Former graffiti artist Eric Felisbret founded at149st.com over ten years ago, to provide web-based documentation for the graffiti art and artists of New York City. Photographs, interviews with artists, biographies of retired artists, and history lessons on the web site soon turned at149st.com into one of the web’s largest graffiti destinations. With help from his brother Luke, Eric has written Graffiti New York, a new book documenting the rise of graffiti in the city of New York. Filled with history lessons and conversations with famous artists, the book gives a unique insight into New York’s early street art history, from the perspective of the people that lived it.
â€œTo my knowledge, there isn’t a city that has really been able to control it [graffiti] effectively across the entire city.â€
Format: Please tell our readers who you are, and what your background in graffiti is?
Eric Felisbret: Uh, well my name is Eric Felisbret. In my former life, I was known as DEAL-CIA, I was down with a crew called Crazy Insides Artists led by DONDI WHITE. I wrote for that crew in the late â€˜70s and early â€˜80s. I got started as a subway buff; I loved trains as all little kids do, and I’d ask my parents to take me on the subway for pretty much any reason.
It wasn’t until a representative from the MTA came to my classroom, to pitch the dangers or the negative effects of graffiti. They showed us this slide show that really got me lit, and instead of getting me disinterested in it, it sort of set a fire in me. I carried a camera probably as often as a carried a marker or paint or whatever, because at that point the system was really active â€“ almost every single car in the New York subway was painted, new paintings were coming out every weekend, it was pretty intense.
I found it very interesting, and the fact that it’s erased – the fact that the lifespan of many works can be weeks you know, sometimes years (back when the city didn’t have any money to remove it on the subway). And even if the city didn’t remove it, another writer might write over it, so the lifespan of a lot of the art was very brief, so I felt compelled to start photographing it.
Format: You said you were working in the late â€˜70s and early â€˜80s, what was it like writing back then? For a lot of kids now, that was the time to be in New York, doing graffiti, what was that atmosphere like?
Eric Felisbret: The late â€˜70s was probably one of the best times I think, to be painting, because prior to the late â€˜70s – the early part of writing’s history is when a lot of the concepts and ideas were developed, and this cultural blueprint had been set. The next generation, where I came in, had the advantage of working from that blueprint; all these styles were developed that people could eventually innovate upon.
The techniques of painting had been refined; by that point all the kids in the city had a thorough knowledge of the subway system, of the train yards, the lay-ups, and the way police operated. So that generation reaped the benefits of everything that was developed prior. They also had the benefit of the fact that the city was in the midst of a fiscal crisis; there was actually no money to combat graffiti, so a lot of it wasn’t getting erased – it was the heyday of the movement I think. Then in the â€˜80s, cities started to get a little more money to combat it, so the lifespan of people’s paintings started to become more brief. And then the drugs started… they were always part of the city, but the drug trade got a lot of momentum. The climate got more violent, and more negative.
The graffiti community wasn’t immune to it. A lot of kids who wrote graffiti knew other kids that were involved in rougher activities, stick-up artists, drug trade, stuff like that. Writing became a little bit more dangerous; people were getting guns pulled on them, getting beaten up a lot more frequently. It was more difficult to paint, so the places that you could paint really became a commodity. They became a big draw, and the tougher crews would be very protective of those areas, and that only made the climate more violent.
“People initially rejected the legitimate channels like art galleries but that’s changing and artists are taking advantage of that — working as designers for clothing lines, as graphic designers, as fine artists — if you have real talent, why not get paid for itâ€¦”
Format: Does it ever surprise you that graffiti has become so universal, almost without borders?
Eric Felisbret: I’m completely shocked. I thought it pretty much only existed in New York City. Like Philadelphia had a smaller movement, but it really didn’t exist in any other cities in the United States, and I really thought its appeal was regional. So I guess it wasn’t until the documentary Style Wars and the book Subway Art, that really kicked things into gear, as far as the movement globalizing.
I guess as hip-hop got more popular, more pervasive â€“ with graffiti being an unofficial element of hip-hop — as it became more popular, so too did graffiti. I had no sense that people in Germany would find it interesting to the point where a large movement would develop there, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s kind of shocking that it hasn’t lost momentum. Because I mean, I think a lot of people thought as soon as it got popular, it would kill the street cred.
Format: I was wondering what you thought about the proliferation, because nowadays any kid can pick it up and do it, is there something lost to the art form?
Eric Felisbret: I think anybody can pick it up and do it, but it doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good, and I think that even with the opportunity to do a legal piece in the comfort of somebody’s backyard, or some other place where you’ve been granted permission… I think the community, overall, has smartened up a bit, and has an idea of who’s on the street putting in real work. I think a buzz has to be generated locally before it hits the Internet, and I think people are able to distinguish between someone that has really put in some work and someone that’s just quickly posting stuff on the web, or through some other medium.
Format: You were involved in the community then and now. How do you feel the community has changed?
Eric Felisbret: I think what’s different is that a lot of writers have become more accepting of things that they used to reject. Things like galleries, exposure in magazines and books, designing t-shirts. That was considered being a sell-out, and a lot of people thought that if you did a legal painting and you’re selling it, you couldn’t really call yourself a writer. A real writer breaks the law, and is out there on the street taking risks. People initially rejected the legitimate channels like art galleries but that’s changing and artists are taking advantage of that — working as designers for clothing lines, as graphic designers, as fine artists — if you have real talent, why not get paid for itâ€¦
But you have to have put in work on the street prior to doing that, if you go straight from your mother’s house to doing graffiti in a gallery, you’ve earned no credibility. If you work hard on the streets and then put out a clothing line, I think the community will find that more acceptable.
Format: Speaking of the illegal aspects, cities are getting so aggressive about clean-up, where do you see graffiti moving in response to this?
Eric Felisbret: To my knowledge, there isn’t a city that has really been able to control it [graffiti] effectively across the entire city. In New York City, or instance, Midtown is clean. Areas where tourists frequent and lot of business districts are fairly clean. But areas outside of Manhattan specifically are pretty bombed. New York City has a reputation for having had several mayors who were really aggressive about it, and unless laws change significantly, which I don’t imagine they will, I don’t think there’s any way to control it.
Even in New York, where initially when it started, there weren’t any laws that worked with it effectively. I don’t imagine, at least in the context of a democracy that it’s going to be able to be slowed down. I think if it ever slows down it’ll be a sort of thing that happens within the culture itself. I don’t think outside pressure is ever going to eliminate it.
Format: Just to wrap this up, do you have any advice for writers today?
Eric Felisbret: My advice to new writers is to try to be innovative – bring new thinking to the culture. Look to the past and learn the culture’s history. It is beneficial to have an understanding of what types of ideas have already been explored, so you can effectively build upon it. I hope that in some respect I have provided constructive opportunity to reflect on the movement’s history with www.at149st.com and Graffiti New York.
More Info: www.at149st.com
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