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
New York’s graffiti scene in 2001 is made up of some of the most reckless drug users in America. Their crew is called Irak. They are rude, illegal, sometimes gay and always on the verge of losing their lives. We like to write about people who get fucked up, but this is bigger: Sacer, Semen and Earsnot are more than just “most wanted” on the NYPD’s hit list. They are what New York looks like. If you close your eyes and think of this city you see the work of Irak and their peers. With this much hedonism getting this much credibility, it was time VICE put together the supreme guide to what, where, when, why and who is painting on the fifth biggest city in the world. We knew notorious fag filmmaker Bruce LaBruce hung out with them, so we flew him down to blow it wide open. We asked him to live with them for a week, go bombing with them, get Ryan McGinley to photograph everything and then research the history of this fucked up form of indigenous art.
He said sure, but then he got too wasted.
This isn’t an article about graffiti. If you want to read the definitive piece of journalism on throwing up (and I’m not talking about a Karen Carpenter profile), go to your local library and hunt down on microfilm an article from Rolling Stone called “Mean Streaks” dated February 9, 1995. In it, Kevin Heldman, a real journalist, trails a couple of spraypainters around New York (following them into subway tunnels to stand breathless by their side as the trains barrel past; clambering up the Manhattan Bridge to observe them hanging from their knees to bomb or tag the mammoth structure) and generally lays out the whole historical and sociological context of urban graffiti.
Fuck that shit. I ain’t no kamikaze reporter fresh from covering the events in the war-torn Republic of Chechnya, nor am I any kind of expert on the graffiti scene. I do, however, enjoy getting blotto with a couple of the most unusual and gifted kids currently bombing New York. When I was asked to do this story I had high hopes, but all I ended up getting was high. It isn’t easy trying to write about vandals when you’re getting fucked up with them.
I arrive on a Saturday with my long johns on under my clothes, having just escaped from a twenty below zero Toronto cold snap. I stomp sweatily up the five floor East Village walk-up with my heavy bags. Ryan McGinley answers the door. This young cutie, who follows the writers everywhere they go fanatically taking pictures, is just now saying good-bye to Marc, his model boyfriend. They seem like they’re really stoned which, I will soon discover, is due to the fact that Tyrone, Ryan’s best friend (a corporate head-hunter and part-time “rum-runner”) has just acquired some opium, a rare treat that only occurs a couple of times a year.
Ryan and I buy some beers and settle on the couch in the small, shabby living room in front of Tyrone’s widescreen digital TV with pirated cable to watch the Inauguration of America’s latest figurehead, Dubya. We get ridiculously high, like Withnail and I, just in time to witness the Latin queen Ricky Martin (who, incidentally, while a member of Menudo, was molested by the father of the Menendez brothers) do his queenly routine. He’s followed by a gays-in-the-military faggot who belts out “God Bless America” as if she’s in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s “The Star-Spangled Girl.”
I’m flying high on the opium magic carpet, my kundilini shooting out through the top of my head into space, but still trying to concentrate on Dubya’s speech and Tyrone and Ryan’s repartee. With his choked pauses and clipped phrasing, Dubya seems like an automaton. I half expect white liquid to start dripping out of the corners of his mouth. He talks in vague, populist homilies which don’t really mean anything, like Mao. I’m convinced in my altered state that Iraq is going to drop the bomb on him right here and now, which would be appropriate, since the name of the graffiti crew I’m here to observe is called Irak (not the country, silly — “I rak” as in “I shoplift”).
As a Canadian in the land of the Yanks, the ascent of the Texas travesty unfolding before our eyes is stirring up my old political punk leanings, but strangely I will soon discover that Ryan and the graffiti kids he will be photographing, despite their radical pursuits and flagrant disregard for the law— racking and mopping on a daily basis, tagging and throwing up wherever they go (crimes against property in this new era of hypercapitalism are the worst you can commit)— are surprisingly apolitical. The only thing they seem to want to boycott is talking to me seriously about graffiti. Nikes, new or vintage, are ubiquitous amongst the crew (what sweatshops?) and any conversation regarding the motivation behind spraypainting is devoid of any specific political or even anarchistic socialist rhetoric. Sure they often destroy mass media billboards and mall-like chains, but it’s not adbusting. It’s just wrecking something to “ups fame” (an Earsnotism). The general impression is one of “apres moi, le deluge.” Things are so fucked up at this point in history, so monumentally surreal, that only the impulsive moment counts, the rush of adrenaline garnered from racking or tagging, the natural high.
But believe me, the unnatural high for these kids isn’t chopped liver, either. The amount of opiates and pharmaceutical powders and pills that course through their veins would put Judy Garland herself to shame. Lucky for me, it fits right in with my new diet regime: no food, and tons of drugs.
I’m so high at this point, the last thing I want to do is interview someone, but I do my duty and try to contact the graffiti kids. Nobody’s answering their cell phones. VICE wants me to profile the real legends.
Sacer. The guy you read about in The New York Times who did the ultimate throw up: The Brooklyn Bridge. This is a large deal for two reasons. One, when you do the bridge there is only a very tiny ledge separating you from the black water below and the odds of falling to your death are so high it makes me nauseous just thinking about it. Two, vandalizing a national monument is a felony which means if you do it more than twice you go to jail for life, or longer. Shortly after the bridge incident, he made the news again after throwing etching cream on a slew of high-end boutiques and pretentious galleries.
Earsnot. He’s more than one of the most prevalent tags in New York, he’s an infamous thief who often walks out of a store with three $400 North Face jackets. His crimes are popular with the press, too. So much so he’s had several two week stays at Riker’s.
And Semen. Semen is the one who draws those little sperms on every single door and window in New York. Once you start to look for them it becomes a challenge to find a block that hasn’t been hit.
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.