Glasgow-based Secret Wars finalists Rogue One and Conzo tell us about their art, and we explore a potted history of the scene, right from its early days in Brooklyn
This February sees two of the country’s top graffiti artists go head-to-head in the Secret Wars Glasgow final. Last summer, Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum hosted 40 Years of Graffiti – The Advent of Pressurism, citing a 1971 New York Times article as the definite point where the world was made aware wall-writing was making its mark on the city’s culture. Its headline – Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals – referred to a teenager who scrawled his name and number across a grimy New York that in the seventies would become synonymous with corruption, street gangs and paranoia (courtesy of cult movies like Serpico, The Warriors and Taxi Driver).
Soon graffiti writers were emboldened by a new tool: the aerosol can. Along with a burgeoning culture of competition, it inspired the evolution of the celebratory ‘masterpiece’: feet-high letters with contrasting outlines creating an effect that ‘pulled out’ images from their surfaces. None of this went unnoticed by New York’s authorities, particularly when writers – or vandals, as they would have it – favoured subway cars as mobile canvases. Arrests and clean-up programs battled bands of writers who claimed the city for themselves.
Since the seventies, graffiti has grown into a colossal subculture – one which often plunges a foot directly into the mainstream. And it’s been a long time since it centred solely on lettering. This February two artists will face-off for the accolade of Glasgow’s Secret Wars champion in a final held at the LA Academy on the Southside. It’s one of many Secret Wars worldwide.
Glasgow finalist Rogue One first tagged almost twenty years ago. “The first thing that got me transfixed by graffiti was the bright colours and letterstyles, with the addition of stars and bubbles to fill up the background. The creativity.” Since becoming enthralled, he’s gone on to develop his own, often startling, photorealistic style. “Photorealistic has been done for years,” Rogue says. “It's getting more prolific and detailed nowadays because of the large interest in spraypainting by very artistic people, as opposed to just wild creative youths.”
Rogue was one such youth when a second generation was inspired by graffiti’s possibilities in the 1980s. Packaged together with an emerging hip-hop ethos, its mix of Stateside grit and glamour proved alluring across the globe. It wasn’t long before the art market demanded a taste. Jean-Michel Basquiat – a young man from Brooklyn of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent – became the poster boy for those hoping their illicit imaging might lead them to be noticed and accepted by the industry. The late seventies found Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz spray-painting Lower Manhattan with a definite, if often inscrutable, purpose: A PIN DROPS LIKE A PUNGENT ODOR or even 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE. Each expression was linked to the last by the signature SAMO©, a shortening of Same Old Shit.
Hitting the art hub of Soho was a shrewd move and within months of finally proclaiming SAMO© IS DEAD, Basquiat came under the wing of Andy Warhol. The two went on to collaborate on canvas, and Basquiat became central to 1980s Neo-Expressionism.
Although music videos like Blondie’s Rapture (featuring Basquiat) and films such as Wild Style presented graff-writing, B-boying, turntabling and emceeing as four branches from the same tree, the roots of New York’s modern graffiti had developed quite separately. “Some people are rather unhappy about how their artform got swallowed up into the hip-hop package,” says Peter Gerard, the Scotland-based director of film Just to Get a Rep (2004), a documentary on graffiti’s relationship with hip-hop. “It's important to know and appreciate the true history… but it wouldn't be what it is today if it hadn't had the forced collision with hip-hop.”
One man who knows just how far back modern graffiti goes is Brooklyn graf-writer Flint, who features in Gerard’s film. Now 54 years-old, Flint formerly tagged with Taki 183 and claims to have also influenced Basquiat. He first bombed buildings as early as the mid-sixties. “It wasn’t like the graffiti that came later,” Flint explains. “I’d write sayings, as if from fortune cookies or movie scripts, and sign ‘Flint’.” That name expressed a desire shared by millions before and after him. “I was very introverted and alienated,” he admits. “Being a little hard of hearing made my speech a little awkward. But I found escape at the movies – fantasies where the guy was a secret agent with a secret identity. I wanted to be cool like them.
"At first it was simple lettering,” Flint reveals. “I wasn’t writing for other graffiti-writers, because there weren’t any. People were trapped riding a train to work, so this was for them – things like: ‘Be all you can…’ Then I started writing for other writers: ‘For those who dare…’ ‘Bad, but not evil…’” In the seventies, his High School of Art and Design friend Al Diaz, who tagged Bomb 1, was a big fan. “He became friends with Basquiat, and he got Basquiat to start writing,” says Flint. “I’m still friends with Al and he’s said I was the influence – they both wanted to do something in that vein. I wasn’t political – I wanted to inspire people to have hope and live their dreams. That’s what I’m all about.”
Flint’s messages – featuring trademark ellipses – hit home in the most unlikely places. The D Train he frequented held a captive audience of Madison Avenue advertising suits, and Flint’s favoured 'Be all you can…' eventually appeared on recruiting ads for the army with an extra 'be' in place of ellipsis. “Everything goes in a circle, because I actually took a lot from them,” he admits. “I liked TV and radio taglines and slogans. Simon and Garfunkel’s song The Sound of Silence had the line: ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…’ It would be pretentious to say they wrote about me, but a lot of people think they did,” Flint insists. “The truth is, my guitar lessons on 60th Street were with Eddie Simon, Paul’s brother – so who knows?”
At the Secret Wars final, Rogue One will be up against the 23-year-old Conzo, who started out in his mid-teens. “For me, I simply like the nonsense message and making people laugh,” Conzo admits. “I don’t even call myself a graffiti artist anymore… these guys go out and paint trains every morning before breakfast and are quite likely banned from half the pubs and clubs in their city, so you have to have a bit of a nutter in you really. I prefer ‘illustrator’ now, as I went back to my roots which has always been illustration.”. As for Flint, some things never change. “A lot of us oldtimers can’t compare with the artwork now, but we still do our thing. We hit freight trains in Florida and London a few years ago – we’re still up to mischief.” Now an award-winning photographer, Flint has bright hopes for the medium he helped place centre-frame of the world’s attention. “We’re just going to take over the world. You see it in clothing, you see it in the way people talk. This isn’t sixties America anymore. Everybody loves graffiti – unless their house gets spray-painted…”