the course of the 90s, New York City graffiti completed its move from the subways to the streets. Increasingly criminalized and vilified, illegal graffiti became more gritty and less colorful, as writers faced grater risks attempting the kinds of elaborate pieces that defined the best of 70s and 80s subway graffiti. But they adapted and learned to make do with less, further perfecting the practice of bombing with razor-sharp tags, quick and crisp outlines, and stylish two-color throw-ups. SKUF YKK, a proud Bushwick native from a large Puerto Rican family, emerged as one of the leading figures of that era.
Among his peers, SKUF earned distinction for his style and the ubiquity of his work across the city. The graffiti formula is simple: quality x quantity x risk = respect. His tag is instantly recognizable by the swooping curve of his letter 'S,' which draws in the eye, while his throw-up is marked by the tension between the somewhat flattened 'S' and the bulging, elongated 'F' that is resolved by the tightly rendered 'K' and 'U,' creating balance, flow, and a distinctive sharpness. For years, his name could be seen all over the city, and the beef he was embroiled in as a member of the notorious YKK crew with their rivals in DMS is the stuff of New York legend.
Twenty years after he arrived on the scene, SKUF, who recently turned 40, has turned his attention from the street to the academy as an administrator at the Brooklyn art school Pratt in order to help write and teach the history of NYC graffiti. He is working on creating new courses that examine the influence of graffiti aesthetics on fashion, and recently hosted a panel at Pratt featuring a number of well-known former graffiti writers who now apply their skills to other creative trades. (He asked that we do not include his government name, though Pratt is aware of his past). I sat down with SKUF recently to talk about his experiences as a graffiti writer in New York, getting into and ending beef, growing older, and finding creative success.
VICE: How old were you when you first noticed graffiti?
SKUF: I was born into it. I'm the youngest out of four siblings. My older brother was a breakdancer and at that time hip-hop and graffiti was basically all one unit. I remember hanging out with my brother in the train station and his friends and peers pointing out what they saw. OE3 and P13 were like the gods. I was really young, I'm talking eight years old, and understood the concept.
Coming from a neighborhood, an oppressed community where there's a lot of poverty... [graffiti] gave people pride, gave them a superhero feeling, like, You're very important now. You're not just this kid from the hood trying to be something. [Graffiti] took everything away and made what was going on around you disappear. It could make you a king. I wanted to be that; I wanted that escape route.
How did you pick your name?
[Style master and graffiti legend] STAK FUA gave me the name SKUF in '91. The name that was handed down to me; I never chose it. It's funny, though. Eventually art imitates life: I ended up getting all these scars and getting cut up in all these major beefs, so it's like I'm really scuffed up now.
How important was graffiti for you to survive in your neighborhood?
It wasn't. It was totally at the bottom of the totem pole where I came from. It was laughed upon. I came from a block where people hustled a lot. Big time. Crack made its assault on the neighborhood and the reality is my cousins and people I grew up with were the ones involved in it. So they were like, "Why are you doing this? Come on, let's get this money, let's hustle!" I always had a hustling spirit and I always thought about how to make a dollar out of 15 cents. I was raised that way. [Graffiti] was frowned upon. I kept it secret. It's strange because for people from other communities, graffiti was at the top of the totem pole. "I'm a graffiti writer! I'm cool!" But where I came from it wasn't. It was like, You're gonna get into a beef over this?
Do you still feel strongly about some of the beef you were involved in with other writers?
Not at all. I can't picture myself caring about beef. I'm a grown man, I have a family to feed. I know what I've done in life. If somebody has an issue with me, that's their problem, they need to go talk to a psychologist about it and figure it out. Don't get me wrong—I'm not gonna let anyone put their hands on me, that's just ridiculous. And I'm not gonna let no one try to belittle me in any way, shape or form. But I'm not gonna be the one looking for it.
I'm a dad now. My child looks at everything I do and he's like a sponge. Picture me, I've got beef, it's like the silliest thing in the world. But again, I keep my gangsta in my back pocket when needed. That's just where I'm from, who I am.
Do you ever run into anyone you used to beef with and discover that you have more in common than you thought?
Oh yeah! Of course. I had major beef up in the Bronx with RYNO KGB. He's one of my close friends now. Just recently sorted out issues with DMS, which is like major in the New York City graff scene. This is beef before me and SKID [a prominent DMS crew member]. We're talking about thirty years, grandfathered in, I don't even know how it started. All I know is I always had beef with them and they always had beef with us.
That's a big deal—no more DMS vs YKK beef.
So far. I think it's a good thing. It's a problem that's been going on for years, so let's see how everybody feels themselves out. There's been bloodshed. I know firsthand how the bloodshed can have you harbor feelings for a long time. I've been on both ends of that.
We're not just talking about someone getting a black eye.
