March 4, 2004

The Art of Aerosol

Print More

Ever since the caves at Lascaux and the fall of the Roman Empire, old-timer tattletales and young, svelte taggers have been arguing over whether graffiti is a genuine art form, a goofy hobby, a cultural necessity, or just a method of seriously damaging private and state property. Like all great art, however, graffiti is often simultaneously a masterpiece and a felony.

The current crop of graffiti art was born in Brooklyn and Harlem in the 1970s as one of the fundamentals of hip-hop culture (along with turntablism and break-dancing). For every “bombing” or “wild-style” tag you see on subway platforms or on dingy concrete in the projects, there are huge murals drawn on abandoned warehouse walls that sell for thousands of dollars to all sorts of members of the aristocracy. Clearly it was time for daze to catch up with state-of-the-art New York graffiti. Guiding our tour is a gasmask-wearing, paintcan-wielding graffiti mastermind living in the Finger Lakes region. daze was told to call him Anthony Saint Berkinsword (or Death Phoenix), and we met him at a vacant tower near an Owego railroad around midnight. Here’s what he told us:

Daze: A lot of people, particularly police officers, fail to see the aesthetic beauty in graffiti. What’s the worst that could happen?

Berkinsword: If it’s private property, a lot of people just won’t care. They won’t even show up in court to prosecute. If it’s public property, they’ll go after you. There are guys who have gone to jail for four years. But if you’re under 18, nothing will happen. A fair amount of taggers are really rich. At some point, most people stop stealing paint, and you’re going to need to cover court costs. Also, if you’re poor, you’re not gonna have a lot of time to wander around at 5 in the morning. You’re going to be working in factories in all day, not writing your name in 30-foot-tall letters on buses. But everyone goes through a phase where you write on cop cars once or twice.

Daze: So what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you while painting?

Berkinsword: Well, we were working on this tunnel, and there’s a really small ledge to stand on. The whole time these huge semis are rolling by us, running up on the sides, and there’s no clearance. So the cops saw us, and my friend falls right off onto the cops’ windshield. It broke both his legs, and he bounced over the car on his back. He managed to climb over the freeway’s edge and crawled into this creek. Then he called some friends to pick him up and checked into a hospital out of state. But he wasn’t the brightest of guys. It was probably half his fault and half the cops’. Oh, and there was this guy, Tye, from San Fran. He was trying to spray this house he thought was abandoned. But it was being lived in by a guy who thought Tye was trying to break in. Tye got shot in the head and died immediately. The worst thing that’s happened to me personally is working on a freeway at night. I was out there for two hours and got frostbite.

Daze: Who’s the strangest person you’ve met while painting?

Berkinsword: Some friends and I were working on this abandoned elevated rail station off a freight line. People used to bomb there a lot ’cause the door is cindered shut, so it’s hard for the cops to get in. There’s a lot of hobos, but they’re usually cool. But this insane Hispanic guy was there once and gave us the dirtiest look I’ve ever seen. A few weeks later we saw him on America’s Most Wanted and realized the guy was Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, the notorious hobo serial killer. There’s also this guy, Saber. There are a lot of rumors about his friends and hammer fights. Saber always draws pentagrams and devil imagery.

Daze: Hammer fights?

Berkinsword: Yeah, all manner of stories about people hammering their ears off, and then those guys retaliate with razors. I don’t know too much about it.

Archived article by Daze Staff