Pittsburgh’s graffiti elite confess their obsession with illegal art.
Equal parts obsession and destruction, creative expression and euphoric rush, modern graffiti is a visual language spoken by a faceless network of renegade artists, outsiders and deviant thrill-seekers — each of them bent on leaving a mark. And for more than two decades, Pittsburgh’s post-industrial sprawl — its abandoned buildings, miles of open highway, pocket neighborhoods and freight yards — has been a graffiti writer’s dream.
The city’s first generation of graffiti writers were more isolated than their counterparts in Philadelphia and New York, where graffiti had been a staple of street life since the late 1960s and early 1970s. But both locally and nationally, graffiti has evolved from its seemingly insular metropolitan roots. The Pittsburgh graffiti movement not only matured but flourished, producing nationally and internationally respected graffiti writers including such figures as Necske, Onorok, 21Rak, Prism and Reke.
With its countless writers and varying styles, Pittsburgh’s graffiti movement has a detailed history that has remained relatively untold for nearly two decades. The genesis of the scene came in the early 1980s, when prominent local graffiti crews including G-Force, Badassest and TVA (The Versatile Artists) — which produced writers such as Buda, Badroc, Smash and Damage — were making their mark. These writers and their crews were a talented albeit mischievous cast of players, and together they laid the foundation for a booming, and culturally significant, graffiti movement in the city.
Graffiti will always be steeped in controversy and public outrage; though an art form, it remains illegal. Yet it is the illegality that spurs the writers themselves to act as purveyors and historians, passing down stories and sharing photos, maintaining the legacy of the culture they love. In a candid series of interviews, Pittsburgh’s graffiti elite not only confess their obsession with illegal art, but also open their photo albums to reveal a quarter-century of work that is here today and gone tomorrow.
Graffiti writers coming of age in Pittsburgh faced a unique challenge — no established scene, which meant no built-in support system. Peers in New York and Philly grew up seeing graffiti on subway cars and city walls, and often had a friend, brother or cousin who introduced them to the scene. However, even without such points of reference, Pittsburgh writers quickly gained their footing.
“I first learned about graffiti from [reading] ‘how to breakdance’ books in the early 1980s,” says Buda, 35, a Pittsburgh native now living in Los Angeles. “I liked to draw, and when I saw graffiti on the backdrops of breakdance competitions, I just thought it was the most amazing thing and set out to learn more about it.”
Buda began painting in 1983, and soon began employing a new 3-D lettering style called “Monster Rock.” The style, which entailed orienting letters both frontward and backward, often within the same piece, was a twist on letters New York writers were doing. Soon enough, Buda was helping to put Pittsburgh graffiti on the map. A now-famous photo of Buda’s work — a piece he, Badroc and Burn collaborated on in Millvale — exemplified this new style and was featured in the encyclopedic 1986 work Spraycan Art, by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff.
“I always wanted to be better than anyone in New York,” Buda says, “which was kind of hard when you are one of the few writers in the city, and there isn’t as much infrastructure to drive you. So, we had to make a lot of things up for ourselves — that’s what ultimately ended up driving my signature style.”
The trips Buda took to New York in the mid- to late 1980s were critical to his artistic development. In addition to working with famed New York artists, Buda founded Badassest, the first Pittsburgh graffiti crew with multi-city connections that included New York and Boston.
“The cool thing was getting to know all the guys from different backgrounds,” Buda explains. “I realize I was part of something special; I was welcomed into their homes and vice versa — a good cross-cultural connect.”
While Buda still manages to paint, the gaps between his pieces has become longer as he continues his deejaying career (Buda threw Pittsburgh’s first rave party, in 1991) and his latest project, an animated feature film titled Deadly Buda (www.deadlybuda.com).
“You never really stop [doing graffiti], only occasionally slow down,” Buda says. “I just don’t have it in me to be out there 24/7 huffing fumes. Who knows though, maybe I’m just hibernating.”
