Decades before street artists like Banksy could ignite an Internet firestorm and fetch millions, three guys with a video camera and a stack of VHS tapes set out to share the gritty story of NYC graffiti.
July 4, 1991. The city sleeps. It is just dawn.
The handheld video footage opens on the “Ghost Yard,” the large train maintenance hub that overlooks the Harlem River in the upper reaches of Manhattan. Deriving its name from unexplainable noises that are said to haunt the space, defunct subway cars slumber here next to live trains, each awaiting repair. Members of the RIS graffiti crew have been painting for hours. Ket, Zeno, Ghost and Bruz’s faces are obscured as they talk to the camera. They are unapologetically boastful, drunk with bravado and the sublime high of “getting over”—supplanting the flag of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority
with their own, if only momentarily.
“How long we going to be in here for?” the cameraman asks.
“Til’ we finished,” comes the response. “Til’ we run out of paint.”
* * *
Illegal and ephemeral by nature, graffiti, at its essence, provides a voice to the voiceless. As former graffiti writer Stephen “ESPO” Powers describes it, “graf” is the “innate compulsion to advertise [one’s] existence.”
Birthed in the late 1960s, it was forged in the muck and mire of New York streets as the city teetered on the brink of financial ruin. In the 1970s and into the ’80s, entire neighborhoods were deemed by many to be too far gone and thus unworthy of salvation, and by some accounts the city abandoned its occupants. But the metropolis’s trains and subway cars became a daily reminder that the forgotten were alive and artistically thriving. Graffiti writers used the trains as their traveling canvases—their claiming of “I am here” satisfying a most basic innate desire. As the cars traversed the tracks, the writer’s existence was broadcast citywide.
Artists with tag names like Lee, Dondi, Tracy 168 and Phase 2 elevated the notion of a signature as a simple means of communication to a complex typography—to art—imbued with narrative and style. Whether you liked it or not, it certainly couldn’t be ignored. Nor could the brewing war between the writers and the MTA. The clash would continue throughout the 1980s, until the city, once again financially solvent, began to aggressively address the points of access to the trains. Layers of fencing with barbed wire and guard dogs were installed around maintenance yards and “layups”—areas where trains are parked during off-peak hours. The new plan of action: an entire train would be removed from service if a single car had been bombed or painted. The last train covered in graffiti was pulled from service in May of 1989. The clean train era was born.
As a result, a great many writers quit, lost heart. What was graffiti without hitting the trains? But a dogged few obstinately carried on.
Videograf Productions serves as the collective memory of New York City’s third generation of graffiti writers and bombers—those hardcore devotees who soldiered on after the city had supposedly stamped out graffiti. Launched in 1989, Videograf is a recurring series shot in a magazine-style format—the “60 Minutes” of the underground graffiti scene. It was conceived as reporting from the trenches for writers, by writers. Founders Carl Weston and Colin Turner and producer William “Nic One” Green are credited by most on the scene as the first to capture the movement on video and self-distribute it on VHS. For the first time, viewers could watch artist interviews and ride along as bombers ventured into the wee hours of the morning and laid claim to their city.
Graffiti artists have always been meticulous in documenting their work because of its very temporary nature. The threat of getting erased by the MTA, destroyed by weather or a rival crew was a constant. If a picture was not taken then the work was soon lost. Before Videograf, those exploits were only documented in still photos shared in person or printed in zines—hard to fathom for some today, as we are awash in a sea of smartphones, with Instagram and Facebook at the ready. After Videograf, fellow writers were, for the first time, privy to the action soon after it happened—the antics, the personalities and the politics.
“[Videograf] was too early. Can you imagine it now?” says Powers, forty-five. “At the time it went worldwide. It was the only indispensable document of graffiti media in the ’90s.”
* * *
Colin Turner, now forty-eight, and Carl Weston, forty-seven, met as kids. Turner was a brainy sixteen-year-old with a penchant for comic book art who attended Brooklyn Technical High School. Weston, a year younger, dreamt of being a computer programmer. Both lived and breathed hip-hop, passing endless afternoons spinning records on Turner’s turntable and mixer. And of course, both painted—Weston wrote as San 2, Turner got up as KoolSpin.
