On February 4th, 2014 the Museum of the City of New York will open “City As Canvas: Graffiti Art From the Martin Wong Collection” and I’m told my old graffiti black book is in the show. It won’t be the black book’s first time in a museum either. Previously it appeared at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art for their “Art in the Streets” exhibit, and all the way back in 1989 at the Franklin Furnace in New York City. Please allow me to tell the “Tale of the Blue Black Book…”
This particular blackbook is blue. Blue and black to be exact. They didn’t have any proper black books at the art store the day I got it. Or maybe they did and the page size of this one was just right. Anyway, the year was 1987 and I was in high school in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
I had been traveling around the East Coast, more specifically Boston and New York City, writing and hanging out with graffiti writers. At the time there was an airline called People’s Express that had very cheap flights. You literally paid cash on the plane! $59 Round trip from Pittsburgh to Newark or Boston. The ease of transport facilitated the forming of Badassest with the Salem, Massachusetts writers Neone One, Alfie and Jon, and from Pittsburgh, myself, Burn and +FX. I would hang out at their place, and they would stay at mine. The first time I remember piecing in the Blue Black Book was with Neone and Jon at my parents’ house. We were listening to an audio cassette of Style Wars! Not a video cassette (that was bleeding edge technology to me then). I literally taped recorded the airing of Style Wars on PBS and we listened to it as we drew in our books. That is when I did the “No Need to Bleed… …Fry To Die” piece in the Blue Black Book.
Later that year I met Kinjal Mitra, a.k.a. Micro. Frankly I forget how we met. I seem to remember getting a phone call from him, or someone gave me his phone number. Who that was – maybe Kinjal remembers. I had been doing graffiti in Pittsburgh and had a reputation for it already. Kinjal had just moved from New York to live with his Father. I think someone, maybe Joy Borelli the owner of Borelli-Edwards Art Gallery, told Kin’s Dad about me, or something like that.
Me and Kinjal talked graff, dropped names on each other and soon were trading mix tapes and showing each other our sketches and such. Kinjal had a good friend, Moses, who made some pretty awesome mixtapes, and I was making scratch tapes in my basement. Hip Hop and Hi-NRG was initially the music we were grooving to. I mention this because our musical tastes would soon change in a way that influenced the drawings we did.
When I first saw Micro’s styles, I was blown away. I thought, “Geez this guy is no joke.” A lot of times people would move from New York and say they were writers, but really they weren’t. No style – basically their only claim to fame was they were from New York and happened to be in Pittsburgh. Not Kinjal though, his style was tight and I felt pretty inadequate when I saw it… like, “jeez all my stuff drips and my lines are fuzzy and this guy is super precise.” So Kinjal’s art immediately inspired me to get better. I never achieved the clean lines and style Micro did, but I think by trying to, it helped me define my own style. I almost immediately asked him to join Badassest, and excitedly called up Neone and some of the other members to tell them the news. Badassest was officially Pittsburgh, Boston and New York!
Besides Burn (a.k.a. Ken Baurle from G-Force crew), Kinjal was the geographically closest writer to me so we started hanging out a lot and soon were giving each other our sketchbooks and doing pieces in them. I’ve always been slow at drawing. So Kinjal generally busted out a lot more styles than I did. We also started painting freight trains in McKees Rocks around this time at the P&LE train yard — and generally just hung out as the teen-agers we were, going to parties and such. One of our main interests at this time became Speed Metal. We would go to City Limits roller rink in Penn Hills, PA, where they had various punk rock and speed metal shows every weekend.
By looking at the pieces we did at this time you can see how much that music influenced us compared to Hip Hop. At that point we made the decision to turn our back on Hip Hop to some degree. I can’t speak for Kinjal in this matter, but in my mind by 1987 I felt betrayed by Hip Hop. It seemed that every song was about money, money, money. The subject matter was getting increasingly materialistic and more popular with the general masses. When I first discovered Hip Hop around 1983 it was a revelation and seemed really positive and creative. Though it talked about money and girls and such, it wasn’t so concentrated on power. The rhymes and disses were playful and the battles were about style, not really killing people or trashing each other. I couldn’t identify with the increasingly materialistic lyrics. Growing up in the suburbs, I mostly got what I needed. Surely I wanted things, but not so much so that I chose to define myself by the sneakers I wore.
As I spent more time with my peers in the suburbs, their musical tastes rubbed off on me and I would eventually find myself the singer in a hardcore band, Citizen Pain. The energy, sound and message was frankly more resonant with me at that point in my life. Looking back, I’m a little disturbed by how death-oriented and militarized many of my drawing were, but that was what was on my mind. Militarized culture is what I grew up in (like most of us), and as a teenage boy that was the language I was given with which to communicate my natural energy. Also, part of me resented the idea that graffiti seemed to be automatically glommed on to Hip Hop. The metal sang to the darkness I felt in my soul.
When we weren’t stage diving at punk and metal shows we were busting out increasingly darker styles. We soon hooked up with Base and Sage from New Kensington. Once again I forget the exact details, but Base and Sage were out-and-out metal heads more than we were. I mean, they listened to Venom. You couldn’t get any more metal than that. The first night me, Micro, Base and Sage hung out, we almost died. And I think it might have been that night we decided to form a crew.
Base drove an ancient stretch Cadillac. He and Sage drove from New Kensington to pick up me and Micro. We were going to a party and then paint. It was a torrential downpour that night with an inch of water on Camp Horne Road. The Caddy was like a big rickety ocean liner splashing through the rain flooded streets. We were running late so Base wasn’t taking his foot off the gas. Coming down the other side of the road was a tractor trailer. The Caddy hydroplaned straight into the oncoming truck. Base spun the wheel such that the car spun 720 degrees in front of the oncoming truck, narrowly missed and promptly ploughed into a wall of mud to the side of the road. The Caddy’s grill was literally sucked into a foot of mud!
