When it comes to art and underground music, New York City is the cultural epicenter of the world. Basking in it's rich history, graffiti art and hardcore music emerged from the streets and united diverse groups from various cultures and demographics. Urban Styles: Graffiti In New York Hardcore, a book published by DiWulf Publishing, chronicles the history of writers and their relation to the hardcore scene. The book's author, Freddy Alva, has been involved in both graffiti art and New York hardcore since the 1980s and provides first-hand testimony of it's inception and development through his own experience as well as the interviews featured in his book. After speaking with Alva, I was able to gain more insight on this diverse culture, it's connection to hardcore, and the bands involved. The book launch will happen October 20th at the Powerhouse Arena in NYC. More events encompassing Urban Styles will follow. You can pre-order it here.
SR: So I began reading your book and some of the graffiti art and stories are pretty amazing. We don't get to see a lot of that stuff in my small-time area.
Freddy: Where's that at?
SR: Western Mass, Springfield area.
Freddy: Ok cool.
SR: So tell me about your background in graffiti art and hardcore music. What does it mean to you?
Freddy: I moved with my mom and my family to Queens, New York City in the Winter of 79. The first images I remember vividly, besides being cold, were these giant multicolored paintings on the elevator trains. That's what it was like seeing the classics from the late 70's. When I started going to school, everyone did graffiti. Even though I went to a private Catholic school, it didn't matter. The so called "smart kids" and the girls, everyone had a tag. It was just everywhere; on the streets on the trains. Then movies like Style Wars came out and books came out as well. It just spread the whole visual imagery. So I got involved in it. I wrote a little bit and I had a tag. I wasn't very good at it, but I made some really good friends and I managed to go to train yards a couple of times in 83. And then I got into hardcore in 85 and met a lot of people that came from the same background as I did. They grew up doing graffiti and were maybe involved in the early hip hop scene. They transitioned into hardcore. We were all kindred spirits in that sense. In the New York hardcore scene, people came from the same background and we could relate on the same level with the same influences.
SR: What prompted you to write Urban Styles?
Freddy: You mentioned that you have never seen anything like this before. I can count maybe less than 100 people just in New York that were involved in this connection. So I just wanted to do it to show it to everyone outside of those 100 people, meaning anyone in the hardcore scene, in the graffiti scene, or anyone just interested in New York in the 1980s. That's just my interest in doing this; just promoting it, getting wide exposure, and just to see how everything is intertwined in a specific time and place and how all these underground scenes emerged.
SR: Did you find graffiti to be sort of a bridge between hip hop and hardcore?
Freddy: I would say yes and no. If you follow anything related to early hip hop, graffiti is always mentioned. So yes there were people who were into hip hop that did graffiti. But there were other subcultures at the time, either from what we would call "rock guys" from back in the day or early heavy metal. Those guys were into graffiti as well. And then the early hardcore scene in the 1980s. They were also into graffiti. So it wasn't just one thing. Graffiti has always been on this list of the four elements of hip hop. But I would extend it a lot further than that. It wasn't just hip hop.
SR: During the 80s, before graffiti made its way into popular culture, when would you say it reached its peak in the underground?
Freddy: I would say before Style Wars and all those documentaries that came out. So we're talking maybe 81 or 82, as far as the innovations and mass transit being completely bombed. Of course it spread world-wide. But as far as the actual underground, the early 80s would be what I'd call the "Golden Age."
SR: With the current overreach of pop-culture and gentrification, do you feel that there is still a place for graffiti in the underground?
Freddy: Yes definitely! Graffiti has reached so much on a commercial and multinational level selling everything from sneakers to fast food, also to a lot of housing development. It's crazy how far its tentacles have reached. I still think there is a place for people doing something on their own. Through doing this book I met literally kids and teenagers that are completely fascinated by the Golden Age, and they're trying to carry on that tradition doing something underground without any kind of commercial prospects. So I still think there is hope for an underground scene in graffiti.
SR: Considering the diverse demographics in graffiti that was mentioned in your book, from the displaced poor to the working class youth. What kind of messages were typically conveyed by writers? Did it differ from one demographic to another?
Freddy: I always found that graffiti was a great unify-er. You could've grown up in a suburban part of Queens or you could've grown up in a housing development in the Bronx. There was a wildly different background of people you wouldn't normally have met or hung out with. But graffiti gave that sort of unifying force so kids from wildly different backgrounds could get together. The social stratas were definitely tossed out the window when graffiti came into play. That's what I found fascinating. When doing graffiti in the early 80s, I met kids I would've never hung out with in a million years. That's what tied us together. And it was the same thing with hardcore actually. When I got into hardcore, I met kids I would've never hung out with or met on a regular basis. Hardcore was also the great unify-er. So I'd say both of those forces were really just amazing tools for discovering other ethnic or social groups that you normally wouldn't encounter on a daily basis.
SR: Looking at the covers of bands like Murphy's Law, Warzone, and Breakdown (just to name a few), as well as the flyer art, I see how graffiti is integrated. Which bands would you say were most active in graffiti?
Freddy: I would say Frontline. They were the originals to the style. But people didn't really connect the dots as far as that connection. Frontline broke up around 84 or 85. I'd say that the second wave of New York hardcore around 86, some bands like Breakdown, later bands like Demise, and sort of forgotten bands like Occupied Territory. They really brought that graffiti element into hardcore. And bands like Terminal Confusion, they were old graffiti writers. So they really integrated graffiti into their flyers and tape covers. So bands like this really brought it to the forefront.
SR: Was it difficult obtaining a lot of flyers and pictures from that time?
Freddy: No not really. There are still a lot of people that have a good collection, like the people from a label called Radio Raheem. They do a lot of reissues of New York hardcore bands and they have a huge database of flyers. So I just asked them, "Hey do you have any graffiti related ones?" They sent me a bunch. There are a lot of archival type visuals in the hardcore scene and they literally keep a museum's worth of stuff. So you just got to find the right person. I literally struck gold doing that.
SR: Just looking at New York as a creative and cultural mecca; what would you say it is about that city that makes it so unique, like no other place? Just considering the graffiti, the music and everything.
Freddy: It comes down to demographics. Like I mentioned when I moved to New York in 1979, we moved to Jackson Heights, Queens. And in 1979, according to U.S. Census, Jackson Heights had the most diverse county in the nation as far as people from ethnic backgrounds. But this was in 1979, so now it's more common to hear about that. So moving into that type of environment, it was like the city as a whole. There were people from literally everywhere and you grew up with all these different influences. I think that's what makes New York unique. It's not just one thing. You get a lot of different viewpoints and you just mesh them together to create something unique and totally New York-centric.
SR: Once Urban Styles is published, where would you like to go with the book? And is there anything else you'd like to add?
Freddy: The official book launch is October 20th and I'm doing four events in New York City following that. And then we have stuff planned in Philly, Jersey, I'm planning something for Florida, hopefully the West Coast like San Francisco and LA. So yeah, I'd like to take it anywhere. I haven't talked about doing anything in Europe, but I'd love to do that as well. Anyone who's reading this can contact myself or the publisher to make that happen. I would love to make that happen.
Check out the upcoming events by click on the posters below. You can also check out more photos and old flyers.
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