“I always used to see shit around [my neighborhood] and I was interested in graffiti,” says Azo, 33, seated on a folding chair in the back room of his shop in the North Side. “My cousin, Mist 2, was one of the main dudes in a crew called the AC Boys. I knew he [did graffiti], but I was young then. We had a little break[dancing] group [named] Tic Tac Toe, so I started tagging Tic at first, just around the neighborhood. Then the movie Style Wars came along.”
When Style Wars — the documentary by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant about New York graffiti artists — aired on PBS in 1984, it completely changed the way that Azo, and an entire generation, viewed graffiti culture.
Like a lot of other writers, Azo had begun with “tags” (putting up a graffiti writer’s moniker). But as Style Wars showed, a true graffiti artist had to be versatile, skilled not only at tagging, but also at “throw-ups” (quick one- and two-color bubble- and block-letter designs) and, most importantly, “pieces” (large scale, multi-color murals).
By the mid- to late 1980s, a teen-age Azo began noticing the growth of the Pittsburgh scene. He’d started tagging with a partner around Lincoln-Larimer and Homewood. “We got cool and started going out all the time and we started our own little clique,” Azo says. “First it was called the Graffiti Wizards, then we changed it to the Graffiti Hustlers.” Born from friendships — whether at school, around the neighborhood or in the family — such crews learned and perfected their craft through shared knowledge, friendly competition and experimentation.
One of Azo’s collaborators, Smash, was a key player in the early days of Pittsburgh’s graffiti scene. Smash was among the first writers to paint pieces on the Martin Luther King Jr. Busway — an area now regarded by many writers as the city’s graffiti hall of fame. In the early ’80s, the busway became to Pittsburgh graffiti writers what the subway had been to New York writers: a heavily trafficked corridor with a captive audience of daily commuters.
In 1988, when Azo was attending summer school, he met a writer from East Liberty who tagged using the name “Force One.” For Azo, his new friendship with Force, a young white kid, gave him a broader perspective on graffiti: What Azo had primarily viewed as an African-American tradition now became an all-encompassing youth movement.
“It never leaves you,” Azo says about the desire to do graffiti. “It’s the thrill of seeing your name up. It’s like an unwritten code, something that only you and other writers know about.”
“I grew up all around these tracks, all around East Liberty,” says Force One, 33, motioning to the busway several hundred feet from the front door of his Time Bomb shop. “Collecting bottles, breaking them on trains, we were crazy young kids, raised some hell. That’s why we put our efforts into graffiti: Graffiti was [still] destruction, [but] creative destruction.”
When you talk about the history of Pittsburgh graffiti, the name Force One is mentioned repeatedly — both as an influential artist and as an organizer. He sought to create a strong local legacy, rivaled only by cities like Philly and New York. The work of Force and his cohorts can still be seen in the city today — namely in the form of the vivid pieces viewed by morning commuters riding the East Busway.
Force One’s obsession with graffiti dates to the mid-1980s, when he was painting massive alley pieces using his last name — a tag that quickly became a problem. “In ’89 I really started going to other cities and linkin’ up with Philly writers and New York writers and more or less progressing my style. … Then the busway became the mural spot.”
To Force, the graffiti crew was more than just a bunch of kids painting and scribbling their tags together: It was gang, family and social circle. After founding a crew with Serg (see below), Force soon branched out: He began TBC (Time Bomb Crew), a network of friends affiliated with his hardcore band of the same name. When the band dissolved, the group later changed to an all-out graffiti crew.
“When I was young I was busted so many times [and] just still kept going out,” Force says. “I was definitely brainwashed by graffiti. It was the whole culture of it [that attracted me]. More kids get into it and more people get out of it, but it never stops.”
“I started painting when I first saw Style Wars, so that was like ,” says Jamie Matthews (a.k.a. Serg), 35, seated at a table in a local bagel shop, baseball cap flipped backward on his head. “Back [then], basically everybody that breakdanced or hung out in that kind of culture had a tag, because it was just what you did. Everybody was trying to emulate New York City.”
