My relationship with making pictures starts with graffiti. I got a tag when I was about 15. Most people had them, and it was a game I wanted to play. I wanted to be badass; I wanted to be cool, and I wanted to prove something. From freshman to senior year of high school I became obsessed with graffiti. I would fall asleep with the lights on at 2am on Saturday night so that I could wake up at 4am, sneak out of the house and go write my name around the neighborhood.
I rode the subway to school every day. I lived in Brooklyn, but went to school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and, as a result, spent two hours a day on the train. As most teenagers do, I looked out the window. What I found outside of the number two train’s plexiglass frames was a clandestine world. The walls of the IRT tunnels were littered with silver scrawlings dating back to the 80s, some even to the 70s. I not only became obsessed with the names that lurked in the shadows, but with the situations and environments that surrounded them. The tunnel took on a whole new meaning to me. It became an environment that represented a deeper, darker world than that of the city’s surface.
I started taking photos because that was a part of being a graffiti writer. The subway era of train writing died in the late 80’s and it was understood that you took photos because, as the generations that came before had learned, things weren’t going to be around forever. Writers took photos to document their work, but these documentations gave me a license to explore.
So I started to “flick a lot of shit.” I was interning in the photo department of Channel 13, and my boss instructed me to buy a point and shoot camera (an Olympus Stylus Epic!). If I wanted to document while on the go, I was going to need something small and portable. I started to walk around and take photos of graffiti that I had seen growing up, graff that looked cool or felt right to me, and also things that seemed to be from a New York of yesteryear.
That point and shoot camera opened up a great world to me, it gave me license to go anywhere, to look at anything, and everything was worth a look or an investigation. This was where my bug to take photos got started. I wanted to explore everything.
Around the time of my freshman year at college the exhibition Street Market at Deitch Projects had opened up. It showcased Barry McGee, Steven Powers and Todd James’ installations and paintings. I had started to intern at a magazine. Mass Appeal was a former graff mag turned “urban culture” magazine and I became the Photo Editor’s assistant. The magazine, along with the Street Market show helped me to see how this sort of urban graffiti aesthetic could be transformed into a “higher art.” Works were created, installations were constructed and, as a result, I was starting to see pathways open for me.
All throughout college I had a camera around. I took a couple painting courses and was “loving it.” I was more into writing graffiti at the time but, the camera came with me. I spent every Sunday in the Worcester, Massachusetts freight yard, often by myself, painting trains, walking around, flicking hobo scrawlings and other writers’ work. I loved these Sundays, a time to let my brain wander while my hands were at work. This sort of meditative feeling stuck with me, and I feel like I still am looking for it in my practice today.
Back in New York, street graffiti was getting tougher to do. Whole avenues were getting white washed in one night, and the street graffiti that gave NY it’s gritty feeling was getting wiped away. “Quality of life” laws went into full effect and there was more of a police presence than ever. Public space was changing and the streets were no longer the urban playgrounds that they once were. Furthermore, one night while writing in an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn, my graffiti partner and I got chased by a crazed man in a van. He threatened to shoot us and I had to hide under a car for almost an hour. The street was really too unpredictable for me, and I chose to continue my graffiti writing underground.
The tunnels felt like the last place where graffiti was going to be allowed to exist and, in that way, I felt like I was contributing towards a secret, underground history. While my fascination with subway tunnels and their graffiti started in high school, now it was my chance to add to the legacy that had fascinated and inspired me for so long.
Back at school, I was still graff minded, but I was starting to get into photography too. I wasn’t that good at drawing or painting. I loved to do it, but the technical learning curve was very tough for me. I’m dyslexic and the learning disability made meticulous drawing and painting arduous. Photography, on the other hand, gave me a more immediate way of articulating my fascinations. More than that, it gave me a license to explore whatever interested me.
During senior year of college I bought a medium format camera and after looking at the first contact sheets, I was hooked. A dichotomy emerged in my art making; it became too tough to juggle graffiti and photo at the same time. Trespassing in subway tunnels took a lot of finesse, and shooting and writing was just too overwhelming to do simultaneously. I chose photography, and what came out of it was inspiring and satisfying to me. I was still able to be adventurous, but now I could bring home these visual recordings. Instead of just writing my name inside of these sublime spaces, I could enlarge my captures and inspire others with the same sort of urban existential interests that made me feel so alive.
So, why do I still make and take pictures eight years later? Photography just gave me license to be interested. I would set assignments for myself and use them to approach subjects of interest that were far outside of my comfort zone. Photography gave me a right to trespass, a right to interact and a way to set goals for myself. It helped me grow. Time behind the camera and in the dark room was time to figure myself out, time to figure out why I was interested in certain subjects and why I found certain social groups fascinating. Photography built up my confidence and I slowly worked though a lot of my own issues of social anxiety and frustrated articulations.