“We met at the Nevins Street station in Brooklyn in 1980,” remembers Turner. “It’s very easy to spot a fellow writer. We all had ink or paint stains on our clothes and would watch the trains intently. [Weston] finally approached me and introduced himself. He gave me some Flo-Master opaque black ink for my marker—the good shit.”
“Graf was challenging, for a number of reasons,” says Turner. “There was the physical aspect of it—climbing, running to get into the yards or layup. There was the artistic side of it. There was the outlaw appeal. For a testosterone-charged teenage boy, it was hard to resist.”
Weston had always been interested in film. After reining in his own writing activity, in the mid-’80s he bought his first Super 8 camera. Because film was so expensive, he conceived of the notion of Videograf partially as a means to fund future film projects. It was also around that time that Turner purchased a top-of-the-line shoulder-mount Sony video camera. The two would traverse the city, camera in hand, hungry for interesting subjects. Weston burned with a purpose but lacked direction. Turner, by then a professional programmer sporting a shirt and tie during the day, tagged along. Graffiti continually came up as they bantered about potential subject ideas, but “’Style Wars’ and ‘Wild Style’ had already been done and hit graf from the documentary and fictional angle, so we dismissed the idea of doing another graf film,” says Turner.
One day in the summer of 1988, standing in comic book/headshop SoHo Zat and reading the seminal zine International Graffiti Times, Weston thought, “What if you interview graf writers on video?” By February of 1989, they went into production.
It was perfect timing too: Almost every household in the country was about to have a VCR.
* * *
“Let’s go knock on Henry’s.”
There were three reasons a kid went down to the Canal Street area in the 1980s: to steal spray paint, to read zines at Soho Zat, and to knock on Henry Chalfant’s door.
Making the pilgrimage to Chalfant’s studio on Grand Street was a rite of passage for every young graffiti writer. He was the ultimate inside-outsider. Since the 1970’s, Chalfant, now seventy-four, had been photographing and documenting the trains. He saw a vitality on the tracks that he felt was lacking in the galleries of his creative contemporaries. In 1983 he co-produced the highly influential documentary “Style Wars” with Tony Silver, and in 1984 he co-authored the book Subway Art with fellow photographer Martha Cooper. Both documentations are considered gospel within the culture and beyond. Even members of The NYPD’s Vandal Squad admit to having watched“Style Wars” obsessively, albeit for different reasons — they sought to dissect graffiti culture in order to dismantle it.
Chalfant’s studio became a salon for graffiti writers, with whom he was notoriously generous, welcoming them into the studio to flip though his photos and sketch in their black books. “The studio was large enough that I could still get work done,” says Chalfant.
“It was post-“Style Wars,” post-Subway Art, post-Spraycan Art [another seminal book authored by Chalfant]. People were saying: “What are you going to do next?” Chalfant recalls. “And I’d say, ‘You know what I really believe? Whatever else happens now should be done by a peer of the artists, and by artists themselves.’ I’d say, ‘Enough of us geezers from the outside coming in and doing it. Now it’s up to you guys.’”
Chalfant bonded with Weston, who would later go on to serve as director of photography on Chalfant’s documentary, “Flyin’ Cut Sleeves.” Without Henry Chalfant, “Videograf would not have happened, at least not the way it did,” Turner says.
Chalfant’s contributions to Videograf are threefold. Most significantly, he purchased an editing suite and gave them unfettered access to it. “Everyone could buy a camera, but who could afford an editing station?” says Weston. “We had the market to ourselves.”
At the time, Weston needed a place to live, and Chalfant invited him to stay at the studio for as long as he needed, rent-free. “A lot of writers owe a lot to Henry,” laughs Weston, who literally lived in that editing room for five years.
Chalfant also introduced Turner and Weston to their future collaborator, William “Nic One” Green, who had been painting since 1977—getting up on trains, going into tunnels, hitting trestles. Chalfant introduced all three at a gallery in the Bronx, but it was a full year before they met again. Out trolling one night for footage, Turner and Weston stumbled upon Green. He and Priz-One were getting up at the 238th Street Bridge. “They were the very first people we ever filmed for Videograf,” says Weston. “Summer of ’89.”
