This coming weekend, Pantheon Projects will be at the New York Art Book Fair with their Feral Diagram poster and the catalog from their Pantheon: A History of Art From The Streets of NYC exhibition. To many of us here in New York, this is a very special catalog (which really turned into more of a book!) that many of us from all across the five boroughs came together to work on and complete. The catalog’s content is not just limited to some of the most talented and prolific street & graffiti artists in NYC’s history, but it also includes photography and interviews from the well-respected writers & photographers from blogs such as Brooklyn Street Art, Vandalog, Streetsy, and us here at The Street Spot (to name just a few!).
Over the next few days, The Street Spot would like to give you a taste of what can be found in the catalog by sharing some of the photographs and excerpts from interviews that we contributed to it. So, hot on the tail of his recent profile in The New York Times, we will start with Chris Pape aka Freedom.
Becki Fuller: Can you give us a brief description of your background?
FREEDOM: I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the ’60s and ’70s and had a chance to witness the birth of the subway graffiti movement on the 1 line. I was 10 years old in 1970, which is when I started taking notes. My parents had great faith in our judgment (my brother and me) and our ability to navigate the city streets and they let us off the leash pretty early. By 1974 I started writing GEN 2, which was short for GENESIS 2. I did a few pieces and tagged the park a lot, but it was mostly a pedestrian career. I quit in the fall of ’75 when I entered Music and Art High School. I left home when I was seventeen and began seeing the world as an adult, which meant that a graffiti career seemed attainable. When I was eighteen, I resumed writing with the name FREEDOM.
BF: You are probably best known for your work in the “Freedom Tunnel,” the Amtrak tunnel running underneath Manhattan’s Riverside Park. What was it that drew you to that spot and for how many years did you continue to paint there?
FREEDOM: I started in the tunnel in 1980 with a portrait of the Mona Lisa, it was painted under a grating that cast a giant frame of light on the wall, that’s what caught my eye. I had no intention of going back and certainly couldn’t have predicted a fifteen-year run, but that’s how it went.
CHRIS 217 helped me early on just by being there, years later SMITH and I collaborated on two paintings. The reality was that I needed a place to fail and the side of a number 1 train was just too public, and I did fail in the tunnel. I’m proud of that, artists are supposed to fail.
BF: Your paintings include black and silver recreations of historic masterpieces, a self-portrait, and the mural that acts as the centerpiece There’s No Way Like The American Way (aka The Coca-Cola Mural). How did you choose your subject matter?
FREEDOM: I had no game plan going into the tunnel. I’d get an idea at 3:00 AM and be in there as dawn broke with my ladder and paint. If I had really thought it out, I think the whole thing would be more cohesive. The Buy American mural was really the epilogue for the tunnel and featured panels that reflected my time spent there. The self-portrait was a throw away, I did a quick sketch of my leather jacket and penciled in the spray can head – one of the easiest paintings I’ve done.
BF: What was your relationship like with the homeless population that once lived in the tunnel? I found it interesting when you told me that your recreation of Goya’s Third of May, 1808 was meant to be viewed by the light of the flame that a former resident has used to cook with. Were there other ways in which they inspired or influenced you?
FREEDOM: The homeless moved in around 1986, they were more curious about my work and why I did what I did. They impacted my work by giving me an audience, and I had to have a little more respect for their environment. There were a few years where I barely painted, choosing instead to document their lives in drawings and paintings. During that time I got to know them very well and sadly watched as more than a handful died.
BF: Who were your writing partners and what crews have you been down with over the years? Who would you consider to be a mentor/mentors of yours?
FREEDOM: My original partners were my brother Vince and another Westsider who wrote OPIE. When I came back to write in 1979, CHRIS 217 was my partner. Mentors were so important! My brother showed me the ropes early on, then I met STAN 153 and ALI at NOGA and they loved that I could draw. I learned so much through osmosis just watching those guys.
BF: In the past, you’ve referenced Richard Goldstein’s feature “The Graffiti ‘Hit’ Parade,” which was published in New York Magazine in March of 1973, as being a major influence not just on you, but on many writers of your generation. What do you think that it was about this article that resonated with you and so many others in the way that it did?
FREEDOM: Prior to that article graffiti had no payoff. Most of the writers featured in that article didn’t know how the media worked; it seemed like such a mysterious process. Now, post-article, you could believe if you were a famous writer you were going to have your picture taken and put in a magazine. The ultimate fame.