graffiti : where’s kilroy?

by Art Chantry (

GRAFFITI  has been with for a veeerrry looooong time. political graffiti was found scrawled on the walls unearthed in pompeii. workmen scribbled obscene derisive graffiti inside the great pyramid of cheops as they built it. even some cave paintings can be considered classic graffiti.

AC:...i've always wondered about basquiat. was he for real, or some sort of con? a concoction or the real thing? nobody can say. it's too bad he got all sucked up into the nyc fine art money machine. lord knows who he really was.

for instance, you know those “hand silhouettes” that pepper a lot of cave walls and galleries? the “art historians” refer to them words such as “announcements of self-worth” and “proclamations of existential hegemony” and crap like that. they were made by placing one’s hand on the wall and them spit-spraying pigment out of your mouth and lips (like an aerosol spraycan) over your hand so that the outline of your own hand is revealed. i don’t much care what the academics and scholars call that, but it’s sure looks like a “tag” to me. the motivation has to be identical.

the ‘modern’ era of graffiti is usually charted as beginning in the los angeles basin with extremely early gang-style marks in paces like the los angeles river banks (that grotesque cement army corps of engineers monstrosity.) the tags and murals found in some of these areas can be dates back to (i believe) the early 1950′s (another classic post-war subculture full of disaffected vets). these tags look extremely like contemporary markings.

in the late 60′s and early 70′s, new york city saw the rise of a huge underground culture of graffiti muralists tagging subway train cars. it was spectacular stuff, like a rolling art gallery. commuters waiting for trains would actually applaud great murals as the cruised to a halt. now, many of those same graffiti ‘artists’ are hanging in art museums and they have extensive following of rich collectors and patrons for their ‘fine art’ work. it somehow became a means to a career in ‘fine art’. go figger.

however, we can’t ignore the fact that this ‘mural culture’ found it’s origins in los angeles and, even thought LA didn’t have the subway, it had walls just like anyplace else. the graffiti murals were every bit as spectacular as that in nyc subways.

we actually have the names and histories with major practitioners of this guerrilla art form. one in particular is a man named “phase 2″. i have a clipped photo of him (taken from and old time magazine circa 1970) that had him casually posing in front of one of his subway car murals (he looks exactly like a young joey ramone). so, these artists have been acknowledged since the earliest days.

what is interesting about phase 2 is that he became one of the creators of hip hop culture. his punk sensibilities lead directly into his b-boy career and (no joke) doing street posters. these posters exist as proof that early hip hop and early punk were, indeed, kindred spirits. the styles were slightly different, the language even more so, but the philosophy and spirit are almost identical. that spirit is definitely available to see in phase 2′s street posters for the early hip hop scene. they look exactly like early punk rock posters.

phase is now considered a ‘grand master guru’ to the hip hop culture and a prime philosopher. he has become one of the ‘grea

n’ of popular culture. so, how come we don’t study HIM in “design history” classes, huh? please explain…

while all this was going on (the high- browing of amercian sub culture), the reality of graffiti still thrived among the disaffected and marginalized existence of the poor and desperate. the cave-man ideal of the need to confirm your existence through simply marking the wall is still with us as much as it ever has been.

my favorite graffiti artists are the anonymous gang taggers and the well-traveled hobo taggers. these guys are amazing and stupefying in their achievements. just watch how a tagger will score on a cop car or a traffic sign or a passing truck. amazing work, truly outlaw and incredibly dangerous. what better way to prove you exist?

think about ‘taki 183′. or, ‘tina chopp is god’ or ‘bozo texino.’ who are these people? do you realize how FAR their infamy and tagging has spread? all of these names are been tagged the world over – the same tagger? multiple taggers? it reminds me of the famous WW2 graffiti of “kilroy was here”. perhaps there are many people using these tags? frankly, we’ll never know. and just as frankly, we don’t wanna know. it’s much better as a big mystery.

i recently read an article in an obscure ‘zine written by a guy who was fascinated by ‘bozo texino’. he spent many years attempting to track this guy down and ask him about his motivations. the article details his actual encounter with the real ‘bozo texino.’ it was extremely revealing.

‘BT’ answered the door of his crummy little tract house. he was very nervous. turns out he had become a greying middle-aged laborer who had ridden the rails for many years. he admitted it was him who used the tag ‘bozo texino’ and drew that nifty little image. he just got into the habit of drawing it everywhere he went as a way to track his own movements and (frankly) kill time.

he was extremely nervous during the interview and cut it short when it got too personal. it was as if a lifetime of dodging authority, living underground, on the move, had permanently ingrained a fear of any personal revelation what so ever. he ended up closing the door and locking it mid-interview.

so, this is the legendary bozo texino? a little invisible lost man literally hiding from society for fear of what? legal actions? deportation? retribution for imagined crimes? dunno, really. seems so sad.

as the real identities of these obscure practitioners of the ultimate personal primal scream artform get revealed over time, the reality smacks right into our fantasies and cause a small mushroom cloud of realization. they are just us.


AC:yeah, i look at a good basquiat and there’s this “thing” that happens. i KNOW whats going on is definitely the real deal, not fake at all. there is some bullshit, but it’s overcome by the magic (or whatever it is).

it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. not very painters do that to me. pollack is another. every time i go to nyc, the only “must” i have is to go stand in front of that big long pollack (is it ‘blue poles’? i never bothered to learn the name) . i just stand there and let that ‘feeling’ wash over me and all the hair on my neck stands up. works every time. dunno what it is. but it never gets old.

only really good shit will do that to me any more. basquiat still does that….you really should never confuse the ‘art’ and the ‘artist’. everybody knows picasso was an asshole. that doesn’t mean the art he made is an asshole….like i said, as for me, i like the ugly nasty stuff that ruins neighborhoods. i like grafix that kill….

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