IT WAS A SUNNY JUNE DAY in ’78 when all-city graffiti legend Starr 153 changed my life forever. Taking a leak at my homeboy’s crib inside the towering Grant Houses on 125th Street, I’d peeped out the small project window and watched as the IRT #1 train crept from the darkened tunnel.
Resembling a slinking metal snake, the subway bounded onto the elevated tracks built over Broadway. “Oh snap,” I mumbled, pissing on the floor by accident as I marveled at the two train cars splattered from top to bottom with a stunning Starr masterpiece.
“Yo Kyle,” I screamed at my boy in the next room, “go to the window!” Forgetting to zip my pants, I ran into the living room. Kneeling on the red-velvet slipcovered couch, I joined Kyle in front of the jungle of houseplants that lined the windowsill.
Opening the window, we stuck our heads outside. Eight stories below, some knuckleheads with dueling boomboxes blasted Heatwave’s scorching disco hit “Groove Line.” Like a broken door, my mouth swung open as I scoped Starr’s huge drawing of comic book billionaire Richie Rich lounging in a lawn chair sporting Cazel shades and a purple jogging suit.
Enthralled by the movement of the jagged lettering and explosive colors, a surge of electricity rushed through my body. “I want to do that,” I thought, staring at the radical ghetto hieroglyphics that radiated from the subway; and, just like that, Starr’s stunning spray-paint style ignited a bonfire that roared inside me for years.
Unlike some of the hard rock boys I’d grown up around uptown, my bank teller moms occasionally dragged me to cultural shit like museums and galleries. Standing in front of the Van Gogh painting Sunflowers at the Metropolitan a few days after being rocked by Starr’s piece, I innocently asked, “Where we at?”
Mom flinched. “You think I spend $50 a month sending you to Catholic school so you can speak worse than a derelict? Now, what are you talking about?”
“I wanna know about the Black artists. Where we at?”
“We just went through the Arts of Africa room.”
“I don’t want to see that Tarzan stuff,” I screamed. “Africa doesn’t have nothing to do with me.”
The second I said the words, I regretted them. I backed away, fearful that a smack was coming towards my mouth. Mom might have been from Pittsburgh, but watching Roots the year before had turned her into a permed-hair revolutionary.
“Let’s go, now,” she murmured harshly, high heels tapping across the marble floor. Silently, I walked behind her.
For the next two days, moms barely spoke to me.
A few weeks after spotting Starr’s two-car masterpiece, he and I finally met when he walked down the soiled back stairs inside of my apartment building.
Being a freak for the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four comics—the fiery superhero kid Jack Kirby created who screamed “Flame on!” to activate his powers—I had adopted the moniker FLAME 153.
“What you think you doing, young blood?” barked a teenager I had never seen before. A skinny dude who was as lanky as J.J. Evans from Good Times, he was the color of caramel. Dressed in a blue tie-dyed tank top, Lee jeans and red suede Pumas, his slightly accented voice startled me.
Shitting bricks, I thought he might be a gang member, maybe one of those freaks who called themselves the Ballbusters. I dropped the red El Marko pen on the dirty marble steps.
“I wasn’t doing nothing,” I mumbled, hands stained with red ink.
Like a scene out of Hitchcock, the marker slowly rolled to the bottom of the steps. On the wall behind me, the tag was still wet. As I fixed to dart down the stairs, the skinny stranger grabbed me roughly by the back of my dirty white T-shirt.
“Chill little man. I ain’t going hurt you or nothing.”
Walking in front of me, he picked up the uncapped marker. Obviously coming from Stan the Weed Man’s crib, he smelled like a mixture of Brut, reefer and charisma.
Holding the tip to his wide nose, he inhaled deeply. “God, I love the smell of ink,” he said, tagging his name a few feet away from mine. With the control of a true artist, homeboy wielded that marker as though he was a ghetto Picasso.
“Oh shit, you’re Starr,” I blurted, amazed by the writer’s flamboyant skills as he drew crimson clouds and trademarked stars orbiting around his famed name. Never staining either his hands or clothes, Starr recapped the marker. Realizing I was in the presence of graff greatness, I didn’t know what to say.
“How long you been writing…Flame?” he smirked.
“Not long. I kind of just started out.”
“You suck,” he blurted. “But, you could be better.” I wasn’t sure if I should be pissed or proud, but from that point on, I became Starr’s number-one disciple.
Starr was the first Dominican I had ever met. Before that, I had ignorantly assumed that anybody who spoke Spanish must be Puerto Rican. Nevertheless, in the late ’70s there began a slow trickle of Dominicans to upper Manhattan. Within a few years, the Jewish families and merchants who had populated the neighborhood since I could remember had died, escaped across the river to Jersey or fled to the warmth of Florida. It was only a matter of time before the cluttered Buster Brown shoe store was transformed into a crammed bodega, the Kosher deli became a Dominican diner, and the Yiddish voices that once drifted from open windows were replaced by the vibrant blare of Spanglish.