After tagging walls and painting pieces in and around his hometown of Bellevue, Matthews branched out into the city. “I started doing graffiti a lot,” he explains. “I started hitting the busway and places like that.”
By 1989, Matthews and Force One formed a crew they called SDA (Super Dope Artists). The duo began painting ornate pieces that featured not only letters, but characters and detailed backgrounds that connected to one another, compositions that writers now call “productions.”
“The main thing was getting lots of paint,” Matthews says. “If you wanted to do anything, you just had to have tons and tons of paint — however you could get it.”
Though stealing or “racking” spray paint is the preferred method among many writers, Matthews opted for a different route — flea markets. “There is a really cool flea market in Ohio,” he says, “[where] I’ve gotten crates of paint like Jungle Green and colors that are really hard to get.”
In late ’80s and early ’90s Pittsburgh, Matthews defined what it meant to “get up,” as writers say, and reach a wider public audience. By going “all-city” — catching tags in every neighborhood, throw-ups on highway walls and pieces on the busway — Matthews left a legacy that cemented his status as a legend in Pittsburgh graffiti.
It also ensured his highly publicized arrest in the early ’90s, a turn of events that forced him into early retirement. More than a decade later, Matthews’ notoriety — and his trouble with the law — would be echoed by Mook, a writer best known for climbing the 10th Street Bridge to scrawl his tag.
“[I]f you want to get up,” Matthews says, “you have to do throw-ups, do tags, do everything and hit everything to the point where everyone’s like, ‘My God, Serg is everywhere.'”
Having painted since the early ’90s, 21Rak is a graffiti writer’s writer, the type of artist who continually reinvents his style to keep things fresh.
“You never sit down and say: ‘That was the best piece I ever did, I’m going to stop painting. I can’t get any better. I’m just going to retire,'” he says, laughing a bit at the thought. 21Rak was devoted to “freestyling,” a type of improvisation: The freestyler works with a general idea in mind, as might a trio of musicians, but then letting the mood of the moment dictate the construction and final creative outcome.
“Whenever I first started painting [pieces], I always had a sketch with me,” 21Rak recalls. “But freestyling is so much more in the moment, an [expression] of how you’re feeling at that time. You just do it and hopefully it’s dope.”
21Rak has carved a niche for himself as a skilled painter of walls and freight trains. For he and other writers, the notion of painting walls beneath bridges and in secluded suburban and rural areas has been overshadowed by the desire to paint freight trains — a strain of graffiti that started in the early 1990s and which enthusiasts sometimes refer to as the North American Freight Train Movement.
While living out west in the late ’90s, 21Rak was introduced to a predominantly West Coast style. That’s when he really began experimenting with freestyling, as well as new ways of painting freights.
“What I like about trains [is] they’re usually not easy spots to paint,” he says. “When you see a piece or even just a throw-up or a tag on a train, you know that person may have been in some really rough shit painting that. There’s also just something about [painting] cool-looking trains.”
After so many years under the influence of graffiti, 21Rak claims that it’s difficult to think of life without it.
“I don’t know how graffiti looks to someone that doesn’t know graffiti,” he says. “Like, when they’re driving [and see it] what do they think? I’m sure they fucking hate it.” But as a graffiti writer, he says, “you’re not doing it for the people that don’t understand it. You’re doing it for the people that do.”
“Crime — it was all about crime,” Prism says, confessing what initially attracted him to graffiti. “I was very destructive; it was the rush, the thrill that turned me on. I wasn’t the least bit interested in art.”
Initially, Prism was a graffiti apprentice of sorts, serving as a lookout for Force One and helping him fill in his pieces. However, as he became more infatuated with graffiti, he became more active himself.
“It was a very natural progression because the shit was [everywhere in my] neighborhood,” Prism says. “Like right now, we’re sitting across the street from where [Dasez and Smash Money’s] ‘Pop Life’ piece from Spraycan Art was.”
