Words by Sydney MacDonald

A staple of NYC street culture, graffiti has influenced art scenes around the world, pushed back against authority, and cultivated its own guerilla mystique. Recently, CONVICTS was fortunate enough to sit down with Zephyr (real name Andrew Witten) a godfather in the New York graffiti scene. Zephyr’s been writing on everything from subway trains to buildings since the nineteen seventies and has seen his art go from abandoned walls to museum exhibitions. Over the course of a few coffees, CONVICTS learned about the golden age of spray paint and examined what remains of urban culture in New York.

As told by Zephyr. Edited for clarity and flow.

“I started doing graffiti when everyone else in New York started doing graffiti. I was ten, eleven years old when I started stealing magic markers to draw in the back staircase of my apartment building on 90th street in Manhattan in the early 70’s.

Eventually, I moved my operation outside to the mailboxes on the corners and a park right near my building. While I was starting to come of age as a graffiti writer and aspiring to be a better graffiti writer, I always dreamed of writing my name on the side of a train. That was the ultimate goal—that was where the real action was in 1972. It may not sound like much of an ambition, but when you’re writing on mailboxes, having your name on the side of the NYC subway was the difference between being in the high school play or on Broadway.

The name of the game for me was, and always remained, less about aesthetics and more about quantity. How many places could I get my name around the city? The neighborhood I grew up in only had two other graffiti writers—”Bowie” and “Terry 149”. Coming up as a graffiti artist it was a handicap to come from a non-graffiti neighborhood. I left home in ’77 at age 16. I was a teenage runaway, so that chapter of my life freed me up to fully commit to my favorite pastime.

Another thing that made my graffiti learning curve difficult was lack of mentorship. The guys I looked up to were a bit older. Some were legendary veterans of train yard procedures.  Some the of the older graffiti writers I encountered at our hangout spot in Central Park were not supportive. They were understandably dismissive of younger guys like me, but eventually, I started to get a little more respect as I got my name around the city more and more.

Before I started going to the train yards at night I was getting my tag on the subway interiors doing what we called “motion tags”. That means you’re doing graffiti on the trains while they’re in operation, as opposed to parked at night. My friends and I would ride in the last subway cars and wait until the end of the line when the train cars were mostly empty. Then we’d put our names up. That’s how I first started getting my name on the trains.

Image zephyrgraffiti.com

In the early ‘80s the media began to have a field day with graffiti. It got a lot of press, both good and bad. One of the results of this is that I was often contacted to use my graffiti for advertising gigs and a myriad of so-called “legitimate” jobs.  By the middle of the 80’s I had amassed quite a dense resume of corporate-type work, probably because I was the first graffiti writer to do those kind of gigs, so I had an inside line with ad agencies and art directors who trusted me.

On the other hand, no matter what I was doing in the “real world”, I kept painting subways illegally. But by ’86  or ’87 I was starting to get very burnt out with painting graffiti. Do the math: I had started painting trains in 1977. Ten years is a very long time to paint subways. There is a lot that goes into the process. A lot of planning. We didn’t just sneak into the train yards willy nilly. It was more of a job. Toward the end the visceral feelings connected to doing the graffiti wasn’t there anymore so I said I can’t do it anymore.

I had some younger proteges at the time. Guys like “Stash” and “Shaker” and “Sharp”. They were funny. Always trying to coax me out of retirement to do one more train with them. Sometimes they got their way.

In 1992 I was in Holland for a museum show that some of my graffiti painting were in. Young graffiti aficionados came from all over the world for the show at the Groningen Museum. Seeing the enthusiasm for the culture was a real epiphany for me and so I decided to start doing graffiti again at the ripe old age of 31. But when I came back to it, I had to start over basically, crawling again. I had no aspirations at the time. I just wanted to get my hands dirty again. Almost everyone I had known from earlier days had already retired from writing graffiti. Graffiti writers like “Ezo” and “Smith” and “Lady Pink” helped me a lot at that time.

“Smith” and “Pink” told me they liked to do graffiti on freight trains. I had never heard of that. The first time I did a freight train with them was hilarious. I was living in Manhattan and I got on my bicycle on a Saturday night with a knapsack full of spray paint. I rode out to their house in Queens over the 59th street bridge. Then the adventure really began. 

The Sunnyside Freight Yard is no longer there, but it used to be filled with freight trains, right by PS1, if you know where that is. It felt like like the old days of going to the D yard up in the Bronx in 1979. We had to drop down from a crazy tall wall, into a pile of garbage, and do a lot of sneaking around. But to be clear, there is a huge difference between painting freights and painting subway cars. The saddest part is that freight trains travel in their own secluded railway universe, so most people rarely see them. They carry freight, not passengers, so that alters the dynamic drastically as well. But you’d be wrong to think that it’s easy. They do get patrolled, and security guys that patrol hem are referred to as “bulls”, so use your imagination on how bad it is to get caught. Answer: Very bad. Also, freight trains are extremely difficult to paint, but they tend to make you a much better graffiti writer. Freight trains are not smooth surfaces generally, with doors, handles ladders, and annoying wood slats that shipping dockets get staples onto. In general they’re a challenge.

As for the legal/illegal nature of graffiti, I’ve always been a believer in the adage “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”. But I will confess that I still do the crime when the opportunity presents itself. I’m prepared to do that time or I wouldn’t do the crime, but I’m extra anxious these days because it would be tough for my daughter if daddy is in jail. But my daughter knows what I do. She always has. She does graffiti too, but only the legal type. Her graffiti name is “Zombie”.

Illegal graffiti in NYC is far from from over—but graffiti in general has been accepted into mainstream culture like never before. Somehow it’s managed to go from people saying “God forbid my kid starts doing that crap”’ to proud, beaming parents bringing their kid to meet me at some semi-posh graffiti event. Go figure…