Downes Street, New Haven

Tag Teams

The family reunion happened at Sandra’s Next Generation Soul Food, in The Hill. The first to arrive were Tank, Eros, Prim and Big Swerm. Next were JC and his two sons, each wearing some stylish kicks they’d refurbished themselves. Later, Dooley—who readers might know as Dooley-O, a popular local DJ—pulled up in a small European-looking car, the other guys giving him a bit of grief for his ride. But next-comer Demo’s wheels—a chopped-up beach bike mounted with a gasoline engine and a mountain bike’s treads—turned the most heads.

One by one, more people arrived—Cik, Brat, Enemo—all of them graffiti writers, part of either The Soul Brothers (TSB) or Being Labeled Trouble (BLT), two tight-knit crews that, together, form an extended family of can-clattering artists based in New Haven.

The band of brothers in attendance, 11 in all, spanned their early 30s to late 40s but joshed and jostled like teens or twentysomethings. When the cornbread came to the table, the ribbing settled down and they began reminiscing about family history, which, for them, means New Haven graffiti history.

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By the early 1980s, the hip hop “explosion” had reached New Haven, Dooley says. It had begun the previous decade, in the south Bronx. Graffiti, the visual arm of the emerging subculture, had its first hero in the form of Taki 183, a teenager of Greek descent who traversed New York City and wrote his nickname and street number—a.k.a. his tag—on subway cars as he went. Taki 183 was among the first citywide graffiti writers and his notoriety inspired a rush of imitators, putting their tags in public places. Subway cars became covered with graffiti, both inside and out.

While New Haven didn’t have any subway lines, many of the early TSB/BLT graffiti writers, Dooley and Eros among them, still honed their craft on the rails, painting—or “bombing”—freight cars near Union Station. Freight trains are a classic target for graffiti artists because they carry a writer’s tag long distances, guaranteeing that his or her name, at least, would get to see some of the world—and hopefully get seen by it. When bombed-up trains rolled into town, graffiti artists would “bench” along the side of the tracks with cameras and notebooks at the ready to see what new styles and techniques they could pick up from other cities.

According to crew elders, before the internet created an easy medium for artistic exchange, graffiti styles developed independently in each city. You couldn’t sit at your kitchen table and scroll through indexed picture galleries. Other than trains, the primary way to find out what was going on in any underground art scene was to see it in person.

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Big Swerm recalls going down to the “Mecca,” New York, with Demo, visiting the Bronx and watching the trains coming in and out of the yards. They brought backpacks, a graffiti notebook (or “bible”), a disposable camera and several rolls of 25mm film to record and learn.

“What drew me into it was the Zorro aspect,” Big Swerm says. “Writers in the night.” But the night is not always safe, even for masked swashbucklers. Inter-crew competitiveness was high in New York, leading Big Swerm and Demo to concoct a cover story in case they found themselves in a tough spot. They were photographers for an imaginary magazine called The Whole Nine Yards, they decided to say if confronted by an aggressive crew, and in case that failed, they had mini baseball bats in their packs.

Back then, teams of graffiti writers were necessary for protection, Big Swerm says. But Dooley says he started his crew, TSB, not for safety in numbers but for artistic renewal, circa 1991. He wanted to create a new guard of graffiti writers in The Hill, where he saw passion for the street art fading.

From the get-go, Dooley included his painting buddy, Eros, who was in the midst of forming his own crew, BLT. As the two groups evolved together, their joint graffiti family got bigger, and so did their range. The Hill was and is their main stomping ground, but they’ve had pieces up all over town, from ACME Furniture to Wilbur Cross High. Some of the time, they had permission, though they definitely didn’t have it when, in the early days, they “decorated” a few police cars.

By then, many writers from New Haven’s earliest graffiti generation had put down the can and picked up the pipe. As graffiti rose in popularity in New Haven, so did crack cocaine, peaking from about the late ’80s to the mid-’90s. “Many talented guys were lost to the crack era,” Eros says. Names faded from walls as those writers spent their time supporting their addiction instead of their art.

Members of TSB and BLT sprayed straight through that period, and today the family still paints together. By Dooley’s count, the crews are made up of three different generations of writers, some of which grew up admiring the older artists’ work. One of those young guns, Tank, a burly Hispanic man of 29, was watching them paint walls in The Hill at age 10. Now he and elder artist Eros, a thin white man in his late 40s, paint together most Sundays.

Although it deals with colored lines, this two-clan super-crew abides no color lines. Members are black, white, Latin, Filipino. “The only colors that matter,” Eros says, “are the ones that go on the wall.”

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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