In torn jeans, carrying a black backpack, Andrew Witten glances up and down the street for police. The 51-year-old then whips out a black marker and scribbles “Zephyr” on a wall covered with movie posters. He admires his work for a few seconds before his tattooed arms reach for his daughter, holding her hand as he briskly walks away.
Witten and a generation of urban kids who spray-painted their initials all over Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s and landed in the city’s street art scene are coming of age — middle age, that is.
Like Witten, a 51-year-old single father, some street artists considered now to be graffiti elders are having trouble putting away their spray paint cans.
As Witten says: “I’m ready. I could go tonight.”
“I’m chronologically old to be out there doing it,” Witten said with a smile. “I’m sure I can’t run quite as fast.”
Witten built a reputation as a master at spray-painting extravagant graffiti pieces on freight and subway trains, called train-bombing, in the neighborhoods where he now teaches his six-year-old daughter, Lulu, to skateboard. For him, spray-painting other people’s property with his nickname, or tag, is almost an addiction, and danger is part of the drug. Crawling under barbed wire, ducking from police officers, even being shot at is all part of the experience.
However, with an artist’s heart, Witten describes painting graffiti in more poetic terms. He calls it a freeing experience, in which the silence of night gives way to the hiss and mist of the spray rising into the moonlight.
Angel Ortiz recently served 41 days of a 50-day sentence in the Rikers Island jail system after being busted for spraying his tag, LA Roc, on a billboard in March of last year. For decades, Ortiz, 45, has been known on Manhattan’s Lower East Side as LA II. A traumatic loss of a girlfriend brought him out of a 14-year hiatus from graffiti writing. He has since been caught three times spraying his tag, each time while walking a friend’s dog.
“Everywhere that dog stopped to pee I would write my name,” Ortiz said. “The streets were like my canvases. I just started writing my name everywhere.”
When a pair of police officers smelled the fresh paint and nabbed Ortiz, they asked if he saw himself as too old to be doing graffiti. However, even now, Ortiz keeps a spray can or marker in his pocket to satisfy that incessant itch to tag.
Ortiz often recalls those golden days in the 1980s, when graffiti became the focus of the counterculture art world and he partied with Madonna and Andy Warhol. He still lives in the neighborhood where a young art school dropout named Keith Haring showed up at his doorstep in cut-off jeans asking about his tagging style.
Graffiti documentarian and photographer Henry Chalfant looks back at Ortiz’s heyday as a revolutionary time period in street art.
“The culture is gone really,” Chalfant said. “The culture that was alive in the ‘70s and ‘80s doesn’t exist anymore.”
Artists gleaned the raw style off of street kids, while tunnel-hopping graffiti writers honed their abilities to be commercially successful. It was a time when graffiti tagging exploded into battles over the artists who could produce the most visually edgy, elaborate murals in the most dangerous, inaccessible places without getting caught.
Chalfant says change came when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority took over the New York regional train system and manufacturers started to build paint-resistant trains. Police also aggressively cracked down on graffiti in the 1980s and 1990s.