Writer's Block

Painting the Iron Triangle, Queens’ Toxic Graffiti Paradise

Just behind Citi Field sits an industrial wasteland of abandoned garages and festering garbage. This is Willets Point, a.k.a. the "Iron Triangle," and it's become a playground for some of the most talented graffiti writers in NYC over the last few...

by Ray Mock
May 1 2016, 12:00am

Writer's Block is a semi-regular column that zeroes in on graffiti legends, street bombers, and modern-day vandals with a mixture of stories, off-the-cuff interviews, and never-before-seen pictures.

All photos by the author

Behind Citi Field in Queens, home of the New York Mets, sits an industrial wasteland. Once populated by over 100 bustling auto body shops and junkyards, an eerie quiet has now settled over its pothole-riddled streets. Overhead, planes take off from nearby LaGuardia. Seagulls scavenge in the rubble. The area is so heavily polluted from decades of run-off grease and oils that on bad days you feel like you'll get tuberculosis just from walking around and breathing in the air. But dig among the abandoned garages, piles of trash, and skeletal remains of cars and you'll find a treasure trove of tags, painted characters, and colorful, intricate letters forming an almost-natural bond with the desolate scenery. This is Willets Point, a.k.a. the "Iron Triangle," and it's become a playground for some of the most talented graffiti writers in New York City over the last few years.

This is nothing like 5Pointz, the late Long Island City graffiti mecca, which for better or worse was a tourist attraction and selfie spot. Casual enthusiasts have never come out to Willets Point, where, in contrast to 5Pointz, the graffiti is done without permission from property owners. For years, the area has been embroiled in a fight between developers, city government, and local merchants over what its future should be—the plan was to build a mall there, then affordable housing; now it seems like it will become a parking lot for LaGuardia Airport. In the process, the city has used eminent domain and buyouts to push out the businesses, creating a lot of abandoned and semi-abandoned buildings—a perfect graffiti canvas, in other words.

The Triangle has been particularly attractive to some of the younger and more ambitious writers in the city, many of whom stumbled upon it by accident and quickly realized its potential. (Banksy left a sculpture here as part of his New York residency in 2013.) Queens local and burgeoning graffiti wiseass KLOPS, known for his use of comic-book-like characters and Instagram-friendly puns, says he's been visiting the "jungle of fences and wood and metal" for a few years.

"You would think it was a third-world country when you were there," says graffiti writer SEFU, whose pieces can be found in abandoned spots across the city and whose tags and throw-ups line the streets from Queens to lower Manhattan. "No laws. No rules. No cops."

"Willets Point is a place where you do pieces," says a writer who goes by DONUT. A piece, in graffiti lingo, is a layered, multicolored, letter-based design that requires time and precision—something you couldn't pull off on a Manhattan block without risking arrest. He remembers painting in the Iron Triangle for the first time in the middle of the winter a while back. "I was blown away. We did pieces inside a building, which was chill obviously, and as we were leaving I was like, 'Why don't we just paint street-side? Clearly no one cares about graffiti here.' And so we did."

DONUT is one of many young hardcore writers who think that legal graffiti is an oxymoron—"I enjoy doing pieces during the day, and stress-free, but I don't think graffiti should be done with legal permission," he explains. Even though "permission walls," where property owners let graffiti flourish, allow artists to take their time, part of what makes graffiti exciting to many of its practitioners is the risks and rule-breaking. Many writers occasionally paint legal spots, and some tend to transition to more accepted forms of art as they age, acquire arrest records, and may want some recognition from the wider art world—but the graffiti writers who have come to Willets Point want to stay outlaws.

That is, this spot offers most of the rewards—virgin walls, street cred from illegal painting, and plenty of photo ops that writers widely tease out on Instagram—with little potential downside.

The writers I talked to have all done their share of street bombing, but Willets Point offers them space to do nicer, more playful, or more experimental work. The result is an impressive variety of styles influenced by everything from Dalí and modern art to NYC's style masters and cartoon characters—all for an audience almost exclusively comprised of other writers (why else would someone make the trip to this sequestered scrapyard?), and those who know where to look online.

HOME, who started out painting more traditional-looking graffiti and now draws inspiration from a variety of art movements, including pop art and abstract expressionism, was first introduced to the area by fellow writer RODA on the way back from a different spot in 2013. "We weren't even looking to paint," he told me. But once he realized that no one cared if they did, he kept coming back every weekend and brought others along, including SEFU, DONUT, ETHAN, and CYAH—all young writers with growing reputations in the New York graffiti community.

"One of the most striking things about Willets is the contrast of the brand new stadium against the makeshift village [of] cinderblocks and corrugated metal," HOME explains. "That might be why I loved painting there so much. It's the juxtaposition of superficial versus authentic."

"When there is a game across the street at Citi Field and you can hear the announcers and the crowd cheering—it's just a really great time," adds CYAH. While thousands of fans enjoy an afternoon in the stadium, writers navigate toxic slush, rusty metal, and human excrement just steps away in order to paint at any hour of the day. "There was literally pieces of shit everywhere," CYAH recalls.

Probably thanks to its isolation, Willets Point is the scene for all sorts of oddities. "I've experienced junkies getting their fix, three-dollar payaya, talking with some real nice hard-working folk, the filming of a softcore porno involving a large Mexican guy in drag dancing with a few mechanics, loose pit bulls, storage-containers-turned-shelters for many homeless people, garbage cans on fire, and the list goes on," elaborates MATEO, another graffiti writer and frequent visitor to the area. "Many young writers want to connect with a piece of NYC history. The Iron Triangle is one of the very few raw and forgotten places existing in NYC, so I think young people see that and really desire to be a part of the experience."

But Willets Point's status as a graffiti oasis won't last forever, and some say it's already over. DONUT, for one, has heard that the cops are looking to catch graffiti writers hitting the area and is ready to move on. But CYAH says that the scene will simply shift to another spot—and there'll always be another spot, despite the continuing development and gentrification of New York.

"There's so many undiscovered places out there," CYAH says. "So you just gotta keep lurking around."

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.