Two years my senior, Starr was a mellow kind of fellow with brooding brown eyes and a curly Afro. He lived on the fourth floor of a massive pre-war building on Amsterdam Avenue that faced the basketball courts we called the Battlegrounds.
“My uncle’s the super,” Starr explained, as we walked on Broadway down to the Woolworth’s to rack up. “He’s my father’s brother; the one who got us to come over from D.R. five years ago.”
In the week we had known each other, it bugged me out that though Starr was Spanish, he talked Blacker than people in my own family did.
“Are Dominicans white or black?” I asked.
Starr laughed. “Don’t let my father hear you ask that, ‘cause dude would have a heart attack. Poppi’s the color of tar, but he don’t call himself Black. He says Blackness is something you Americans created and that don’t have nothing to do with us Dominicans.”
Though I was confused, I let it go.
Inside the five and ten store, the enticing smell of popcorn and hamburgers lingered in the air. As I looked out for the goofy manager or old sales girls, Starr walked down the aisle and slipped 12-ounce spray-cans into the large pockets sewn into his oversized camouflage coat. Stealing paint with the ease of a professional, he was as graceful as a ballet dancer.
Leaning over, Starr whispered, “Let’s break out.”
Banshee screaming, we dashed through the store. Startled customers panicked as we pushed past them and headed for the glass-and-chrome doors. As we ran across Broadway, car horns hooted, and an exhaust-spewing #4 bus slammed on its brakes.
Accidentally dropping a paint can in front of the McDonalds on the corner, Starr swooped down like a bird, grabbed the paint and kept on flying down the steep hill.
Zooming towards the sanctuary of Riverside Drive, we didn’t stop moving until we reached a splintered park bench. Wiping sweat from our foreheads, we huffed and puffed.
Catching his breath minutes later, Starr reached his dirty fingers under his arm and handed me a plain black book.
“Thanks man, but what’s this for?” I asked, fumbling through the blank pages of the 8 1/2 x 11 sketchbook. A few feet away, a posse of toddlers screamed from inside a sandbox as their chattering mothers ignored them.
“It’s for you to practice your pieces in,” Starr explained. “Treat each page as though it were a canvas or the side of a train. Before you go public, we gotta make sure you’re prepared.”
“That’s what’s up.”
“No, what’s up is I want you to try to take this seriously.
Different styles, different flows, they all get worked out in the book. That’s just your first—we gonna grab a few more once that one gets filled up. But, first you gotta come up with a different tag. Flame is more tired than a worn pair of Keds—make people think you one of those arsonist Ricans up in the Bronx. It’s corny, duke. We need to find you a tag that’s cooler—a name with mystery and flavor.”
An hour later, we passed the Tapia Theater, where Starr noticed a cartoony poster for an upcoming B-movie horror feature (as though the giant rats that roamed through the darkened movie house weren’t scary enough) opening the following week.
The flick was called Swamp Monsters from the Black Sea, some cheap grindhouse flick that looked straight-up wack. If I had been alone, I would have passed the tacky poster without another thought, but Starr stared at the lettering.
“Come over here for a minute,” he said. “I never heard of this movie, but that poster is most definitely my man Jack Davis. That’s my hero—dude draws for Mad magazine, too.”
Joking around, I asked, “How you know all that stuff?”
“I pay attention to everything in graphic design, man. Check out that word ‘Sea.’ Man, think about the visual possibilities; three letters always make the best graff names.”
As though in a daze, Starr finally looked at me. “That’s the new you right there, kid. Sea 153. That’s the joint. Just think how cool that’s going to look on those metal giants; think about how hot that shit is going to sound coming out of the mouth of wack-ass jealous ones.”
Chilling in Starr’s messy bedroom days later, coconut-scented incense drifted through the small space. On the floor were cans of paint, piles of comic books and a stolen library book about Andy Warhol. Glossy posters of Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath were taped to the wall.
Munching on cold, salty plantains that his Indian-skinned mother had left in the fridge, Starr and I watched the beginning of the six o’clock news.
Turning up the sound on the black-and-white television set, Starr lay atop the doo-doo brown linoleum and listened as recently elected Mayor Koch ranted to Eyewitness News reporter Roger Grimsby about the plague of spray paint criminals marauding through the city.
“These parasites are not only destroying property, but they are also vandalizing our beloved metropolis,” Koch said, lounging at a desk stacked with files and papers. “These graffiti people are not artists—they are merely scum. They have helped turn a once wonderful city into Babylon.”
It was hard to believe that such talk was coming out of the mouth of the man who once threatened to have real wolves patrolling the subway yards.