Weston realized they were in need of a connection to writers — someone who was still active in the scene. “We had no Rolodex to call anyone. We needed an ambassador,” says Weston. Green was that link.
It was also a knock on Chalfant’s studio door that brought Sacha Jenkins into the Videograf family. Jenkins had already been at work on his own zine, Graphic Scenes Xplicit Language, by the time a friend brought him down to Chalfant’s. That particular day, it was Weston who answered the door. “We all kind of formed a friendship,” says Jenkins, now editorial director at Mass Appeal magazine. Jenkins’s contribution was an on-screen segment, “The Poetry Moment.” As he describes it in “Videograf Ten,” the twenty-year anniversary episode, “I would do these poems but that were kind of freestyles and combination [of] ‘your mother’ jokes and silly stuff.”
It was Colin Turner who coined the name Videograf. He also funded the first episode out of his own pocket. Weston and Green were in contact with the writers. They (Weston mostly) ventured out in the dead of night on missions — scaling walls, slipping through fences and running from the cops.
“We tried to give our fellow writers something from us, for us,” says Green. “We helped to give the movement a platform, its voice and promise.”
Footage was often shot under cover of night. The always-impending feeling of getting caught lurks in most frames. The unmistakable hiss of spray paint and the jingle-jangle of the cans are ever present between the questions asked by Cameraman Carl: “Who you down with?” “What do you write?” There is an energy and an ease when the writers respond. They know they are with their own. Walls are hit, live trains are bombed. Writers brag and boast. The montage of gonzo adventure in vandalism is punctuated with the reckless daring of youth.
Everything was done in-house — all the editing, graphics and duplicating. For the first episodes, they made it up as they went, inventing means and methods. They cut labels by hand and glued them onto the videotape sleeves. Weston even created the beats that played over the footage from “Volume Four” onward.
“By the time we started production on ‘Volume Two,’ Carl knew exactly what the look and feel for the series was going to be,” says Turner. “We started to focus on more live action and sped up the tempo with faster edits. I think this is where Carl’s vision for Videograf really took off.”
* * *
At its inception, Videograf lacked any major clout, particularly with the older generation of writers. The guys with legacy, now a bit jaded, wanted little to do with the project. Phase 2 and Lee graciously sat for interviews, but the series focused on the younger writers, just coming up and hungry for exposure. For the most part, achieving status by being widely seen on the trains was a thing of the past, but through Videograf, writers could still get up, they could still get fame.
“[Videograf] expanded the movement nationally,” says graffiti artist, writer, photographer and curator Alan Ket, now forty-three. “It was current. [It] helped spread the word and the info we were all so eager to receive.”
Weston distributed the series personally. Fans would line up at Soho Zat to acquire the latest episode directly from him. By 1992, six stores that sold graffiti-related items had agreed to carry Videograf, and mail-order allowed for national distribution. The demand soon grew enough for Videograf to become Weston’s full-time job. In later years, promotion and distribution via the Internet would give Videograf worldwide viewership.
During the 1990s, with the clean train policy in full effect, the philosophy among some of the writers Videograf was covering had shifted. If you were still hitting trains, and most weren’t, masterpiece burners became secondary to as many tags and throw-ups — a quickly executed bubble letter outline with a fill-in color — as possible. If you hit a train in a yard or a layup, you hit the entirety of the train. Commitment was required. The prospect of getting caught by the cops served to amplify the thrill. The prevailing notion was quantity, not necessarily quality. It was the only way that they felt that they could beat the buff and get over on the MTA.
Ket was one such writer. “We got down with Carl [Weston] very early on,” he says. Ket and Weston had already met years earlier at Chalfant’s studio. “He asked me if he could go with us (RIS crew) and we hesitated,” Ket remembers. “But then we actually came up with a good plan and place [the Ghost Yard] to take him. I think we might have gotten in there at two in the morning, climbed right in, no problem, and proceeded to stay in until the morning sun came up and it was daylight. We kept painting until basically a work train came and almost chased us out. But we painted until all our paint ran out.”
