In the early seventies, when Graffiti (so labelled by the society but not by the writers themselves) first came to attention as a cultural event, it was received badly if at all, in America.
The consensus being that Graffiti was ugly and offensive; it was treated as an illegal activity, a by-product of teen-age gangsterism, punishable by a jail sentence if cought. Europe was more enthusiastic but acceptance at best was on the level of graffiti as ethnic folk art. When I met Phase II in 1973, he belonged to a group called United Graffiti Writers.
This was a collective of artists who I guess, got too old to work on the subways and collectively they rose their consciousness to be artists in the art world.
Painting on canvases, trying not to hit (putting your mark on a surface, be it train, wall etc. where by appropriating it) had become a sort of catechism for them. I remember Phase II, one of the most respected masters of this group, repeating diligently their new slogan but, at the same time he was covering the table, the chair, anything in his reac, with his tag. Nothing could stay his natural reflex to “hit”, in some sense there was an internal contradiction to their philosophy (which at this point was embryonic, vis-à-vis the art world). By their sole acceptance of canvas as the only surface to work on, they were digging their own grave because by extention that meant that anything else was defacement.
Nobody really scrutinized their stance to this dept, and on general, this first try to enter the art world was short-lived.

Stylistically, lyrical abstraction was the rage of the moment and the graffiti works were not so far from it when one thinks of graffiti’s vaporous, almost abstract, vividly colored beautiful letters.
The mainstream culture was still very strong and wouldn’t accept anything from the “fringe” contrarily to what happened in 1980, when the center of the culture was in the clubs rather than in the galleries.
In fact the second coming of graffiti artists in the art world, was through the clubs and the night-life.
An interesting parallel of attitudes and aspirations was forming between the white downtown scene and the black uptown scene. Downtown the club CBJB’s throbbed with the pulsating beat of the raw-rock, the kids were taking rock n’ roll away from its commercialized development and wanted to make it as original as in the old days.
Meanwhile, at the Black Door, uptown, the nest of break dancing and hip hop music, they were taking disco away from its commercialized state and reclaiming it.
This full blown culture of music, dance and visuals was how the graffiti artists entered and joined the New Wave scene. Where the graffiti artists were now become the chiciest environment for the white art world; they had the best music, the best parties, the fastest art and the most intense energy.

It was a period of mutual high which truly merged the young artists coming from art school, like Keith Haring and Sharf; the New Wave artists coming from the clubs, like J.M. Basquiat and the graffiti artists ascending from the subway like Phase II and Rammellzee.
The whole movement which included artists with different styles and backgrounds was called Graffiti and this created the most unique phenomenon in the history of art; there had never been a period where twenty years old artists where working professionally and, in fact, as the core of the art scene.
Graffiti was almost like the legitimization of the teen-age world. There was a show at Sidney Janis gallery which tried to push the pop aspect of graffiti, and there were other group shows like this which tried to make graffiti live on as a movement and to market it.
But most people bought these paintings as ethnic souvenirs, and in turn the young graffitists being offered 100 or 10.000 dollars for something that they used to be sent to jail for, was funny and good to believe, too.

The big responsability of the official culture towards this historical moment of art, where everything seems to work magically, is the denial to the kids of the subway, of that attention and guidance which any student coming from the art school normally receives.
A lot of them fell on the way side not being able to make the transition from one culture system in which they were masters already, to another where they still had everything to conquer. It’s particularly sad to see how vain was the conscious effort that the graffiti artists made to accomodate their work to the new public.
Dondi, for instance, dedicated two years of his work to introduce the world underground to the new art public.
Rammellzee appeared like a comet. Like an oracle, a messianic machine of theory, he regurgitated the gothic experience and the knowledge of the letter; his word was the summation of this underground culture.