For a brief moment, I thought Starr was going to smash the television screen. “That motherfucker is bugging,” he seethed, switching off the set. “That sissy acts like this city being a cesspool is our fault. I guess it was graffs’ fault that the city went bankrupt last year or that all the lights blew out for two days.”
“Ahh, man, don’t worry about that dude, that’s what he get paid to do…talk shit.”
“Don’t make me laugh. These big shots always trying to make writers out to be some kind of menace to society. Fuck that, we ain’t the ones selling smack to school kids or robbing old folks for their checks. Those City Hall clowns be straight-up crazy.”
“Yeah, they act like writers are desperados or something,” I whined, parroting Starr’s sentiments.
Staring at me, Starr asked, “What did you say?”
“You know, like those dudes dressed in black in cowboy movies.”
Grinning like a crazy person, Starr proclaimed, “Damn, you a genius.” With those few simple words, the Desperado Crew was born. “From here on, it’s going to be all about the DC boys.”
“Shouldn’t there be more than two people in a crew?” I laughed. “Maybe we should call ourselves the Desperado Duo.”
Writing furiously in my black book, I started practicing my new tag. Sea 153 was my name, and I intended to wear it out.
Though Starr had never collaborated with any younger writers before, he continued to teach me. Sharing his vast collection of photos that contained shots of pieces by the Masters of Broadway (Use 2, TERROR 161, Babyrock 137), Ex-Vandals (Wicked Gary, King of Kools, StayHigh 149) and countless others, Starr pointed out each artist’s strengths and weaknesses.
Escorting me to 125th Street and Broadway the following week, Starr introduced me to the writers’ bench crew. A hangout on the outside platform, it was where graff guys perched and watched the train pieces. Though the Bronx bench at 149th and Grand Concourse was more popular, Starr insisted that the 125th Street bench was less hot. “Cops be up there in the Boogie Down just waiting to bust guys.”
Feet firmly planted on the sticky ground, we sat in front of the decayed brick wall covered with various tags. Turning around, I could see my homeboy Kyle’s window and felt a little guilty. He had been my best friend, but I had kind of stopped hanging with him since I’d met Starr.
For the remainder of the day, we watched countless #1 trains. With black book in hand, I copied the different styles. Starr had a Kodak Instamatic in his bag—after taking it out, he snapped a few shots.
“Pay attention,” he said as a dope Spade 127 subway car pulled into the station. Minutes later, there was a beautiful Kaze piece in yellow and red directly in front of us.
About an hour later, a few other writers joined us. “When did you go into the toy bizness?” one sharp-tongued sucker snapped. Because he rarely rolled with other writers, let alone beginners, Starr had warned me that some cats might be jealous. He dug into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wrinkled joint.
Before the bench crew could test me, asking the universal graff question, “Whatuwrite?”, Starr was already schooling them. “This here is Sea 153, and he’s with me. Far as I’m concerned, ‘nuff said.”
After lighting the weed, everybody toked, but nobody spoke for a few minutes. “You blessed, learning from Starr,” a biracial boy who wrote LaRock finally said, exhaling a thick cloud of reefer smoke. “Dude is one step beyond what everybody else is doing.”
Besides being writers, the one common trait all the bench boys shared was telling tall tales about fleeing from the fuzz, the disgusting mole people who dwelled in the tunnels, or being bitten by some surly German Shepard in the train yards. Let them tell it, and the yards and lay-ups were like giant playgrounds hidden away from the majority of the city’s citizens.
The bogey monster they all shared was a hostile police officer they called Inky. One of the crazy cops from the graffiti squad, he had no problems chasing them, throwing slow runners against walls or putting them in deadly chokeholds simply for his amusement.
“Frankenstein ain’t got nothing on that dude,” Paid 3 said. “That dude is scary as hell. Heard he caught Fats 137 bombing over at Esplanade Gardens and threw him down the steps—had that boy over at Sydenham Hospital with stitches in his head.”
“Yeah, that sucker got a real jones for my ass,” Starr added. “I don’t know what I ever did to him.”
“You the only one he ain’t never caught,” Paid 3 replied. “Ain’t that enough?”
“Why ya’ll call him Inky?” I asked.
Everybody busted out laughing. “Can you think of a better name for a graffiti cop?” LaRock finally answered.
By the time we left the 125th Street station, my head was blissfully buzzed. Having met Alive 5, Spade 127, Zam and others over the course of the afternoon, I finally felt as though I belonged.
“Don’t start getting souped-up,” Starr said. “You got a million miles to go before you go to the bench solo and cop a squat on your own rep.”
Glaring out the dirty subway window, I smiled when I saw a huge Cheech Wizard design of Dondi’s on a train gliding down the next track.
“Do you ever think about doing stuff other than writing?” I asked Starr. Though the question wasn’t supposed to be an insult, the way Starr glared back at a brother, you would have sworn I had slapped his mother.