“For me,” Ket continues, “it was amazing to be able to have Carl capture that on film. For us, [it] was a special opportunity to capture our shenanigans and it was fun. We talked a lot of shit on camera. It’s stuff that still haunts me to this day, some of the nonsense that I was talking back then. Carl was really cool about it. I’m glad he was able to document it. We could see how crazy we were when we were teenagers.”
The video series was also a catalyst for inspiration in a much different place: The NYPD’s Vandal Squad, the highly specialized unit that focused on the prevention of vandalism. “I have to give credit where credit is due,” says Steve Mona, fifty-three, the retired commanding officer of the Vandals Task Force. “Things like Videograf caused us to get more into [burgeoning] technology. Prior to that, we were more hands-on. Old school. Surveillance. We had no knowledge of the Internet, of computers. It caused us to have to learn a bit more.”
The cops watched the videos, first in VHS form and then online, as vehemently as the writers. They took note of who was writing what, identified players and patterns of frequently hit locations. They would inadvertently become experts in the culture.
Videograf’s documentation of the movement would span the 1990s through the 2000s. “Whatever happened, Carl was there catching it,” Henry Chalfant says. “Whether people were doing murals or they were painting on police cars, he was capturing [it].”
* * *
May 26, 2000. It is 4:30 in the morning and William “Nic One” Green and Carl Weston are still on the grind. It is the eve of the release of their latest effort, “Graf Core 2000.” Inside their Metropolitan Avenue apartment in Queens, shipping boxes polka-dot the room and cardboard video sleeves are scattered about, patiently waiting to be filled.
Green is on his computer promoting the new episode when he hears a pounding on the front door. Armed with a search warrant, members of the Vandal Squad flood the residence. Nothing is left unturned. For hours, they comb through the four-room apartment. They confiscate video cameras, computers, editing equipment and photographs, as well as the entirety of Videograf’s archive. The search warrant was issued as part of a larger vandalism investigation. It would be four years before the items were returned.
This police action ignited a legal and personal battle for Weston and Green that would wage for years to come. Just a few months after the seizure, Green and Weston were arrested. Due to the digitizing and blurring of an image in an earlier Videograf episode, they were officially charged with the hindering of a criminal investigation. In the eyes of the Vandal Squad, they were knowingly documenting crimes and obstructing justice by hiding the faces of the perpetrators.
The presiding judge, however, threw out the case and all charges were dropped. But the legal battle was not over.
When Weston ventured up to the Bronx in an attempt to garner an on-camera interview with a member of the Vandal Squad, he came face to face with officer Joseph Rivera. Rivera was infuriated over his face being captured on video, feeling that it seriously compromised his safety and undercover effectiveness. Weston felt it well within his rights as a journalist to confront members of the unit. The next day, a second search warrant was issued for Weston’s apartment. He perceived it as a retaliatory act for the previous day’s run-in. Videograf Productions filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of New York. The case was eventually settled out of court.
“Carl really suffered for his work,” says Stephen Powers. “But nobody worked harder in graffiti media.”
Colin Turner agrees: “He never backed down and he never stopped doing what he loves to do.”
Even Mona, the former Vandal Squad head, who describes himself as “the cat in this cat-and-mouse game” acknowledges Videograf’s legacy, for better or worse: “I can say as a fact that [Videograf] kept [the movement] going for a lot longer because guys had a way of showing the work.”
“Without [Videograf],” says Ket, “many people would have given up. Or many people would not be inspired to begin. Early on, we placed great value on the art and the vandalism we were doing. It meant something to us. We thought it was special enough to document.”
Weston still spends most of his time with a video camera in hand, working as an independent filmmaker, music video director, editor and camera operator. His friendship with Henry Chalfant thrives nearly thirty years later. He has been instrumental in the cataloging and preserving of the elder statesman’s immense graffiti photography archive, and contributed video content to Chalfant’s iBook, Henry Chalfant’s Big Subway Archive.
As for Videograf, the series now looks to the future, and beyond New York City limits. Weston has Detroit’s flourishing graf scene on the mind, its combination of Wild West energy and lawlessness serving as a siren song for graffiti mythmaking.
* * *
Jamie Maleszka is a freelance writer, born and bred in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @jmaleszka.