If you have been paying attention to graffiti in New York City over the last decade and a half, you will have noticed the UFO: on lamp posts and rooftops, scratched into the mirror at your favorite dive bar, whizzing by on the back of a truck, tentacles all up in the mix trackside. This past April, UFO and his 907 cohorts collaborated on an installation for the Pantheon: A history of art from the streets of NYC show. After Becki posted her interview with Freedom for the Pantheon exhibition catalog yesterday, I’m happy to share with you excerpts from my interview with UFO. For the full interview (and ones with 30+ NYC street and graffiti artists), pick up a copy of the limited edition exhibition catalog from Pantheon Projects. Scroll down for purchase details and information on this weekend’s special exhibition catalog signing at the NY Art Book Fair.
LP: Where are you from?
UFO: New York, with the city at my toes and the mountains at my heels.
And in what kind of neighborhood did you grow up?
Suburbia… rolled with a tight knit group of kids, had a pretty wicked block. Whatever it was – big wheels, BMX, to skateboards – we rolled, bugged out and explored.
What is your first recollection of graffiti?
Spraying up a Powell & Peralta Rat Bones symbol in abandoned buildings and drawing on my grip tape with paint markers. Trooping into the city and hanging at the Brooklyn Banks, skating all day. I remember noticing that with each returning visit the walls would morph, pieces, tags, throw ups constantly layering and rotating. Definitely fond memories of 15 JA throw ups in a row down both the East and West Side highways. Big fat can tags by POKE and NOSE.
How did you become actively involved?
My boy PANDA started getting up… plenty of memories of him sitting there, writing the alphabet over and over and over again in a black book, learning hand styles… and eventually myself (CEXI) and WELLO finding our own books and trying to emulate… which eventually lead to myself getting totally bagged by the school narc. For retarded CEXI wanted to be graffiti king of the school hallways… (even though I was the only graffiti writer in school).
Anyway, guess round ’92 PANDA was staying with me and my homie NIMZ in Hoboken. I remember listening, half-fascinated-half-terrified by his stories of trooping through the Freedom tunnel, climbing up roll gates in lower Manhattan, racking paint, running from cops.
How long have you been writing?
18 years with varying intensities (fucking with the UFO for about more or less 16 years).
What is the origin of the UFO character?
Was living with my boy MADSAKI down on Rivington Street … ‘93?? ‘94??? Anyway we were bugging out, painting these crazy ass paintings with acrylics and markers on these big fat canvases. Around that time I was also running around the hood tagging up my own name … and came to terms that that was a bad idea and needed to come up with something else to vandalize peoples shit with.
At that time we were listening to a lot of BOREDOMS (Japanese noise rock band) … they had a sub-group call UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) …I fucking loved that tape!!!!
So I think, without much thought, I decided to write UFO and quickly adopted a small classic ufo spaceship icon.
You put up several variations – how has the icon evolved over the years?
Dude has definitely evolved over the years. Evolution is definitely the way I feel about it.
Guess he was born of sounds from Japan … became a small simple spaceship … developed thrust, simple lines under the ship … the head/glass grew long and tall (looked a lot like a flying dick) … the window bubbled, becoming some kinda light bulb head shape and the ship began to spit fire … then lo and behold, eyes (holy shit!!!!! eyes!!!!!!).
Years later took a trip down to Chile … took an epic road trip with a sweet girl and a car loaded to the gills with bucket and spray paint … painted Chile up and down, all spots beside the ocean … dude began to grow tentacles.
To this day, don’t completely know what the fuck dude is … definitely some kinda flesh and blood, definitely has a life of his own, he’s definitely related to the octopus, he’s definitely related to the squid, definitely a fucking alien.
All I’m sure about is … dude’s alive and he’s watching you. I’ve given birth to a monster and y’all just have to deal with him … SORRY.
What is the significance of multiple eyes?
Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes … I love eyes … window to the soul … the third Eye, 4th Eye, 5th Eye, 6th Eye, and on and on … don’t really know what to say, eyes are incredible.
I love ‘em, they are fun to draw, they are beautiful, and express so much.
When and how did you get into sculpting characters out of wood?
Since the first launch ramp, I’ve always liked the idea of building shit.
13 years ago, decided I was going to be a carpenter … I wanted to know how to make shit … found a master and started working with him and have learned a lot over the years … I now keep a shop of my own and make furniture and alotta other wacky shit.
As far as making the UFO dude out of wood … just kinda makes sense to me … always felt limited in 2D … can remember through the years, saying over and over, “I just wanna see my painting walk around.” (So there you go – stuff like painting on trucks or crossing into the 3rd dimension with wood and such … just makes sense.)