No, no. We're not just talking about that. It's deeper than that. A lot of people don't understand that. People have died over this. They're not seeing their parents anymore; they never have kids. I think in this new era, you get a real easy pass. I don't feel any negative energy towards [writers in the current era], it's just the cycle of life.
I think that the violence and all of that came from my background, my community, where I came from. I had this void that I didn't know how to fill. When I became a parent, everything changed. Even before, I decided to educate myself, go to college and change my life. I can't picture anybody that just turned forty talking about beef over graffiti.
Did you have mentors who taught you what it means to be a graffiti writer?
I learned a lot from STAK FUA, who definitely put the pieces of the puzzle together, graffiti-wise. I've learned a lot later in life from [gallerist] Hugo Martinez, business-wise. Just artistically, in a sense, he was the first to say, "You're an artist." I didn't get it. I was like, No, I'm a vandal. "No, you're an artist." It took a minute for me to absorb that. KET [AKA author, publisher, and curator Alan "KET" Maridueña], he's mentored me big time. Even my own peers. SPOT and NOX and KEZ, when we were kids we would compete with each other to step our game up, never really understanding that we had an audience. So all of this destruction and all of this style and all of this getting up was us really competing with each other. We had no idea that we had a big audience.
You and the writers you mentioned all have really good handstyles, which nowadays is becoming rare. How important is it to be able to write anything in your handstyle?
[Opens the bottom drawer of his desk to reveal reams of paper covered in lettering.] This is what I do. I doodle. We're all creative people, right? We wanna do something new and we wanna do something better, so we're constantly practicing to break the mold. It takes a second to bite and it takes a long time to create. I see where many styles come from. Some of these "top writers"—I know where your stuff came from, I've seen it before. But you have to respect the style master who actually stood there, doodled, and practiced all day to be different.
At the same time, you have to respect those who took this practice and took it to the street. Graff is about the street, or the train. About freedom. If you're not out there trying to risk it to express it, or looking for permission to do it, something is flawed. You're missing the pure essence of it. I'm not here trying to advocate vandalism or whatever, but we didn't ask for permission. Practice, hone your skills, and be different. Don't be afraid to flip something a certain way, as long as it's aesthetically pleasing and it matches... put it out there in the street. That's the drive of what makes you different than any other human being that just walks the street stuck to their iPhone all day.
How do you feel about the impact of social media on graff?
There's kids out there getting their feelings hurt over an argument on the internet—I don't get it. I was famous before the internet. I really had to put in work. I see those guys and they are not really putting in work and they put every little tag they do on the internet and then beef with each other over it on the internet. Are you serious? And they get emotions about how many likes, or who liked, or who followed, or who didn't follow—I don't know man, it's just too much mental energy to waste. I think it's good promotion when people get to see what you're doing, but it's not bombing, that's for sure.
There's been an explosion of permission murals in New York's neighborhoods. What does it mean to you to see street art murals in your neighborhood?
I like good art. Some of it's nice. BUT—street art is street art. Graffiti has culture. There are rules to this. There's bloodshed to this. There's incarceration behind this. Graffiti has changed people's lives in negative and in positive ways. Street art doesn't understand that. You just put something nice over a bunch of throw-ups and tags because it means nothing to you, but it means the world to us. That's where the problem lies.
I feel my way of fighting back in this situation is to hit them in the books, in the history books where these people are learning their art. Because a lot of these people who do these murals have gone to school. They're educated, they've taken art history classes, but apparently they didn't learn about us. We need to get writers in these books as contemporary artists and document this culture and make it part of the curriculum, so that people who learn this information can go out and teach the next generation about us, the same way we learn about Matisse and Picasso. We need to write our own history.
Speaking of which, can you tell me about how the Vandalizing Pratt panel come about?
Some of the guys in the panel—DASH, DONTAY, WANE, CES, and, of course, [moderator] KET—are people that I've known in the past and that have kinda mentored me on certain levels. I've learned from them and they've been in the art business way before me. These are the guys behind the scenes of a lot of what's going on in contemporary art, fashion, tattooing, and pop culture right now. Each one mastered his own craft and each of them does something completely different for a living, but it all stems from the same premise, which is [graffiti] writing.
My goal with the panel was to bring that to light, to show that this is a respectable trade, that we all can take from this trade that we've been part of and make a living and have creative and positive outlets. Because I see so many of my peers slip through the cracks and not make it—always the ones with this raw talent that's innate. You can't even learn this in school, and you've wasted it. It hurts me.
Not many people give back to the culture. I'm not an active writer anymore, but I love this culture. It's made me the man I am today. I learned a lot from it. I didn't know it was a creative outlet. I just knew that I was escaping my community. I knew where to place my name, advertising, guerrilla marketing, color comprehension, font mastery, so much that you could take from this, and I've been able to make a living of it.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.