Take A Trip To The Boogie Down Bronx With These Iconic Graffiti Artists
As Talib Kweli took the stage to perform a fiery set under the safety of the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday for the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, a few droplets of water turned into a torrential downpour that left people scrambling for cover. Well, nearly everyone. On the far side of the grounds where the festival was taking place, New York’s most legendary graffiti artists—Crash and Daze—worked through the rain with spray paint in hand, until even they had to retreat to the comfort of the tent to reenergize with some wings.
As surprising as it was to watch the storm clouds roll in and rain on the parade, it wasn’t anything the duo hadn’t dealt with before. “Whether it’s hot or snowing or whatever, the inspiration of music drives us,” Crash had said a few hours earlier. It was a fitting answer to a question about what inspired him, and proved to be an accidental precursor to the day.
For John “Crash” Matos and Chris “Daze” Ellis, it was just another part of the job they’ve been doing since the mid-’70s, when they were a part of New York’s teen graffiti scene. Which explains why they’d come to the festival to paint a mural in honor of the new Baz Luhrmann-directed Netflix series, The Get Down. The show, set in the same Bronx streets that had served as Crash and Daze’s stomping grounds as they transitioned from subways to galleries around the world, is set to premiere next month.
The mural was part of a worldwide initiative that’s bringing the world’s most iconic graffiti artists together—they’re creating billboards displaying the episode names from the show, all in their own, unique styles. Before Crash and Daze grabbed their spray paint and got to work on the mural, we sat down in the shade of the bridge to talk about New York, how a waitress helped them connect with Eric Clapton, and their advice for the new generation of artists.
How’d you first get into graffiti?
Daze: We’re both from the era of subway painting from the mid-1970s, and I personally got into it by watching the art that already existed on the trains and wanting to be a part of it in any way that I could. I was about 15 when I did my first piece.
The climate was much different from what it is now, so if you were a [graffiti] writer it was a very secretive operation. You didn’t really want people to know that you did it and you met people through this clandestine network of people that was very underground. After about a year or so, I started meeting people and networking through that underground culture.
Crash: I grew up in the projects in the South Bronx and there were a bunch of older guys that were painting. As a kid, I was always drawing and painting so I saw all of this graffiti when I was maybe ten or 11 riding the subway and going to school. It starts taking hold and I started putting two and two together, and as you get older, you start getting into it. The first thing I ever did was when I was about 13.
Now, how did you two meet?
D: Subway station!
C: Yeah, there’s a really famous stop in the South Bronx called “The Bench.” Well, the station is 149th and Grand Concourse, but there’s an area in the station with this huge wooden bench and most of the guys go there and watch trains go by. It was a really well-known meeting place, so a lot of guys would go there after school.
What year did you start working together?
C: ’79? ’78?
C: You weren’t born then, right? [Laughs]
No, no. I was born in ’92. [Laughs] How does it feel to be working on this project for The Get Down? The show is really focused around the same time you grew up and the area you grew up in.
C: It’s really paying tribute and it’s gone full circle. To see how it’s dominated around the world and they’re making [a show] about it—I mean, we’re in textbooks in schools!
“The thing about graffiti is it’s all about you. There are no rules to it.”
You’ve both lived here all your lives. How does it feel to see how much everything has changed?
D: The culture that we were a part of in the mid-’70s is very much a DIY culture. You weren’t waiting around for permission or sponsors or backing. It was more like, you had an idea and you found a way to make it happen. I feel that now, it’s more of an instant gratification society. People are looking to be entertained right away and then they’re on to the next thing. They want all the spoils without having to work for it.
C: We blame MTV! It’s what they call an “MTV generation.” It’s immediate and it’s fast.
D: On the other hand, the good part about what’s happening now is that you can get your message out a lot quicker than you could before.
Do you think there’s a renewed appreciation for graffiti that’s begun to happen?
C: It’s huge! It’s taken a generation, but now the younger guys can go back and research a person and see everything they’ve done. The thing about graffiti is it’s all about you. There are no rules to it. You just take a can or a marker and do whatever you want. It’s a way to express yourself.
You’ve painted works for a lot of people. Who’s been your favorite person to work with?
D: Eric Clapton has been a good sponsor of our work!
How’d you meet him?
C: He had come to New York and was releasing a new CD. He’d heard about my work and wanted me to take him to certain spots in the city but didn’t know how to reach out to me. He was in a restaurant talking to his manager and the waitress knew who I was, so she made the connection.
Do you think New York is still a good place for artists?
D: It’s tougher because it’s so expensive. Before, you could have a side job but you could be an artist or an actor or musician. Now, your job has to be your whole life so it’s much harder.
C: It’s everywhere, though. In cities where artists congregate like Paris and New York, there’s such a mindset of artistry. Those who live here have to make a living; it’s difficult and expensive, but I don’t think that should matter.
Do you have any advice for young artists?
C: I always tell people to work hard. It’s very easy to be distracted, or if someone says, “Oh, I’m not really into your stuff,” that rejection can hurt. If you just work, it can’t hurt. A lot of the stuff that we’ve done has come from having that work ethic.
D: It’s always good to have your eye on the endgame, but know that you have to work hard in order to get there and maintain your integrity.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from The Get Down.
Images shot exclusively for Milk by Ben Taylor.