And of course I have a love for the slow, tactile, meditative process of working with wood … very satisfying … I’m a true craftsman and an artist … love being the master of my material.
Funny how it is, I still have no idea how to use a spray can, most of the time half my tag or fill in ends up on my face and hands. My graffiti looks like a blind, retarded 3rd grader painted it … I don’t mind it, and sometimes it actually looks fresh … deep inside, I know I’m doing something right.
Is traditional graffiti too conservative?
Traditional graffiti has its place, for sure. Never really understood – if I’m labeling it right – the wild style type stuff … looks kinda cool, but still can’t read the shit, kinda bores me and looks all the same.
As far as big fat tags, throw ups, smackdowns – TRUE NYC styleee!!! That’s the shit for me, that’s always where it’s been at.
As far as all the rules and the tuff guy crap … whatever … all I know is, it’s fun to break rules and watch people get pissed off. I do what I want!!!!
What are your thoughts on non-traditional (that is, not strictly letter-based) graffiti?
Hmmmm … this has always been a weird place for me … as far as myself and if I’m correct, most of the kids I roll with, I feel we all identify strongly with traditional graffiti. Which in my case gets pretty funny, cause I draw this flying dick thing all over the place? I guess alotta people think that equals street art.
I’ve always considered myself a bare bones graffiti writer, a vandal … guess because that’s where my roots are from in the game … it was always about walking around, smoking blunts, drinking 40’s and banging out. Getting up and getting over.
It’s about markers and cans. I was never one for gluing paper cups to the wall, or hanging art school paintings off sign posts … some of that shits really fresh … plenty of it is wack as fuck … kinda get it, but that’s just not my head.
And of course times are a changing and graffiti will evolve whether I like it or not … I’ll try and not complain too much … I’ll do my thing and you do yours.
Regarding spots to paint, are there certain places that speak to you more than others?
As far as getting up, I’ve always liked climbing and going high or keeping it sneaky and small … I’m a fan of weird, small, cutty spots that blow your mind, catch you off guard, make you think …
As far as bucket paint and spray paint …Ya gotta give it up to that grassy lot, that boarded up building, that burnt up truck in the woods, that quiet railroad track … quiet, forgotten, neglected space … leaving a treasure of some markings for other like-minded people to discover.
And painting on trucks just makes so much sense – of course the UFO needs to be barreling through the city amongst all the other urban monsters.
Do you feel yourself part of a larger graffiti community?
As far as the UFO himself, of course he is part of the larger graffiti community, sure … No choice, right? He’s on the wall, hanging out with all the other graffiti out there, he’s been around for quite some time and you probably know him, you probably spent some time hanging out on a wall or maybe you bumped into each other in a bar bathroom, shared a ride crosstown on the side of a truck, or met in a dark, overgrown lot.
As far as myself, I’ve always been kinda people shy and socially uncomfortable, pretty sure that’s a big part of why I chose graffiti as an outlet. I leave my mark while you’re not looking and don’t have to be around for your opinion or critique.
I don’t really go out of my way to meet other writers, I tend not to frequent the street art/graffiti shows, I don’t post my own crap on the internet or spend time in graffiti chat rooms.
Too many times I’ve met the man behind the myth and been disappointed.
So to me, it kinda makes sense to keep my distance and just know my favorites through their energy and work on the streets.
What motivates you to paint? Has this changed over time?
Guess at first, as with most writers, it’s that impulse of being sneaky, the thrill of getting over and being bad. Then you start seeing yourself up around town, maybe someone tells you they saw your name written on a trashcan on 3rd Ave. That feels cool, reaching out to others in some fucked up kinda communication … so you do it more and more … next thing you know you’re FUCKING UP!!!!! EVERYWHERE!!!!! WOW!!!! Fame!!!!! That’s cool, I guess graffiti works and it’s kinda powerful … By then, it’s too late and you’re most likely a full blown addict. So it takes over your life … you get good at it, and it feels good to become a part of this community, this new world. Every day meeting new tags, finding a new favorite. You’re running on mischievous energy, fueled by thrill and fame. And you even start to make friends and enemies with people you may never meet. Definitely something fascinating and magical about that.
Sooner or later you discover the art of finding nice, quiet, cutty spots.
Hanging with your homies and painting all day … assuming you didn’t have to hide in a pile of trash or abandon your newborn piece hopping a fence and breaking out… Nothing better than the feeling at the end of the day, sittin’ back with the crew and admiring what you have created up on that wall, together. Really gratifying.
And of course as I mentioned before, something feels right about leaving these treasures for other like-minded or unexpecting persons to discover in the future.
That aspect of painting is motivated by just plain Dum Fun, Friendship, Adventure, and some kind of generosity towards the outside world.
