Words of the Prophets Take to the Rooftops (2008)

The Extreme Graffiti Hall of Murals

SUBJECT — The Extreme Graffiti Hall of Murals
LOCATION — Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens

Les had no equipment but a backpack full of spray cans. (He admits he's tried on a harness. "But fuck no, I never used it.") He scoped out the Manhattan Bridge and found a flimsy drainpipe the width of a garden hose that ran up the massive pier. Les climbed a good 30 feet up and found the seven-inch catwalk that encircles the middle of the pier. He stepped onto the ledge and crept along carefully, leaning his body into the wall so he didn't fall—one slip meant a long ride down to the craggy rocks below. Still balancing as if on a tightrope, he sprayed his name in a wide, arcing motion so his silver tag was seven feet tall, huge enough to be seen by a driver stuck on the BQE.

Even Bloomberg's vandal squad wanted to know how Les pulled off his graffiti on the bridge, but he wouldn't fess up. When I asked, he shrugged his shoulders like it was a stroll in the park: "I just did it. It was easy."

Les is an "extreme graffiti writer," that is, one who prefers bombing hard-to-reach billboards, bridges, rooftops, and freeway signs. Ever since graff writers were barred from trains, they've gone underground by going way above. For them, it's not about flashy, spiraling letters but the reckless stunt, the adrenaline, and the property that you hit. "It's supposed to be ugly and grimy. It's city," says Hugo Martinez, a graffiti gallerist.

In the macho hierarchy of the New York graffiti world, Les is a top dog. But the guy who gets the most props is JA, a veteran adrenaline junkie who can shimmy up a 30-foot pole and bomb a freeway billboard in 10 minutes flat. Other respected extreme writers include Si, Set Up, Darks, and Kez 5. Much of their work is transient: Here today, gone tomorrow. But here are some routes (elevated trains are the best transports) to their neck-straining canvases.

J/Z: This skanky ghost line gives you the best views of rooftop graffiti. Since the trains head toward a no-man's-land of Hasids and hipsters, these tags are less likely to get buffed (painted over by city workers), although they might get ragged (written over by rival crews). If you're Brooklyn-bound, there are choice sites on the Williamsburg Bridge, like the giant REVS PEAK that's painted with a roller in the middle of a loft building. Just before the end of the bridge, to your right, you can also see Set Up's black swooping logos scrolling across the top of an abandoned brick building.

Past the bridge, the best J/Z sites are between Marcy Avenue and Broadway Junction. Les and his crew mercilessly bombed this route, hitting phone boxes, tracks, and the backs of billboards. The Myrtle Avenue station has a particularly melancholy air of urban devastation: rust-hemorrhaging billboards and back lots piled high with plastic bottles and dead refrigerators—an ideal setting for writers. A lot of graff that floats on the shredded edifices around the Myrtle stop are "pieces" (three colors or more). They've been ragged so many times that the names have faded and bled together into a palimpsest of translucent specters.

7 TRAIN: As that grand old No. 7 train rattles toward Queensboro Plaza, you'll see the flashiest of legal graffiti sites—5 Pointz. This block-wide loft building is plastered with wildly angled graffiti, impressing the untrained eye. But if you mention 5 Pointz to serious graff writers, you can't scrub the scorn off their voices with steel wool. Legal graffiti means kindergarten. The best illegal spots in Queens are between Queensboro Plaza and Junction Blvd: The No. 7 train offers a patchwork of sagging rooftops marked with spastic throw-ups, most prolifically by Nato.

MANHATTAN BRIDGE: Utah, who's like a character sprung from the head of a morose graphic novelist, is one of the few, maybe only, female extreme-graff artists. She's an antisocial and agile ex-goth girl who travels crewless, preferring to scale bridges, jump tracks, and crawl along slanted rooftops alone. Lately, her excellently bold, black, loping "straight letter" has ridden the ledge of the Manhattan Bridge.

BQE: Despite their testosterone, writers can be cattier than a den full of sorority girls. They're always slagging each other off as "toy." It doesn't matter if the graffiti is in a good spot. If a writer is a newcomer, an out-of-towner, a trustafarian who hangs out in fancy L.E.S. sneaker stores—his work is toy. But on the BQE, graff artist Si isn't toy. His huge straight-letter logo, floating way high up on Brooklyn's Watchtower, is a middle finger to that Jehovah's Witness head-quarters. Another remarkable piece is the tag DEK PHAME in eye-popping blue and orange, between the exits for 39th and the Prospect Expressway.

DOWNTOWN MANHATTAN: "Upside-down rollers" are when writers, using buckets of acrylic paint instead of spray paint, hang over the roof and apply their logos to the building in blocky Etch A Sketch lettering. The most monumental, against a 12-story apartment on Canal Street and Broadway, blares SKREW/SACE. No longer pristine, it's already been ragged by none other than Les (in broad daylight, he boasts).

HELL GATE: A few months ago, right above the arch, Si painted an impressive piece on this massive bridge connecting Queens to the Bronx. He wreathed the top of the bridge's pillar with his fat six-foot-high logos. But Hell Gate is JA's property, JA says. He was the first to mark it up, back in the mid '90s. Recently, JA came back and wrote over some of it, an artist named MQ ragged it, and JA claimed it again. So now, like so many embattled city turfs, it's a clashing tangle of names.


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