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Uncapped: From the Rotten Core of the Big Apple with Zephyr

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Boweryboogie.com mentioned before that graffiti is a 2,000 year old pastime (at least); it’s been found in tombs in Ancient Egypt. But some might say that graff as we know it today started in New York City during the “Golden Age” with this man and his crew. The west wind himself, Zephyr.

BOWERY BOOGIE: Thanks again for speaking with Boogie. I spoke to a bunch of graff heads today and they consider you to be a “Founding Father” of the movement. What was the trigger for you to enter the graffiti world?

Z: If you study the history of NYC subway graffiti you’ll discover that I was actually late to the game, and not a “founding father” at all, but thanks for the sentiment. The NYC street/subway graffiti movement really began in earnest around 1971. I painted my first subway in 1977. While six years may not seem like a long time, in the life of the NYC subway graffiti movement (approximately 1971-1989) it’s a massive chunk of time (a third of the entire “life span” of the movement). Graffiti careers were generally very short back then—often 2 or 3 years maximum. Writers like Cliff 159 or IN (and hundreds of others) produced massive amounts of subway (and street) graffiti in a very limited period of time. This was achieved by their incredible focus and determination—graffiti was, for them, a 100% full time preoccupation.

I began doing street graffiti in 1974. At the time, the city was completely covered, and although I had only met one or two other graffiti writers, I knew intuitively that it was a secret coded language being spoken and expressed exclusively by kids. It felt completely natural to steal magic markers from the art room at school and begin writing on corner mailboxes and buses.

BB: While you were growing up, NY was a very different place. More culture, more character, but more crime. Do you consider bombing trains to be a crime regardless of the law?

Z: I don’t use ever the term “bombing.” I painted my graffiti name, Zephyr, on over a thousand NYC subway trains between the years 1977 and 1986. I do not personally acknowledge it as a crime, although I am obviously aware that it is “against the law.” Also, I do not agree that there was more crime in NY in the 70’s and 80’s. Corporate corruption is replete with criminal practices that go unidentified and unpunished, and I would argue that there is more of that today in NY than in any previous time in history.

BB: Touché. Never thought about it like that and you are absolutely right. Faceless criminal shrouded by corporate veils. Do you miss the ’70s and the ’80s?

Z: Miss the 70s and 80s? Of course I do. NYC is unrecognizable. It was once a fun playground. Now it’s a sterile bastion for billionaires.

BB: Yes. The culture is shit. The streets are barely recognizable. But just when you get ready to leave…it reels you back in. We will come full circle. Let’s talk trains…When the Golden Age trains were tossed into the ocean to create a coral reef – that was hard to watch … how did you feel seeing graff history plunged into water?

Z: The trains they dumped were mainly painted red, so it wasn’t really a case of watching talented and respected writers’ pieces getting thrown into the water. But if you paint graffiti, you likely understand the ephemeral nature of the work. You come to accept that it will probably have a short and tenuous existence. If you think your graffiti is permanent and precious you’re in for a rude awakening

BB: You certainly don’t mince words. How about our favorite inquiry – how did you come up with your name?

Z: That’s the easiest question you’ve asked me so far. “Zephyr” was the name of a skateboard team (and a brand of skateboards) from Southern California, early 1970s. Google it. The “Z-Boys,” as they were known, inspired two cool movies, and invented vertical skating. Literally. They were far cooler cats than I’ll ever be (i.e. Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, Jay Adams).

BB: Not the West Wind, after all. Can you tell us a bit about your experience growing up here?

Z: Growing up in NYC (Manhattan) and coming of age in the 1970s was great. The city was so less populated and safer for kids. I was given a bus pass at school, and I rode the buses and subways alone probably starting at around age nine. If you see a nine-year-old on the subway alone today, you should probably call child services…

My older sister used to take me down the Greenwich Village to go to used record stores back in the 1960s. That’s when I got a sense of the overall counter-culture and the East Coast psychedelic sensibilities that were far more attractive to me than the uptight family environment that was inflicted on me uptown on East 90th Street, where I grew up.

BB: Safer for kids? I’m not sure about that one though we are talking a full decade between us. When was the first time you held a can in your hand?

Z: Actually, I was doing marker tags for years, and found spray paint rather challenging. When I did my first piece on a wall (Carl Schurz Park) I was scared shitless, and it was not much to look at, to say the least. I’ll supply you with a photo from the same period so you get the idea…lol.

BB: Gracie Mansion graff? Ballsy. Just in the Mayor’s backyard. No big deal. Why do you think people aspire to become legendary graffiti artists, or, in other words, what is it about graffiti that makes people say it’s like a drug?

Z: If you know of anyone “aspiring to become legendary graffiti artist” please take away their paint and markers at once. They are clearly misguided and delusional. Doing graffiti is fun and addictive. But the drug analogy is a bad one in my opinion. How about letting graffiti be a decadent desert?

BB: Decadent desert. I’ll pass that along. Considering that there are those who categorize you as graff royalty, did you ever think you would become famous?

Z: Graffiti writers aren’t famous. They’re infamous, and I’m neither. But again, thanks for the sentiment.

BB: This is definitely a very different point of view than we’ve previously had with writers in our series. I feel like I’m being schooled right now and I’m okay with it. Tell us about your friendship with Dondi White?

Z: His work continues to inspire, and he was my best friend. He had strong opinions and a warrior spirit. ‘Nuff said.

BB: You wrote his obituary and it was beautifully done. Have there been others that you’ve lost because of AIDS?

Z: Yes. The number of people I’ve lost to the plague of AIDS is incredible. To try and put how extremely deadly this was, half of the artists from our gallery in the East Village, The Fun Gallery, were dead within a short number of years. Among them were Tseng Kwong Chi, Arch Connelly, Nicolas Moufarrege, Dan Friedman and Keith Haring. And I could go on with that list, unfortunately.