There was a broad mix of graffiti writing experience among us in 1977 when BIL-ROCK created our graffiti crew RTW (Rolling Thunder Writers). Some of the original members, such as RASTA and BIL (BIL was still writing SAGE and GRUNT) were already veteran writers. Others of us also had been at it for a few years, but under different names (Revolt was SAC and I had been writing KANE). Then there was also a bevy of writers entering the RTW fray as newbies to graffiti writing (EARTH, VANDAL, REGAL, SAMURAI, etc.). One thing that we all had in common was little or no piecing experience. We were street taggers, plain and simple.The #1 Broadway Local Line’s storage tunnel below City College was full of allure but we considered it haunted by tragedy and fully off limits. The reason was that in 1973 one of our own beloved Manhattan graffiti legends (ALI) had a near-death experience in the tunnel when his spray paint fumes burst into flames—the result of a leaking can and a spark from the third rail. The flames engulfed him completely. It was a miracle that he survived the accident and an even bigger miracle that he was able to recover from it—functional but with permanent scars on much of his body. Four years later, in 1977 (and the years in between) the specter of that incident made “The One Tunnel” (as it is commonly referred to) feel cursed and subsequently a no-go for us. It had such a bad vibe after ALI’s accident that none of us wanted to go in it to hit the trains parked in there.
All that changed one day in ’77 when BIL-ROCK realized that being spooked like this was an unnecessary roadblock to his graffiti ambitions. He ventured into the tunnel to poke around on a weekday afternoon—a completely crazy time to go in there, but what did we know? He was in a state of uncontainable excitement when he showed up behind the Central Park Bandshell (our hangout) and announced that the tunnel was an open opportunity and he was planning on returning right away—this time armed with spray paint.
All that changed one day in ’77 when BIL-ROCK realized that being spooked like this was an unnecessary roadblock to his graffiti ambitions.
So began the subsequent emergence of RTW on the #1 Broadway Local train line, circa 1977. That tunnel became the place where all the original RTW boys did their first full color subway pieces. At the time we admired, with fanboy adulation and near-sycophant obsession, the pieces being produced on the line by The Death Squad. But alas, doing comparable lettering—or anything with any high level of dynamic lettering style at all—was not a possibility for us. So rather than try and take our style cues from other graffiti, we took our cues from the kind of things we knew best: Psychedelic art, Grateful Dead album covers, underground comix and the like. We were, after all, Upper West Side latchkey stoner kids, raised on a strict diet of Frisbee and Hendrix. Or as BLADE put it: “When I saw your pieces, I knew you guys had skateboards”. We relied on the broad Krylon offerings (and Wet Look) of the time to reproduce the same kind of color choices and fades that we saw and loved when done by graphic artists like Peter Max and the Fillmore poster masters. So it was that our early graffiti pieces stood out from other graffiti because they looked so different from what was going on at the time on the NYC subways. In our early years we were never comfortable with the way our pieces looked. We were a self-conscious bunch—also very aware of NYC graffiti history—and we saw our work as crude and not yet ready for prime time. Nonetheless, we accepted that we were doing the best we could and kept at it, despite our shortcomings. In the formative years of the crew we had more than our share of regrettable incidents and setbacks—like when some of us started getting jumped by resentful crews. This could have stalled or ended the rise of another developing graff crew, but RTW was unique. Instead, these negative experiences bolstered our resolve. Wisely, BIL-ROCK—a tough kid who took no shit from anyone—broadened the crew far beyond our original stoner clique and unconventional alliances became the norm, like when he went to the Pitkin Yard and recruited the entire “G-Crew” into RTW for additional muscle. NE (later “MIN” after he permanently borrowed the name from RASTA) and MACKIE emerged early on as our most skilled painters of subway pieces. RASTA had a slower start, but got extremely good very fast, although his pieces were sometimes a little small for the panels they were painted on. REVOLT was mainly doing big block-style pieces, but his color sense and technique was perfect. He also could do characters really well. Unfortunately BIL-ROCK became obsessed with going all-city with throw-ups before long. I say unfortunately because BIL could pull off a great burner with style without even trying very hard. He was a gifted, natural artist with an overflow of natural talent. As for me, I’ve been told that my obsession with the psychedelic artist Rick Griffin informs my early pieces. I have less academic ideas about my early subway pieces. I call them “squids” because they seem squishy and they look like they have tentacles.
Anyway, here are some vintage RTW train pieces, black book drawings and personal photos from my archives. I’ve been wanting to share a lot of this stuff for a long time and that time has finally come. For many of us still here, the story of RTW is the story of our younger lives; or as the Grateful Dead famously sang, “What a long strange trip it’s been”. If you want the full effect with these photos, turn on a black light, spark up a bong and put on your favorite Hot Tuna record…