I also enjoy the selfless aspect of graffiti … you put in all this work, time and life energy (it really does consume your life) and sometimes make these cool looking pieces … you might never see them again, and it’s funny how you can’t even take credit for them, ‘cause you’re breaking the law. But in the wind you start hearing back how so-and-so was so stoked to find that old GEN2 MUK OZE108 collabo in the back of that overgrown lot or how floored so-and-so was to find your tag drawn in pencil on the back seat of a bus in India … you realize you really are making others happy, and that’s gratifying.
As far as the Down To Bomb Shit and wilding in the streets goes, these days I’m getting older, more meditative, and new things are becoming important in my life. And shit … running from the cops, hiding on the roof of a building all night, the ever constant smell of shitty paint, getting hurt, constant paranoia … that has begun to feel less and less appealing to me.
So more and more these days I’m opting out of the king of the streets game. It’s just a simple change in values … Of course I still can’t say no to a nice, chill spot on a sunny day. As well truth is, yes, I made a deal with the devil and I am an addict. So pour four drinks down my throat and place a spray can in my hand and I will relapse, running down the street writing on walls, cars, trees … you name it … LOOK OUT.
And I smile knowing that until the day I die, as long as I walk upon this earth, I will make my mark, small or big … that’s just human … right? It’s all about KILGORE TROUT WAS HERE.
Where does 907 fit in the pantheon of NYC graffiti? Does 907 get the respect it deserves?
Not sure … we are one of the many crews out there doing our thing … we definitely have our own flavor, been around for a hot minute.
As far as getting respect, I don’t really give a fuck. Fact is 907 exists and it’s up in your face, and we have fun doing our thing, and if ya don’t know, ya just don’t know.
Is the respect of your peers important to you?
For the most part, I don’t really give a fuck … as I mentioned before, I feel it’s kinda funny how the whole street art movement loves to include me at their table, but I’ve always considered myself just a down and dirty, straight up graffiti vandal. So I guess I’d have to admit that when a writer I respect gives me the whole “art fag toy” thing, I can get a little bummed. But as far as the straight up haters, your shit don’t bother me at all. I’ve always considered the hate as a compliment. If you’re getting that worked up by what I do, then it seems I’m affecting you deeply, mission accomplished, I consider you my biggest fan, so FUCK YOU.
Of which accomplishments or achievements are you the most proud?
I do like that there is a posse of kids out there rolling under one name “907” and do believe I had a part in making that happen.
And somehow, people seem to take notice and enjoy my graffiti. Most of the time I feel others give me more credit than I give myself. If I’m doing something right, I think a big part is my energy and honesty.
Any thoughts on the current state of NYC graffiti?
Seems O.K. to me – kids are still out there, doing their thing and, as always, there are an exceptional few that are just killing shit!!!!
Props, shout-outs or anything you want to get off your chest?
Wello, T, Hallo, Trainer … All my other homies, you know who you are and know I got nothin’ but love for ya!!!!! Over and Out 907
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.
It was back in early 2007 when I first laid eyes on Leon Reid IV (aka Darius Jones of Darius and Downey). He was giving a talk on on street art at The Pure Project and I was greatly impressed by the lengths that this unassuming guy wearing a cardigan and a bow tie was going to in order to bring his unique combination of humor, wit and artistic talent to the public. The idea that someone would have the audacity to dress up like a contractor and install his work in broad daylight was pretty crazy to me, but that was exactly what he was doing. Four years later, Reid is no longer busy outsmarting police but instead has a steady output of legal and commissioned public works as well as his first solo show “A Decade of Public Art” opening at Pandemic Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Saturday night.
The show is a real insight into the artist’s process, exhibiting many of his sketches, models, and photographs dating back to his graffiti days as VERBS and of his installations from around the world. And be sure to look up before entering the gallery – otherwise you might miss his site specific installation for Pandemic Gallery!
Today, Steve and Jaime of Brooklyn Street Art published Part I of a two part interview with street art photographer Stephan Kloo as well as Luna Park and Becki Fuller of The Street Spot. We are humbled and honored to have been asked to provide our opinions and insights into the importance and relevance of the photographers who document, support, and follow street art and the artists who make it. We hope that you will check it out and enjoy the interview as much as we enjoyed giving it!
The fifth issue of Under Republic magazine was launched June 1st and is available online for your perusal. Aside from an excellent selection of throws, letters, and hands flicked by some of my favorite graffiti photographers, this issue also features interviews with a couple of real talented characters… as well as yours truly (peep pages 48-58). Thanks to Jacob for asking some thought-provoking questions and giving me an opportunity to talk about my passion. Be sure to check out past issues here.