Around the eighties one could make the map of the new art, with four cardinal directions, being the four different new manifestation of image. One of these was Transavanguardia, another one is what I call the American media-imagists, their backround is Cal-arts Metropictures.
A third direction, know as Colab and joined by other groups like Grand Gangsterism, was very neglected by the art world but it influenced the urban reality through handmade fliers for music and films events, and square shows. The forth direction is Graffiti as it has developed by 1980 where the letter in fact became an image almost loosing its legible quality and became a pictorial entity.
When you refer to graffiti as an anthropological phenomenon, I think one should distinguish the specific artist from the phenomenon in general.
The subways are an uncomparable urban reality, they are like the veins of the city and the trains are like tropes, metro-tropes; it’s very gothic.
Graffiti artist expresses the interracial sense of New York and this is what I call pan-cultural reality.
There is a very sensitive issue which is an ouverte cultural racism and the task of art should be to help the coexistence of different cultures. Some of the Transavanguardia artists like Clemente, make this pan-cultural problem central to their work. From which culture’s point of view is an artist ethical? The artist himself is the moral unit, the screen to judge what is right.
As among the Transavanguardia artists it is expecially Clemente who deals with this pan-culturally ethical correct image, among the graffiti artists it is Rammellzee who deals with the correct heritage of slanguage as multi-tongue and the correct disinheritage of language as national. The entrance of the graffiti artists in the galleries world was a fiasco because of the existence of this cultural racism.
Out the triumvirate Keith Haring, Basquiat and Rammellzee, only Rammellzee really worked on the trains and from this experience he distilled the science of the letter. J.M. Basquiat was the first black boy to be successful and powerful, this is the reason of his fame among the graffitists; his presence gave prestige to the others but music was what really bound them. In fact he had nothing to do with the graffiti of the subway and he has always fought this label, and on the other hand, in Rammellzee’s theory there is no room for Basquiat’s work.
Keith Haring certainly didn’t come from the subway.
He went there influenced by the enthusiasm of the young graffitists and intrigued by the speed of their work and by the graphic and pictorial strength of their tags. Haring never worked on the trains and as an art student he used the rectangular spaces made for advertisings.
In fact, while for the graffitists the noise, the speed and the millions of people seeing their statements was the futurist dream, Haring learned and used the incredibile sense of communicability of the work made in the subway.
There was a filmic aspect in the Haring’s series of drawings, they were scattered around in different spaces, like a story board, each seeing on a different location and when Haring moved back into the gallery he transferred, very intelligently, this idea of found space.
Beyond all this, the difference between Haring and Rammellzee is that to the constant, according to which Haring’s work develops, there is the contraposition of Rammellzee’s dynamic idea of his work.
At the time of his entrance in the art world Rammellzee said to me: “I’m not an artist, Rammellzee is an equation, and I come in the art scene as a gangster”. But as a gangster he gave more than he took.

Rammellzee doesn’t steal from the art world, in fact he doesn’t approve it; he uses at his vantage the super structure. Rammellzee is the chevalier of art, he is like the dandy of the armed letter. In slang, “to take out” is the call of battle and Rammellzee wants to “take out” artists like Basquiat, Clemente, Schnabel not personally but their art and what they represent.
Rammellzee doesn’t wants to get violent with specific personalities; his language is infused with military metaphores. It is the armed letter which fights with other armed symbols, it’s a war of symbols.
Rammellzee keeps being labeled as graffitist, although he is also isolated from the other “writers”. Rammellzee has been making Gothic Futurism, Ikonoklast Panzerism, Thagism but he keeps being called graffitist and the writers themselves never accepted such a definition.
His music notes, atomic notes, lazer sculptures and out-door sculptures energized by the wind, can’t be considered as a development of the complex language of the subway period. I think that beyond all this there is the fear of accepting the projections of Rammellzee’s fantastic world, even though Rammellzee claims it as ancient as the letter.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you when we talked about the other artists in New York who Rammellzee is against that Schnabel makes me think of a toxic monster from a japanese movie, feeding on our bourgeois past, our toxic materialism mithified.
Schnabel is the past for me, Rammellzee is the new and the future.
Besides being an artist, Rammellzee is also a teorician and this prolongued the interest for graffiti in the West-Broadway and on the other hand he drove the semanticians crazy.
In 1980 Rammellzee said to a fellow black boy: “The government uses the language to control us, but if we own the letter, we are the masters of our own destiny”. The graffitists’ work in the subways has developed from the tags to the letter in order to transform its structure so that the government could no longer know it. But there is another side of this issue of owning the letter, because the culture of the letter as we know it, is being also antiquated by the computer culture; in a way, the letter lost much of its function, was liberated of the past and even of the future and it is allowed to enter a pictorial reality. The sculpture that Rammellzee made in Martina Franca (METTROPPOSTTERSIZER – EPILOGUE FUTURISM THE WEATHER VAINER 720 Z), goes even beyond that and the letter cum machine enters the realm of infinite dimension.

Edith Deak

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