We proceeded to the party. So, inspired by a Metallica song, Damage Inc. we formed Demolitia. As much as Demolitia seemed to be a head bangers’ ball, soon Dasez joined, who was in G-Force Crew with me going back a few years earlier. He never gave up on Hip Hop, so I guess I can’t say that Demolitia was “metal only” but it was pretty close.
The summer and fall of 1987 I would return to New York City. I generally stayed at Henry Chalfant’s studio on 64 Grand Street. There I would pour over Henry’s photo albums, study the black book pieces framed on the wall, and best of all, get to meet other writers. I ended up painting with some greats: Daze, Phase 2, and Tracy 168.
I spent the most time with Tracy. For whatever reason we hit it off right from the start and I wanted to learn everything I could about Wild Style. And for doing so, he literally had me paint his bathroom. Not with spray paint, mind you, but with a brush and a bucket of white paint! He was playing the “Karate Kid” aspect of “tutelage” to the hilt. So while I painted the bathroom, he made out with his girlfriend! But this got me the “Black Card” of Wild Style. There were two membership cards with the Wild Style Crew. The red card was given out like water to anyone. T-Kid initially gave me a red card a year earlier. But Tracy had to give you a black one. I’m sure someone out there has a Black Card for cleaning up his garage too!
Tracy introduced me to a lot of new styles and it was his influence that continually made me want to innovate. Being around all these kings, I had to come out with something myself. Something that got me at least in the general vicinity of these dudes. Finally I developed what came to be known as the “Monster Rock” style. Which basically was one of the first wild style pieces that had twisting 3D and designs. There were occasionally pieces in graffiti history that had multiple 3D perspectives, but I guess Monster Rock was the first that did it consistently in a way that looked fresh. I basically perfected the Monster Rock during the Blue Black Book period.
One night I accidently left the Blue Black Book at Tracy’s. In retrospect it was good I did, because he made what became its most famous piece, “The Super Juicer.” A green hot rod with Tracy’s notations all around it. Quite frankly, it’s the ultimate “piece you do in your friend’s black book.” Soon we will be taking bids for the One Million Dollar Spot (see picture if you don’t know what I mean)!
There are aspects of the book that are hard for me to remember. For example, I believe that a few pieces were stolen from the book. As I recall, there was a T-Kid and Phase 2 page which are now missing. Also, at least one of the pieces I did was removed at some point. But it could have been I sold or traded pages away and don’t remember. In 1988 Daze would do a piece in the book, before me him and Phase 2 painted together in the Bronx.
By 1988-89 I was starting to drift from graffiti and into college life. I went to New York University and proceeded to major in partying and carousing and dropped out of school after one year. However, I embarked on a fine art career and made some headway. The Blue Black Book’s first public showing was at a black book show at Franklin Furnace. The book was open to the double pager of flying snakes and dragons. The book would then be carried with me as I moved around New York City trying to scrape together a career in art whilst struggling with a heroin addiction.
If memory serves me correctly, I think I first met Martin Wong in the brief time period the American Graffiti Museum was open. At some point I was told that Martin was buying black books, and he would be interested in mine. When I showed him he sure was! I deliberated about the sale for a few weeks but eventually I had to pay my rent and buy heroin so I sold the Blue Black Book in a heartbeat. Looking back I am grateful I did, because it went into better more caring hands than mine. Martin was one of the first collectors that knew the value and importance of real graffiti. Not the watered-down homogenized white-bread fluff that was popular at that time. He appreciated “the real deal.”
It was during the sale of the Blue Black Book that I got to know Martin a little and we struck up a friendship that summer that I still remember. Knowing I was down on my luck and too young to know the difference, he took me to lunch and dinner sometimes, introduced me to art gallery people and shows and relayed graffiti gossip that I was as fascinated with as he was.
He introduced me to eating squid in Chinatown claiming it was known to be good for the skin. He was the first person I ever met that drank copious amounts of carrot juice. He wore fireman boots and jackets, sometimes in the summer, because he admired fireman! Martin was an awesome guy and the streets of New York City surely miss his footsteps.
Two decades later I was living in Hollywood, California and for some reason I found myself searching online for something related to Martin. For the life of me I cannot recall why. I stumbled upon some documents referring to Martin Wong’s collection being bequeathed to the Museum of the City of New York. It was more like an internal memo than a press release. Intrigued by the thought my old Blue Black Book might be hiding in their basement, I called the Museum to inquire if they possessed it.
About a week later they said they had found it. Soon thereafter I would run into Roger Gastman who was busy writing his “History of American Graffiti.” Fortunately I mentioned the Blue Black Book to him and that I had identified its whereabouts. He would later help curate the largest graffiti exposition the world had yet seen, LA MOCA’s “Art in the Streets.” Imagine my surprise when I saw my old sketchbook under glass after two and a half decades! It was a great feeling seeing it again and I was flabbergasted that something that I once carted around New York City in my back pack had made its way to a museum a continent’s length away two decades later!
As of February 4, 2014 the Blue Black Book will be on display back at its adopted home, the Museum of the City of New York. Like so many of New York’s residents, the Blue Black Book was embraced by the city and understood it in a way the book’s hometown could not. In this case, as an early and seminal testament to the calligraphy New York City bequeathed to the world.
Here are the images from the book: