The East Village office of graffiti writer turned fashion designer Claw Money overflows with unpacked boxes full of sweatshirts, T-shirts, underwear, and tote bags—all emblazoned with her signature graffiti icon, a fat paw with three claws.
“Oh my God, it’s, like, a sample explosion,” says Claw to her assistant, with more than a trace of Valley Girl via Long Island in her voice. A brunette with tan skin and brown eyes, Claw squeezes past boxes in the hall. A set of shelves holds cans of Rust-Oleum spray paint (her favorite brand) and her boombox, tagged in her trademark style, which traveled the world in an art show. Tacked up next to the front door is a New York Police Department sign: “Reward up to $500 for the arrest and conviction of anyone who commits graffiti vandalism.”
But Claw, 38, an upper-middle-class Jewish girl from Long Island who transformed herself into a legendary graffiti writer, doesn’t have to worry about anyone calling the cops on her anymore. After more than 15 years of bombing the streets—and just in time for the publication of a book celebrating her work, Bombshell: The Life and Crimes of Claw Money—she has given it up to work full-time on growing her Claw Money brand. Like many graffiti artists these days, she’s discovered that major corporations will pay big bucks to add a dose of street style to their clothing, TV shows, and video games.
She’s done graffiti-splattered underwear for Calvin Klein (a shrewd businesswoman, she didn’t license Calvin Klein her claw icon because “they didn’t really want to pay”) and clothing for Marc Ecko (she gave him the claw). And this summer Nike will release her multicolored Claw high-tops. The co-founder of Swindle magazine hired her to be the fashion director because of her graffiti background. Most recently she painted her icon all over the set of Ego Trip’s (White) Rapper Show. “You’ll see there are claws everywhere,” she says. According to Sacha Jenkins, editorial director for Mass Appeal and co-producer of the series, the claw lends authenticity to his show: “People who know her and her claw icon, they know she actually did graffiti. She’s not some art student who did it for two weeks. She’s been a dedicated bomber for years, and now her art has evolved. People have no choice but to respect it.”
These days the best place to see her art evolve is her website. There you can find “Ho Sale,” which is, of course, a link to her wholesale business, while “Goodies 4U” links to her fashions for sale, including a “Baby Claw Onesie” (“never too young for street cred!” reads the caption); 14K gold claw earrings ($150 for one, $250 for the pair); and a tote bag bearing the name of her crew—Power Money Sex (or PMS).
“At first I felt like I was bastardizing my graffiti that I had written for the last 16 years on the streets,” she says, still struggling with how to balance her business while maintaining the street cred she fought so hard for in a male-dominated subculture. “I was like, God! I’m putting it on a T-shirt, and who are these people wearing it? But, like, I realized, I gotta let it go.” However, Claw does not want her fashion to be accessible to everyone. Her line, which she started in 2002 at the urging of friends who wanted Claw T-shirts, is sold in select cities at specialty boutiques such as Colette in Paris and the Reed Space in Tokyo. Playing with one of her five gold necklaces, she says, “I didn’t want people going to Macy’s to be able to buy my stuff. You have to kind of be in the know or figure out how to get it.”
Throwing on a puffy black jacket over her pink Claw T-shirt and sweeping her long hair into a bun, she trudges out into the snow in furry boots to move her black Honda Element for alternate-side parking. Driving around the block, she points out the claws still visible on various street corners. They can also be seen in Bombshell, published this month, which documents her graffiti alongside photos of her family, friends, and fashions. The range of styles in the book runs from artsy (a painting of a woman with pink claws flying out of her head) to wild and tough (a piece that reads “Clawzilla”) to just plain funny (a yellow claw labeled “chicken” next to another that says “-n- ribs”).
Describing herself as an underachiever in high school, Claw, a nickname for Claudia (her last name can’t be used for legal reasons involving her graffiti), moved from her parents’ house in Long Island to the East Village in 1986 to attend FIT. She dropped out after discovering she could earn more money checking coats at the club MK than slaving away as an assistant designer.
In 1989, the heyday of writing on trains was over, so Claw began bombing walls and trucks. It was a good night if she could get her name up in 40 spots. Unlike more perfectionist graffiti writers, Claw had a distinctively ugly writing style. “I heard a million graffiti writers say about other girls, ‘Oh, her boyfriend does that,’ but nobody ever said that about me because they know that shit is ugly and I did it,” she says. “I’d be like, if it fuckin’ says my name, then I’m ready to go to the next spot. Like I don’t care. Let’s just keep it moving because it’s about volume.”
Today those nights all seem like one blur: climbing over fences, hanging from scaffolding, running from trains, and hiding from the police. She does remember well the night she thought she was going to die on the Williamsburg Bridge: Drunk as hell, she fell through a makeshift walkway left by construction workers and had to be pulled up by her partner. The piece she’s most proud of was a giant Claw she wrote on Yankee Stadium (it’s no longer there); she remembers having to stand on a guy’s shoulders to complete it.
Claw stopped writing during the late ’90s to pursue work in L.A. as a stylist, but then returned to New York and started up again in 2000 with fellow female tagger Miss 17. Besides PMS, she also belongs to the prestigious crews TC5 and FC. The graffiti writer West, who initiated her into FC, says, “She showed by doing. You’d be up in the middle of warehouses on a desolate block in the Bronx and there’d be Claw. And then you’d go to Brooklyn and uptown and downtown and she was so up, that it was obvious she was doing her thing. You couldn’t deny it.”
Back at her office, Claw says she still gets itchy. In fact, tonight would be perfect for bombing, she says, because the cold weather keeps people indoors. “Painting is a very personal experience you have with the city,” she says. “You’re alone and no one’s around. You put your graffiti there, and then, all of a sudden, you’re a piece of the city.”