CAUSE I AM / WHO I SAY I AM
THE NEWS BREAKER HIMSELF
By Henry Chalfant
By Henry Chalfant
DURO, TOP, CIA
One of the pleasures that I had during the time I was documenting graffiti was hearing the stories. The history of graffiti during the years it flourished on the trains of New York, is rich in tales of adventure, mishaps, close calls, outfoxing the cops and, yes, beef. As an outside observer, who never shared the writers' experience more than once or twice when I joined them in their exploits to take pictures, I knew that I would never be able to tell it as well as they could, those who were living it and for whom it was both an adventure and a creative act. We had different roles. Writers were creating, wanting fame and recognition, competing to get up and show their skills while I was engaged in amassing as many fresh documents as I could. I would listen to their stories, and watch them in action, but I had no way of experiencing the full sensation, the excitement, desire, ambition, fear, jealousy, hostility, schadenfreude, pride and sense of accomplishment. I could relay all this, but I always felt we were waiting for someone to come along who could tell the story from the inside; someone who had the verbal skill and storytelling knack to convey their experience to others. Now, thirty or forty years later, this has begun to happen, as artists in their maturity are beginning to reflect upon their youthful selves as graffiti writers. They now have hindsight and enough knowledge of the world to be able to put their youthful games into a social context that they couldn't have understood before. Duro's memoir promises to be an important document that will share with the public the part he played in creating a culture which has had an impact upon the world that few could have imagined in it's heyday. Duro's story is another brick in the history wall.
Duro was a member of TOP, along with Dondi, Mickey 729, Hurst, Sid, Flin, Dike, Sain, Jee 2 and others, all friends living in East New York, Brooklyn. Like the South Bronx, East New York was another marginal New York neighborhood that was ablaze in the 1970s. The South Bronx was familiar territory for me. I had a map in by head from my many wanderings through the borough and I felt relatively secure there. East New York, on the other hand was like the wild land beyond the map, the terra incognito. It was, frankly, scary and I rarely visited it. Members of TOP were the first writers from Brooklyn that I met. They were important pioneers who came out of their neighborhood to write on the number lines to make their mark, and to hook up with their uptown and Bronx counterparts in order to write together, forming CIA with Crash, Kel, Mare, Shy and others, thus using the giant network of track that made up the New York subway system to the fullest advantage. This was the meaning of going "all city".
These graffiti Artists transformed the 600 miles of track, the hundreds of dilapidated, rusty rattletraps that passed for New York's public transportation into a gigantic social networking system. Young people growing up in marginal, crumbling neighborhoods, trapped by bad schools and lack of funds to participate in the mainstream economy of goods and information, found an ingenious way to assert themselves by visibly imposing their names on the city. I believe it's no accident that this invention took place in the media and advertising capital of the world. In an environment that subjects people to a barrage of imagery, enticements and demands for attention, graffiti writers found their own way to put themselves "in your face". It's a first rate example of taking something built for one purpose and using it for another, transforming a public transportation system into a media network and a voice for people who had no other available means to get their message out. Consider the effect of this power upon a disadvantaged youth living in East New York where the streets were dangerous and the turf of gangs, a youth whose social connections were limited by poverty, shyness and the embarrassment of limited English language skills, and you have an idea of the potential explosion of artistic expression once he found his voice and a canvas that would reach so many others. The resulting book is a kind of cross between Down These Mean Streets and The Horse's Mouth - one, the story of a kid growing up and surviving in East New York and the other an artist who stopped at nothing to do what he had to do to make art.
Duro’s story is one of survival and it describes events familiar to so many youths in similar circumstances. He lost his friends, Dondi, Shy and Kist and was caught up in a tragic vortex of drug addiction, crime and prison. He experienced a whole array of social pathologies and in the end, after hitting bottom, he began the grueling journey back. Born again in more ways than one, he was able to put his life back together, and return to his life as an artist. A graduate of the first media network of the New York City transit system, he has joined the big network in the “cloud”, the internet, where he has found another, wider community and once again found his voice.