Bell bottom pants were in style and gangs like the Black Spades ruled the streets when Ale One began painting Bronx subway trains in the summer of 1972. As a popular writer among his peers he wrote with many famous writers throughout the 70s.
Unlike most, he always carried his camera with him, and in his book, Classic Hits: New York’s Pioneering Subway Graffiti Writers, All Jive 161, Blade, Cay 161, Checker 170, Clyde, Death, FDT 56, Flint 707, Iz The Wiz, Jester 1, Joe 182, Lava, LSD OM, Mico, Pnut 2, Roger 1, Ski 168, Snake 1, Taki 183 and Vamm and Phase 2 tell their stories from the early days of subway writing.
In partenership with Dokument, Lectrics presents the interview of Ale One.
Björn Amlqvist: You started writing and exploring the streets of the Bronx at the age of 13. What was it like to be out and about on nightly adventures as a young kid in the 70s?
Ale One: It was a great period in my life. There was no video games or computers to use in the early 70s. My writing partners and I lived the adventure for real. The adrenaline rush of painting in yards and lay up during the day and night was addicting. There were so many people to meet and places to go, I was never bored.
In what ways is New York different today compared to when you were a teenager?
Today with Google Earth and surveillance cameras everywhere, New York has lost its innocence. The streets and subways are safer but at the cost of our freedoms. Big brother is now watching every move we make. The 70s was a time of great music, artistic expression and social interaction.
Your own kids are a bit older than you where when you started writing on the trains. What would you have said if they would have gotten into graffiti, and did the same things that you did at that age?
That’s a tough question to answer. I took writing graffiti very seriously. My friends and I looked out for each other in every way. We were young but very aware of what we were doing. As a parent I would probably be upset to know my son was painting trains.
What do you think writing and living the graffiti lifestyle did for you as a person?
I developed social skills interacting with writers of different races and cultures. These skills are helpful in my present employment in professional sales.
Did writing cause you any serious problems?
Only once. There was a well known writer who, after being caught by the cops stealing spray paint, gave me up thinking he would get off easier. It was a lesson in how careful you need to be when choosing friends.
What made you want to start writing?
I was always artistic, drawing comic cartoons and building model cars. Painting a train came very natural to me as I was already very handy with a spray can. After I saw my first masterpiece run on the number 5 subway line, I was instantly attracted to the graffiti lifestyle. It was very exciting to be part of the culture.
Why did you want to do a book about your years as a writer?
I wanted to present a more accurate history of how the subway art movement started. Who better to explain the culture then the original writers themselves.
What did you miss in the books that already existed about the era?
The writers were never allowed to express themselves freely and there was no fact checking by the authors as to their accomplishments. I also felt that too many photographers were publishing books on the photos that they took of subway art and not enough books were published by the writers themselves.
What is the most common misunderstanding about the early years of subway writing in New York?
By late 1976 the building blocks of style were already established. Many writers like myself drew characters and experimented with different color combinations. Many people believe the big colorful pieces came out in the late 70s, early 80s but less technical versions were already done in the earlier years of subway art.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while putting this book together?
One of the biggest challenges was getting bright clear photos to best represent the early days of subway art. Also, I wanted to publish the artwork of writers never seen before. Classic Hits is not a graffiti book showcasing the usual suspects!