The Unseen

Miami has a long, proud tradition of graffiti art

Two weeks ago Style Wars, a PBS documentary on the early-Eighties graffiti scene in New York, was rereleased on DVD. For those who don't know, Style Wars is necessary viewing for anyone wishing to know about old-school hip-hop in general and graff writing in particular. But the 1983 film never achieved the notoriety that Wild Style -- another, albeit fictional, snapshot of early b-boy culture -- did, and is only now garnering an official release after circulating for years on bootleg videocassettes.

This got Basshead wondering: What do local writers think of Style Wars? "I think that movie is awesome. I love Spit," gushes Paulita Bennett, a graffiti enthusiast who recently opened an urban clothing boutique called YoYo on 742 NE 79th St. last November. Actually, the villain in Style Wars is real-life tagger Cap; Spit is the fictional "hater" from the movie Beat Street. But Paulita knows her shit. She's organizing a panel discussion featuring some of Miami's top writers, including Say (ATA crew), Meks (AIM/Artists in Motion), Seam (VO5), KVE (FS/Flavor Saver), and others. The event is meant to call attention to Miami's own rich history in aerosol art, which extends back to the early Eighties. "In New York people know Lady Pink and Dondi," she points out. "Even in Miami we know these people. But how many people here know Miami?

"I met up with this cat the other day," she continues, "and she was showing me stuff from '81, '82." Back then, she explains, graffiti was much more widespread throughout the city, particularly in the Westchester area. Crews like VO5, who later became WHO; AIM (Artists in Motion); and ATA used to cover entire walls and rooftops with tags, pieces, and throw-ups. Today many established writers take their talents into the art world, painting canvases for thousands of dollars a pop and setting up graphic design firms. "It really depends what avenue you want to take. Some people want to keep it a passion that they do just for them, [just] to enjoy the moment. Other people want to show it to the world and create commerce out of it."

One example of the latter is Bennett's business partner and boyfriend Keen One, a former Atlanta writer who has created manga-inspired designs for everyone from Coca-Cola and Sprite to OutKast rapper Big Boi. "Part of what it is," Keen One explains as Basshead stares vacantly at Keen One's limited-edition Dave Kinsey (of Giant fame) T-shirt, "is making more art out of it. A lot of times when you paint on walls, it's going to just stay there for a good two to three months and then someone else is going to come and rock that piece," or paint over it. Writing illegally can be expensive, too. Unless you "rack" or steal your spray cans from a supply store, it can cost up to $400 to paint a 30-by-10 wall.

For further enlightenment, Keen One and Bennett put Basshead in contact with Junior, a lifelong Miamian from the AIM crew who Bennett calls "the quintessential b-boy." Junior says he's been writing since before Style Wars came out. "It was good because it exposed graffiti to the world," he notes. But the legendary Eighties are over, he laments: "People are not as bold as they used to be." As the city has sought to tame its outlaw reputation, writers have confined their illegal adventures to empty lots, freeway overpasses, and freight trains in order to attract less unwanted attention from law enforcement.

"Graff is not as important to me as it used to be," Junior says, adding that he now spends his time playing drums in various local bands, teaching choreography, and painting canvases. But he still writes. His most recent piece is a spray-painted image of a DJ on the corner of 79th Street and North Miami Avenue. Check it out if you can find it.

 
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