Influenced by Buda’s “Monster Rock Style,” Prism practiced piecing and developed his own skills as a writer. Later, he focused on painting freights, a selection of which were featured in Nicholas Ganz’s 2004 book Graffiti World.
Along with partners Sesk and Prime, Prism began painting beneath the Bloomfield Bridge in Polish Hill in 1991. “One of the first most memorable things we did,” he explains, “was going and recycling aluminum cans [for cash] and stealing paint from Wheeler’s Paint in East Liberty and going to the 23rd Street warehouse [to paint pieces].”
In the late ’80s, the Strip District warehouse — which is more widely known as the old Armstrong Cork Factory — became a hot spot for local graffiti writers. It’s now being renovated into luxury apartments, but some of the graffiti is memorialized in the book Unquiet Ruin, by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer Annie O’Neill. Back then, however, the building was devoid of graffiti.
Along with a writer named Tect, who discovered the warehouse, Prism’s crew planed to build a skate park there. But one day, Serg, Force and crew also discovered the site, and painted the now-legendary “Super Dope Masterpiece.” As Prism recalls, “[That] was the first piece ever in the warehouse,” he says. “There wasn’t even a tag in that fuckin’ place before that.”
“We were all out there doing [graffiti] because we thought the police and all these people who live by these false pretenses are a bunch of assholes,” Prism says. “Most of us were from blue-collar families and this was a voice we could have in a world that told us to shut the fuck up all the time. You couldn’t say no to this.”
“It was definitely about the fame,” Onorok says, confessing one of his motivations for writing graffiti. “A fun thing about graffiti is being able to go and do something in a crazy [public] spot and have your friends say, ‘Oh, I saw what you did.'”
A transplant from upstate New York known for his unorthodox letter style and fresh geometric designs, Onorok hooked up early on with writers including Necske, Nise and Dever. Though quiet and humble, Onorok quickly joined the ranks of NSF (New School’s Freshest), one of the city’s premiere and most prolific graffiti crews.
“Everyone [I painted with] had such a different style … which is rare,” Onorok says. “Nowadays, you’ll see a production wall and everyone has the same exact letters. That’s actually a really cool aspect of Pittsburgh graffiti: a lot of originality and different styles, but everyone painting together.”
Onorok worked tirelessly honing his skills, taking photos of his work and constantly tweaking his style — a work habit he perfected while painting in Pittsburgh. He earned his creative stripes in the mid-to-late ’90s, just as the freight-train movement was really taking off.
“I got addicted to it,” Onorok says. Freight trains provided national exposure, and the adventure of sneaking into train yards. “Necske took me to [paint] my first train in Pittsburgh [which] really got me amped,” Onorok recalls. “Necske [painted] a lot of trains before I even did my first train. I’d see his [pieces] roll by twice sometimes in the same yard. I’d be like, ‘Wow, this guy must have so many trains.’ You figure the freight system is just so huge, so I’d think: I want people to go to the yard and see [my pieces] two or three times.”
“Being a member of the subculture is like, you’re a member of something that normal society has no idea about,” says Conda, sipping green tea at the Beehive coffee shop on Pittsburgh’s South Side. “The average person doesn’t understand what it is to be a [graffiti] writer and go out at night [when] you have police to worry about, gangs to worry about, crazy lunatics — it’s the nighttime, it’s the street.
“[Graffiti for me] was more of a reaction to depression and having a need to feel some self-worth,” he explains. “I guess maybe it was an ego boost, you know? You see your name and it boosts you up a bit, like you have some self-worth — whether it’s an illusion or not, it’s there and present.”
Conda was first exposed to graffiti in the mid-1980s while living in Savannah, Ga., where he recalls watching the films Beat Street and Wild Style. When his family moved to Honolulu, he became inspired by Hawaii’s thriving graffiti culture. After relocating to Pittsburgh in 1989, Conda was born.
