February 18, 2016
Of the youthful army of the 1970s and ’80s propelling writing culture into a bonafide movement, SEEN was always ahead of the charge. For 16 years and across all New York City train lines, the fire of S-E-E-N was a crucible from which generations of graf soldiers were forged. Painting since ’73, the Bronx-born bomber and his UA crew blazed the tracks with dozens of whole-car top-to-bottoms, dripping with color and True York heart.
SEEN was also an early ambassador of writing culture abroad. Lionized in Style Wars and dubbed the “Godfather of Graffiti,” he brought his talents from steel to canvas, exhibiting at galleries and museums the world over. True story: When showing for the first time at a museum in Amsterdam, a SEEN piece hung next to a Picasso. Not too shabby for a kid from Pelham Bay. But, ever a true vandal at heart, SEEN continued to hit trains, even after ramped-up pressures from the MTA had stymied others from doing so.
In recent years though, perfectly content to paint in his studio in Las Vegas, SEEN has mostly shied away from the siren song of fame. But, lucky for us, the true OG is unveiling a solo exhibition at RISK’s new project, Buckshot Gallery in Los Angeles. For Old New York, SEEN revisits a particularly fruitful period spent in Paris some years back. While there, digesting his new surroundings and contemplating home, he eagerly stretched beyond the confines of the letter and began experimenting with abstraction, fluidity in color, and unexpected materials. While Old New York satisfies the itch to experience the artist’s native tongue, his killer free-hand graf skills, it also affords a welcomed glimpse into his journey at the time, articulating a new-found visual emancipation.
We hopped on a call with SEEN this week to learn more.
Mass Appeal: How did this new exhibition come about?
SEEN: Well, I gotta be honest with ya. These days, I’m more happy coming into the studio every day, and just doing my work. And when I’m finished with it, I’m happy to put it away. To me, that’s good. But, with this exhibit, RISKY is involved with doing this gallery project for artists to show works outside of what they are known for. Normally, I wouldn’t of did it, but, it’s RISKY, so I had to say yes. In the beginning, I was kicking myself in the head for agreeing to do it. Then I thought, “Maybe this is nice, because there’s still that little bit of me that likes the idea that I could exhibit works that the public doesn’t normally get to see from me.” They’re just used to seeing the lettering S-E-E-N in graffiti. This exhibit goes beyond that. The majority of the works being shown were created at a time when it was my time to do and explore other areas. So, I thought, “Okay. This is going to be pretty cool.”
The bulk of this work was created during time you spent in Paris?
Yeah. Even most of the pieces that are labeled New York works were all done in Paris. Back when I was doing my thing in New York, painting the trains and walls, it was all about color for me. Color that jumped out and smashed you in the face. But, once I was in Paris, I really started to explore different aspects of abstraction. The funny thing is while there, I started to see New York for what it was. As I got deeper into it, I saw New York as very dark and gloomy. When you have time to sit and think, you have time to see things differently. So, this exhibition is divided in half. One half is abstract and I think more bright and colorful, and the other half is graffiti and you can see the grays in it.
Do you have any idea why European galleries and museums were always more receptive to writing culture than those in the U.S.?
At that time, Europeans seem to be more open and accepting to new things. I’d been showing my work outside the U.S. since 1979. It was Europe that welcomed me with open arms. In the U.S., it’s still a fight. It is what it is. Back then, I was just doing my thing. The gift for me was that none of it held me back from paining. It just opened more doors.
But unlike RISK and most other dudes, you never got down with painting permission walls.
Oh no. I despised that. It really kills me and I tell you why. I grew up in a time where this is the way it was done: You went there. You painted. You got out. And then you went and did another one. One particular time, I tried a [permission] wall. We was painting and before it gets dark, the wind usually kicks up a little bit and then it dies out. It’s the normal way the world works. But, as I was painting, the wind was kicking up and the four or five guys that I’m painting with all start packing up. Because it got a little windy! I was like, “What are you guys doin’?” “Oh well, we’re going to come back tomorrow or next weekend to finish it.” I says, “What?! Tomorrow or next weekend? What are you talking about? You paint. You finish now and then tomorrow, you do a new one.” You do 10 more new ones by next week! I don’t know. The feeling was gone. Back then, you always had to look over your shoulder while you were painting to make sure you didn’t get chased or caught by the police. All of that was gone.
You were all about the thrill of getting over.
For me, that was the key to it all. I’d have no motivation to do a permission wall. None. But, if you told me we were going to paint this train today? You know I’d be there—because the excitement would be there. Now, do I miss going painting? No. But, if I was with someone and they had a bag of paint and they said, “We’re going to paint right now.” I’m sure I’d jump right in.
Old habits die hard.
Exactly. I don’t dream about it anymore, but, if I was put in that position, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
So, growing up in the Bronx, the 6 line was basically your backyard?
Yeah. It was right there in my backyard. I grew up in the Pelham Bay area. Four blocks to the number 6 line elevated tracks. My station was Buhre Avenue. Two more stops down is the Westchester number 6 yard. So technically, I was walking distance from the 6 yard and the layups right here. That’s why I did so many pieces on those trains. When I could’t sleep at night, that’s where you could find me [Laughs]. And that’s a true story. There were many nights that I couldn’t sleep, and so I’d get up, grab a few cans of paint and I’d walk to the Buhre Avenue layup. I’d jump on the tracks, the no-clearance there, do a quick top-to-bottom and then go home and sleep like a baby.
