DONDI’s dead. He died last October at 37, still remembered by some as the reigning master of getting up, tagging, bombing, and representing with a spray can. If those words mean nothing to you, it’s probably because you missed that period when New York was either in the grip of uncontrolled vandalism or saw the last great flowering of urban creativity, depending on your viewpoint.
DONDI was a graffiti artist, a Style Master General, and probably one of the last great homegrown ghetto superstars. Although he came from East New York, where he was born Donald J. White, his celebrity extended for a time beyond the city and into that nebulous sphere called the international art scene. Then the unlamented go-go ’80s passed, tastes changed, and—of the four art forms largely created in this city’s housing projects—only rap continued making inroads on the commercial mainstream. While wild-style graffiti, breakdancing, and voguing are periodically revived in attempts to bring back Old Skool, they inevitably lack the originals’ manic verve. The days of famous writers and legendary crews are a thing of the past. Seemingly forgotten is a time when, as a member of DONDI’s legendary T-O-P crew recently put it, “we were hitting every yard, every line, every layup, and every train.”
Or is it? Last week a local art gallery opened a DONDI memorial show with participants ranging from such once renowned graffiti writers as James TOP, Zephyr, and Iz the WIZ. It’s a small exhibit in a simple space considerably off the beaten track. The gallery, Exhibit-1A, occupies two ground-floor rooms in a residential building at 147th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem. For years, graffiti was shown mainly in Soho. Now, as the show’s organizer, James TOP, explains, “Uptown is bringing it back home.”
Hanging in the gallery are pictures on canvas that function less successfully as art works than as markers of a certain place and time, of Zulu Nation and Afrika Bambaata, of the Rock Steady Crew, of Wild Style and Fashion MODA, of wall-sized graffiti pieces and entire subway cars that renegade crews had bombed. “The purpose of this show,” says James TOP one sunny afternoon, sitting on a window ledge at the gallery, “was we wanted to give DONDI the proper kind of send-off as the greatest graffiti writer that ever passed away. But also we wanted to educate people in the outer boroughs that this is our art.”
It’s certainly easier, at a distance of two decades, to separate the art out from the social conditions that made so much graffiti seem to be the definitive symbol of urban decay. “People said it was vandalism, it was ugly, it was a blight,” says TOP. ‘writers came from poverty, depression, oppression. We had no outlet for expressing ourselves, so we took to the trains and the walls.”
Hardly anyone did so more prolifically than DONDI, who “wrote” under the “tags” BUS 129, ASIA, PRE II, POSE 2, and NACO before he “shedded the name NACO and became DONDI,” as graffiti legend DURO notes. DURO himself is famous among the cognoscenti, as a founder of CIA, a crew whose acronym alternately stands for Crazy Insides Artists, Corporate Illustrating Art, or, somewhat illogically, Criminals in Control of All.
DONDI White “is one of the most recognized writers past or present,” says TOP, “because he was taught by the best to become the best, period.” He was a “real writer turned artist,” adds graffitist Iz the WIZ. “We met in the A yard in East New York in 1977,” TOP says, “and that summer I put him in our crew.” TOP remembers the year of the city’s big blackout as the summer when TOP (The Odd Partners) “dominated the BMT. We were climbing six stories up the poles where the trains lay up at Atlantic Avenue. The cops would be looking for us at either end. We covered those trains and dominated like no other crew. We used to look out and see our name go by regularly. We owned the J line. Like the Kennedys, TOP was graffiti royalty. We did it for ourselves, for other writers, and we lived it and did it right.” DONDI, at the time, was still an outsider, a “toy.”
“Anyone who wanted to go straight from their house to the trains, we told them, ‘You better king your neighborhood first,”‘ remarks DURO, who “went into seclusion” after retiring from graffiti in 1984. “We told the toys, ‘You better get up and show what you got.’ Then maybe eventually we got some rap for you.” During the ’77 blackout, DONDI “bombed” a series of IRT cars with his name drawn in immense block letters. “He got out and did those layups and earned his stripes,” says TOP. “I told the crew, either he’s in or I’m out.”
This was, he continues, “the great period when hip hop was starting out—breakdancing, graffiti writing, and rap. It was all part of the same thing.” Only rap “has gone on and on. The way people treat graffiti feels to me like how it was for jazz in the 1920s. We weren’t accepted in America. You had to go overseas to get people to accept your music.” In fact, Old Skool graffiti is thriving in Europe, where a generation of writers mainly too young to remember DONDI are covering entire trains with “pieces” that are unintentional homages to the writers of New York. “As an international phenomenon, you got to respect it,” TOP says. “I’m always going to be an underground type of person. But I feel good as far as being a pioneer.”
Few of the graffiti pioneers got rich. Some went into the straight world. Not a few let their brush with Downtown fame and money get the better of them and got “caught up.” DONDI was “a helluva fun-loving guy,” says TOP. His death followed the “long illness” that in obituary code usually means AIDS.
“DONDI wanted us to go forward with our lives,” says TOP. “He knew he wasn’t gonna live long. You can see it in the skulls in his drawings.” What’s important to his friends is that DONDI’s remembered as a real artist, “checked and backed,” as the crews used to say. They don’t want to see him—or themselves—written off. “All those Downtown galleries used to just manufacture stars,” DURO says. “It was just perpetration. People would demand our art so they could get rich. But graffiti meant more to us. It was a sacred honor to be known in NYC.” For the original members of the CIA and TOP crews, says DURO, graffiti was never about the bucks. “It was about getting up, hitting, and secrecy. Like movie stars have their movie screens, that was our fame.”