“You haven’t even put up your first piece yet, and you already want to do something else?”
“Naw, ain’t nothing like that,” I quickly countered. “It’s just, you know, all that madness—running from cops, dodging police dogs, bitter toys writing over your work. Seems to get hectic and shit. I’m just saying—it must get to be a little much sometimes.”
“I’m glad there are risks, or else everybody would be wanting to do this. And, believe me, this shit ain’t for everybody.”
Adrenaline flowed through me that September night Starr called to invite me to hook up for a bombing session. “I think you’re ready for the big time,” he said.
At dawn, the full moon lurked behind drifting clouds as me and Starr sauntered to the downtown 145th train station. Somehow, I had convinced mom that I had volunteered to be altar boy for sunrise service.
Sneaking out before she was awake, I wore pressed black slacks, a ratty denim jacket and black Pro-Keds I’d bought at Lee’s over on St. Nick—they were the same sneakers hoop hero Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used to sport on the basketball court.
Both Starr and I carried knapsacks that contained clanking cans of paint. As we neared the station, a lone car sped down Broadway blaring the Latin disco anthem “Get Off” and racing through red lights.
Inside the token booth, the bearded clerk snored as we crawled underneath the wooden turnstile. Scanning the platform for cops or transit workers, we passed a dented Chiclets vending machine attached to a metal pillar and ran down the platform.
I remembered that dude LaRock telling me on the bench, “That 145th Street station ain’t no joke. If it ain’t that cop Inky, it’s the Ballbusters robbin’ niggas or some work bum tryin’ to get a rep with the other transit workers. You never know what’s going to happen in that hole.”
Climbing down the yellow ladder at the end of the platform, rats the size of cats scrabbled across the littered, bolted tracks, darting past rusted Coke cans and candy wrappers. The decay of the tunnels smelled like a lethal mixture of bum piss, rotten food, sewer sludge and dead animals.
“Be careful where you step,” Starr whispered, pointing out the exposed third rail. Sharp rocks pressed into the thin sole of my sneakers. A droplet of dirty water (at least I hoped) dripped on my head as the jukebox in my mind spun War harmonizing “Slipping into Darkness.”
Walking close to the wall covered with scribbled tags, I started to sweat. Well aware of the danger as we strolled towards the layups of the “sleeping” trains, I stayed close to Starr. A few minutes later, he stopped in front of four sets of trains that sat side by side on the unused uptown and downtown tracks. Standing next to the massive subway cars, I felt like a midget.
As though the graff gods had blessed us, three cars had been buffed clean by the city’s acid machines. “Fresh, fresh, fresh,” Starr mumbled, throwing down his knapsack. “You got your piece book?”
Flipping through the pages of the black book, Starr stopped on a dazzling design we had worked on together the same night of Mayor Koch’s anti-graff rant on the news. Without saying a word, he tapped his finger on the picture and smirked wickedly.
“We just gonna do two cars for now,” Starr said, opening his bag. Looking into his eyes, I could tell that he was going into the zone…you know, that special place where artists go when they’re about to touch the hand of God and be directed into realms they never dreamed of.
Starr pulled out about 30 cans of various colored paints and a bottle of Pink Champale. Moments later, buzzed from the malt liquor and paint fumes, Starr taught me the art of outlining the image. We drew a silhouette of the stars exploding in the cosmos, disjointed letters morphing into Hanna-Barbera characters Scooby Doo, Quick Draw McGraw and Fred Flintstone.
Needless to say, being a graff artist ain’t like being in some fancy studio with perfect lighting or ladders. Starr showed me how to climb around like a ghetto gymnast, balancing my right foot on the train behind me.
As the aerosol flow of the paint stained our fingers, all stress of the world disappeared. Juggling the spray cans, Starr switched colors, master-mixing sunset orange and jungle green. Though the toxic fumes made me dizzy, a mad energy surged through me. That Sunday morning, I felt as though I had joined forces with colonists of the underground and the legions of artistic anarchists who were determined to leave proof of their existence on the giant metal beasts that roared throughout our moldering metropolis.
Throwing down with bubble letters and wild-styled characters—squish luscious and Broadway elegant—the piece looked exactly how Starr and I envisioned it that night in his bedroom. Loving every minute of our hard work together, I climbed down and stared at the glory of our creation.
Closing my eyes, I imagined my old friend Kyle staring out his project window, the 125th Street bench boys snapping pictures from the platform and the thousands of eyes who would subliminally realize that Sea 153 was the new upstart on the scene.
It made no difference to me if the subway was scrubbed clean a few days later, because in the minds of those who mattered, the beauty of Desperado Crew Bombing Babylon would be remembered forever.
Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Essence, Latina, Vibe, Stop Smiling and XXL.