Did you always write SEEN?
I wrote a million names. My very first name that never made it to the subways was FAITH I. It was very short-lived. I never went passed the skinny markers with that. But, over the course of time, I wrote many, many names. I had Psycho, Demon, Apache, OD3. The names just go on. I did that because there is only so much you can do with the same letters over and over. So, to put a little excitement in my life, yeah, I’d do different names. Through the years, I had more secondary names that got up more than writers got up. Most of the time though, with the SEEN pieces, I always made sure they were more readable.
Which is a hallmark aspect of your style.
Yup. A good friend of mine who passed away a long time ago now was Billy167. Billy was ahead of his time with style. I mean he gave everyone style. Whether he handed other writers drawings of their names or it was writers just seeing Billy’s work, they gravitated towards his style and then grew from there. What I saw with Billy was the idea to do wildstyle, but make it so you could always see what it said. I wasn’t just caring about the other graffiti writers seeing my name. I cared about the public, the average straphanger that rode the train to and from work everyday. The key was for them to be able to read it. And I incorporated cartoons basically every time I wrote my name. They were characters that I loved. When the people would lift up their heads from reading the newspaper in the morning, that’s what would smack them in the head. The SEEN with the Pink Panther or whatever character I was doing.
So when you were benching, you’d watch people react to your work in real time?
That I used to love doing. Whether I was just finishing a piece and it was just pulling out of the yard, or if I finished and had gone home, I was alway up first thing in the morning at the train station taking photographs, waiting for the train to come by. It would be rush hour mornings and they’d be reading the newspaper with a cup of coffee in their hand, and I used to love when they would lift up their head and then put it down and then lift it up for a second time. It was crazy, especially when a whole car top-to-bottom would come rolling into the station. I used to love to see the expression on people’s faces—from all walks of life.
Do you remember the first time you painted a train?
That was a Saturday afternoon. I’ll never forget. Late summer. My brother is a year and a half younger than me and he came to the yard with me. It was broad daylight. I went in through a hole in the fence. Now, the hole in the fence was made by the workers back then. It was their little escape route to disappear during working hours. We went in through the fence and into the yard. I remember painting my first piece, which was in harvest gold fill-in and Chinese red outline. I did my painting. My brother did his little painting and then as we came out of the yard, uniformed police were pulling in. They weren’t there for us, but we didn’t know that. When I saw the police, I jumped over a fence into a junkyard and I ran all the way home. Me and my brother spilt up. I thought that maybe he got into trouble and so I asked an older friend of mine in the neighborhood that lived next door to go check the police station for my brother. We were so young, you know? [Laughs] I didn’t have any idea. It turned out that the cops didn’t even bother with my brother.
And how old were you?
I was 11.
Had someone in the neighborhood taken you to a layup before that?
No. I figured that all out on my own. I remember the first time I went up to the Buhre Avenue station. I ran underneath the turnstile and I went up on the station and got on the train. I took a marker tag, a motion tag. Got off at the next stop and waited for the next train. And took another marker tag. [Laughs] I’d do that up and down, up and down the line. I always did it on my own. But mind you, I thought the number 6 line was the only train out there. I had no clue. I would just wait for the trains to pull in and then go paint. I didn’t care to be with anybody. Less people the better. Then, I had to figure out how to get paint. So, then I’m going to the local hardware stores and stealing a can here, two cans there. But, back then, you only needed two cans of paint: one for the fill, one for the outline. Then you’d reverse the colors. You’d get two pieces out of them. So, I was doing that for a long time, until I realized this isn’t working. Next thing you know, I’m walking into hardware stores and I’m filling up shopping bags with paint. One in each sock, you know? I’d get what I could get. Then later on, I learned how to back rack, where you come out of the store with thirty cans of paint and still have your jacket unzipped and no one’s the wiser.[Laughs] It was crazy what I had to do for everything. Nobody had any money. Everything was stolen. And God forbid, if you bought paint. Someone knew that you bought paint, they would take it right off of ya.
What do you think about writing culture today?
[Groans] I don’t know. Today, you know, what you can do with the paints that they create solely for graffiti-use is like using an airbrush. You can make magic today. Honestly…after, I believe it was April 17 or 19 of 1989, when New York City said that there would be no more trains running with graffiti, that was the end of the graffiti era. Yes, there are some really talent people out there today using the spray can and doing beautiful murals. But, that’s not graffiti. That’s murals. For me, it’s dead. This is why I never felt it was a free expression, in my own beliefs, because no matter what you do inside the letter, you’re still trapping it with an outline. The only thing that you can do with it now is go beyond the entrapment of the letter.
I mean, people don’t know the origins anymore. What’s happening now is that anybody with computer knowledge of Photoshop and this and that can create any form of graffiti and they don’t know anything about it. But, I mean with anything in life, not just this, but anything in life, you should know background and history. Learn about something if you are looking to partake in the adventure.