How Rammellzee Turned Graffiti Into Urban Mythology

‘Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder’ can’t help but summon nostalgia for a time when the city was rougher, more raw, its public culture infused with outer-borough grassroots brilliance and improvisational futurism instead of corporate programming


Even back then, they didn’t know what to make of Rammellzee.

At the dawn of the Eighties, in that magic moment when the uptown scene met the downtown scene and hip-hop spun out from its roots among the b-boys, mobile DJs, and graffiti writers of the South Bronx and began its takeover of global culture, Rammellzee, though a central figure in this scene, was — even to true heads — a mysterious quantity.

Born in 1960 in Far Rockaway, Queens, Rammellzee — or to use his preferred orthography, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ — began tagging at fourteen, under various identities such as Maestro and Hyte. He took part in the birth of wild style, which turned the forthright act of spray-painting your name into a pageant of colors and extravagantly shaped letters, bulbous or jagged or shooting out arrows, melted into one another to the point of illegibility. For him, this was not just art but ideology. His theory of history, which he synthesized in a series of esoteric writings, focused on the struggle to liberate the letters of the alphabet from the shackles of words and sentences. (He called it Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, and believed himself in the lineage of the medieval monks who inked illuminated manuscripts.)

He put up some large pieces, including on subway cars — the paramount graffiti-art display surface of the time — but he was not one of the ubiquitous whole-car artists, like his contemporaries Iz the Wiz, Dondi, or Seen. Instead he shifted to drawings, paintings on canvas, and sculptural forms. But unlike many other “gallery writers” who began making portable (and sellable) pieces, his graf esthetic gave way to a weirder practice in which he used trash and discarded materials to enact his idiosyncratic theories.

Thus, beginning in the Nineties, he built Letter Racers, sculptures that he imagined represented individual letters, formed of junk mounted onto roller-skates or skateboards, suspended from wires, swooping like a vengeful armada. He also made Garbage Gods, whole-body costumes with names like Alpha Positive, Panmaximus Magus, or Destiny, each with particular powers and weaponry. When he left the Battle Station, his loft on Laight Street in Tribeca, it was often clad in one of these outfits. Usually he received visitors at home, surrounded by these creatures, drinking Olde English 800 and discoursing on esoteric subjects.

By the time Rammellzee died, in 2010 — of cardiovascular disease, likely resulting in part from the alcohol and unprotected exposure spray paint and epoxy — he was something of a mythic figure, an oddity who emerged from hip-hop’s foundational stew and had a moment of art-world prominence yet moved away from both, preferring not to compromise his stubborn habits and his quasi-impenetrable system of knowledge.

“Rammellzee’s influence and mythology is ensconced in folklore and hearsay,” says Max Wolf, chief curator at Red Bull Arts New York. The two-level space in Chelsea, a gallery sponsored by the energy drink, has organized the most comprehensive survey of Ramm’s life and art, complete with evocative extras that transport the visitor into his world. There are big-screen videos of early hip-hop shows where Ramm, a proficient rapper, expounds in his nasal, sing-song style; footage of interviews and performance-art events, Ramm clad in body armor; and a rich oral history, accessed via phone-booth handsets — another retro reference — at wall-mounted listening stations that dot the exhibition space.

A merit of the current exhibition is that it fleshes out the story of Rammellzee the working artist. The lower floor of the gallery is largely given over to a spectacular display of Garbage Gods, who lurk like an occult army in the darkened space. A flotilla of Letter Racers hangs in the stairwell, as if frozen in interstellar space. This is the wild, science-fiction Rammellzee, and it’s exciting to see all these inventions in one place. But there is also, on the upper floor, a substantial selection of Ramm’s prior work, much of it on loan from museums and private collectors, particularly in Europe, where he found many of his buyers and patrons during his art-world phase in the mid-Eighties.

The earliest gallery pieces here were made while Ramm was still in his teens. They transpose a pure graffiti ethos onto cardboard or canvas; some incorporate his street tags. Maestro (1979) is a drawing, with architectural precision, that alternates lines of train cars with lines of graffiti lettering. Several pieces are long rectangles, emblazoned with lettering, aerodynamic lines, and other geometric shapes, as if they were models for whole-car pieces. By 1982 to ’83 the subway references decrease: Works such as Jams (1982) and The Knowledge of the A (1982) are large canvas squares that evoke a busy section of wall where taggers have put up letters, dollar signs, abstract shapes, and chicken-scratch scrawl.

In this period, Ramm was close to Jean-Michel Basquiat, also born in 1960. They were rivals and mutual inspirations; in one oral-history segment, the gallerist Barbara Braathen calls them “frenemies.” In another, the musician Nick Taylor recalls long sessions with Basquiat, in thrall to Ramm. “It was like talking to Malcolm X on acid,” he says. “It was a little threatening. He went beyond Afrocentrism and talked about arming and militarism on a cosmic scale.” The graffiti writer Toxic sums it up: “Ramm was like a general. Ramm wanted to destroy everything.”

This sense of imminent conflagration grew as Ramm’s canvases gained relief through epoxy additions or assorted glued objects, and surfaced in their titles. Ransom Note of the Infinium Sirpiereule (1984) is a “resin fresco,” in which a video camera, splashed with green paint and angled downward like a surveillance apparatus, is glued onto the canvas along with collaged drawings, Gothic lettering, and assorted plastic bric-à-brac, all set against an eerie reddish-brown background that feels vaguely post-apocalyptic. It comes with Rammellzee’s notes, presented as wall text: “Specifics: Your death, a Planet’s death, the death of your Ego, Super-ego, or Id. A Galaxy or womb’s death and any kidnapping worth the mechanic’s crime.” Letter M Explosion (1991) is an iridescent purple and green phantasmagoric in which what may be some kind of battleship seems engaged in combat with a weaponized M shape (spacecraft design, jagged edges) amid a field of cosmic projectiles. Ramm clearly had a military obsession; yet the sculpture Gulf War (1991), a highlight of the exhibition, and distinct in that it references an actual conflict taking place at the time, reads in that context as pacifist critique. It involves a found Gulf gas-station sign split down the middle and stuffed with random items — a bicycle, a train set, a record player, caps and hats, plastic toys, a gas mask, other flotsam — and marks the turn to recycling that would sustain the rest of Ramm’s career.

Rammellzee’s is a New York story, with many classic features of the form. It involves a hard-knock upbringing that his brother, identified as K.P., describes on one of the listening stations: their mother was a Black woman from South Carolina, their Italian-American father ditched the family, and a stern policeman stepfather raised them. There is a plunge into street knowledge and esoterica: As a detailed wall timeline in the exhibition explains, Ramm received his name from Jamel-Z, a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (or “Five Percenters”) he knew as a teen. (Rammellzee changed his name legally, too, in 1979; in accordance with his wishes, those who know his prior identity keep it secret.) Later, gentrification plays a part: A few years before he died, the Laight Street building was sold for condo conversion, and Ramm had to put his works in storage and move to a more conventional setting — an apartment in Battery Park City.

He died, however, back in Far Rockaway, where it all began. Perhaps his lifelong outsider instinct stemmed from his roots in this distant outpost of the city, with its high density of housing projects way at the end of the A train. The art, oral histories, videos, and ephemera in “Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder” can’t help but summon nostalgia for a time when the city was rougher, more raw, its public culture infused with outer-borough grassroots brilliance and improvisational futurism instead of corporate programming. But you can’t wallow with Rammellzee. He was always looking ahead, formulating the next theory, plotting his next surprise attack on conventional thinking, setting the letters free.

‘Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder’ 
Red Bull Arts New York
220 West 18th Street
Through August 26