In the light of the horror—and the resistance— taking place in the USA, and elsewhere, over Black Lives Matter, Arnold Zable takes us to a another time, another era, but the same cry for injustice to be unmasked, and marginalised voices to be heard.
New York, early 1970s
I lived in New York City back then. Manhattan. 1970—73. First eighteen months in Washington Heights. Walked to and from the subway each day. Would stop by a brick wall on 188th to admire the names graffitied in spray-can paint and black-felt pen.
The names rolled off the tongue like a chant: Snake 1. Stitch 1. Soul Man. Apollo 15. Saint 173. Devil 183. The higher numbers signified the name of the street in which the graffitist lived. In brackets after some of the names was written W.A.R. War. And on the pediment, was scrawled the title: Writers’ Corner 188.
I’m standing by the wall one afternoon.
‘What’re you looking at?’ asks a teenage boy:
‘The writing on the wall.’
‘It’s beautiful,’ I say.
He pauses. Checks me out. ‘I’m Snake 1,’ he finally says. He points at one of his tags. The letter ‘S’ wears a black crown alongside the inscription: ‘King of all snakes. Ya dig.’
‘Why W.A.R? War’. I ask.
‘Stands for Writers Already Respected. We’re the first—the original—New York graffiti gang. AKA Writers Corner 188. Started by me and Stitch.’
So it began. Within weeks I had a face to many of the names. Afro-American and Latino boys, and one girl: Rocky 184. Aged between 12 and 15. Give or take.
They were a gang of the pen, not the sword. They roamed the Big Apple hitting bridges, footpaths, telegraph poles. Subway cars and subway-station tiles. The city was their canvas, and exposure the aim of their game.
I accompanied the gang on the streets and the trains. They were light on their feet. Quick with their hands. Dare-devils, leaping onto the tracks with paper cut-outs of their names. They bragged of tagging trucks travelling interstate. Wanted to see their names emblazoned the length of the land, north to south, coast to coast.
They told me of the legendary Stay High 149. Hailed from Harlem, and now lived in the Bronx. Over six-foot-tall, and took advantage of his height. He’d raid the train-yards at night and paint his name on entire subway cars, top-to-bottom, end-to-end. On the cross bar of the ‘t’, sat a haloed stick-figure smoking a joint.
The walls spoke and the city spun tales of urban legends made overnight. And of couples: ‘Bubba and Thief’. ‘Rocky 184 and Stitch’. Rocky and Stitch dressed in style. Rocky in white blouse, navy jacket, mini school-skirt. Stitch in black bowler hat, maroon jacket, and brown chequered pants.
They loved the streets. And I loved the streets. I’ve always loved the streets. None more than those of New York. Loved the energy that rose from the pavements, descended from the tenements, and whipped past my feet.
There were many songs that paved my way as I walked: Rhasaan Roland Kirk on sax performing Compared To What. John Lee Hooker intoning the Hobo Blues. Miles Davis and John Coltrane improvising Kind of Blue. Marvin Gaye crooning What’s Going On. And a ferocious Nina Simone belting out Sinner Man in Central Park one rainy night.
But the song that nailed it was recorded by WAR, a west coast band. It first floated over the airwaves in 1973, the final year of my stay. Reggae, funk, rhythm and blues, Latino and jazz, combined in one hit.
Played it so many times, it plagued my mind in sync with the rhythm of my feet:
Knew the chorus so well, it entered my sleep.
I loved that world: From Washington Heights to Washington Park, from the Upper West to the Lower East Side. From Harlem to Riverside Drive, and from Greenwich village, uptown to Writers corner 188.
And I loved those kids. Loved to listen to their banter and talk. Loved joining them on their light-footed walk—in search of that place where they belonged. Wondering when they’d find paradise. Thinking: Somewhere there’s a home sweet and nice. Wondering if they’d find happiness.
The last word, though, belongs not to a song, but to the walls—a sentence graffitied on the fence of a building site: Go beat your crazy head against the sky. Said one of the kids as we passed by: ‘That’s how it is.’ And that’s how it was in New York City back then: Writers Already Respected, WAR, roaming the streets, armed with spray can and pen.
Located SNAKE 1 recently.
Eddie Rodriguez. 60-years-old.
Still lives in New York.
Known as a legend. A pioneer.
An historian of the NY ‘graf’ movement,
and its cultural influence worldwide.
He curates exhibitions of its early days
Including photos I took of the gang
…and the neighbourhood—back then.
Snake. Stitch. Static. Mad. Flash.
Panic…And many more
The voices of Writers Corner remain strong.
The deeds of W.A.R. War, live on.
Stereo Story #513
Arnold Zable and The Stereo Stories Band have presented this story on three occasions: 2018 Glen Eira Story Telling Festival, 2019 Williamstown Literary Festival, 2019 Write Around The Murray Festival, Albury.
Photos by Arnold Zable