“The first thing I ever painted was at — I won’t mention the high school — but at a certain high school,” he says. “We painted these rooftops, and of course mine was the most horrible thing up there.”
But Conda didn’t prefer going to usual spots, such as the busway. “I remember going down to what is now the Eliza Furnace Trail, and it was just train tracks,” he explains. “I would walk down these tracks that were abandoned, there were just these huge walls, the support walls for the Parkway, and it was so peaceful.” Today, the spot is frequented by writers and bicyclists alike. “I started painting down there as an alternative — now it’s overrun.”
While the reckless days of his 20s are behind him, retirement doesn’t sit well with Conda. He’s stayed active for more than 15 years in a culture where most writers burn out after two or three.
“Even if I say, ‘I don’t want to vandalize anyone’s property,’ I still want to have my name in the street,” he says. “I think I’ll be an old guy, writing my name in an elevator or walking down the street, [and when] no one’s looking, I’ll write my name on a mailbox. I don’t see it as something I can necessarily stop doing.”
The Archivist: Henry Chalfant
Born and raised in Sewickley, photographer Henry Chalfant is co-author of Subway Art and Spraycan Art, the definitive books on national and international graffiti culture. The producer of the highly influential documentary Style Wars has chronicled New York City graffiti and hip-hop culture since its infancy in the mid-1970s.
How did you know what was happening in the Pittsburgh graffiti scene?
I would come back to visit my mother fairly frequently. So on those visits, I would see that there was some activity going on in Pittsburgh. When Subway Art came out, in 1984, shortly after that I was contacted by Buda — he was probably 14 or 15. He was very enthusiastic about [the book] and he was writing away — creating pieces like crazy in his sketchbook. He would send me examples. Not too long after that, he and Badroc came on a trip to New York and spent a couple of days. So I met him at that point.
While you were shooting photos for Spraycan Art, what aesthetics did you notice about the city’s burgeoning graffiti culture?
Style-wise things were starting to evolve in their own ways. I know [Buda’s work] best because I sort of watched him evolve. He sent me a lot of stuff that he was doing. He was … doing his own version of “Computer Rock.” But it was definitely his own style. [Also,] two things happened as you got away from the center [of Pittsburgh]: [The graffiti] was sometimes very primitive, very sort of eclectic, derivative of New York style. But there was also an infusion of art school and airbrush, comic and animation artists who got involved and that pushed it to another level — not just in Pittsburgh, but in California, Australia, Europe. That totally influenced New York style. It was less expressionistic and more cohesive.
Do you believe graffiti becomes an obsession?
It clearly takes over a person’s life. It’s the combination of the hit of seeing your piece out there like that, and the knowledge that if you don’t keep doing it you won’t get anywhere. You can’t just do a piece and say, ‘Hey, I’m a writer,’ and be done with it, because it won’t be long and it’s all gone and you’re nobody. There is really a lot of pressure.
In a city such as Pittsburgh, does environment influence style the same way it does in cities like New York and Philiadelphia?
Philly had its own style growing up with New York, and in some cases probably preceding New York. Philly really had a different style that evolved. I remember seeing “wickets” out there — the tall skinny tags that people were doing. And of course the pieces were static, they were on buildings where the trains would go by. They were still connected to transportation, but [instead of being on subway cars, as in NYC] the pieces were on buildings, which was sort of the thing in Pittsburgh too. Location was what was different in Pittsburgh — highway overpasses, underpasses and busways. Where the buses and trolleys [went] through Pittsburgh, there was graffiti in those places, anywhere where people would watch.
Originally published by Pittsburgh City Paper in November 2005.
(Photographs in slideshow: Henry Chalfant, used with permission. Captions: 1. Dasez and Buda. 2. Kid Kraze from G-Force (note the piece by Savage). 3. G-Force marker tag on the Sixth Street Bridge. 4. Deon. 5. Reunion. 6. Insert.)